Irving Weissman, a Professor at Stanford, member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a prolific scientist specializing in stem cell biology, had lunch with a handful of students following one of his seminars. As we were talking, he asked what we thought the most important criteria for selecting a mentor should be. Trajectory of past trainees was the answer. This is the simple litmus test everyone should consider when looking for a mentor and is applicable across fields.
Having completed my PhD I realize how fortunate I was to have a good mentor. Yet I recognize I stumbled into that more by luck than by methodical planning. Had you asked me what the most important criteria for selecting a mentor was five years ago I probably would have replied with a non-specific combination of adjectives from Mad Libs such as “smart, well-funded, collaborative” or perhaps the worst “nice”. Not that these things are not important. You certainly do not want a mentor who is the opposite of these “dumb, unfunded, solitary, and mean”. However, these criteria do not generally differentiate between mentor. The trajectory of previous trainees tells you how invested the mentor is into propelling you into a career, how well they know how to train (teaching is as important as being a content expert in this regard), and if they have the resources to help trainees complete their training.
Let’s revisit the “nice” criteria for a moment. You are picking a mentor who will function as a coach. You want someone who invests in you, speaks truth, motivates, sees your weaknesses, and pushes you harder than you think you can be pushed. Training is precisely that. Training. If you were in boot camp you don’t want a cheerleader, you want an experienced instructor. If you hope to be an world class athlete you don’t want someone who hands out water breaks and foot rubs. You want to be made excellent. In the boxing ring or the octagon you don’t want a yes man (or woman) but someone ruthlessly pushing you to become better. Now nice people are important as well. Find faculty to meet with occasionally who are nice and who don’t always push you. Find fellow trainees who are your friends regardless of how you are performing. These are the people in the stands, those rooting you on. They are nice! Always encouraging even when you are playing the game poorly or losing. But down on the field, pick a coach who knows the stakes and makes you perform at your best. One final note, sometimes “nice” is simply a mask for indifference. If you make it through training without frustrating your mentor and without your mentor frustrating you, this is less than ideal although it may feel better. My PhD mentor and I ruined each other’s weekend or evening every few months which is part of the cost of working hard together on something you both care about. If your mentor is “nice” when you are inefficient and ineffectual and is complacent about you working towards something great, this is indifference and is one of the most toxic things in a mentor-mentee relationship.
When picking a mentor, pick one who has a proven record as an invested coach and effective instructor.