Postdoctoral Mentoring Program — What’s It All About?

By Postdoctoral Coordinator Tina Henne (CEPA)

mentoring excellenceYou joined Argonne. You sat through your two days of orientation. You are almost finished with your training courses and working your way through your new employee checklist. Time to see what’s inside that Postdoc Office Welcome Kit you received on your first day. That’s when you come across this pamphlet on the Postdoctoral Mentoring Program. Mentoring Program? What’s that?

Glad you asked. In 2010, the Postdoctoral Society of Argonne (PSA) recognized a need for career skills building and networking at this career stage.  It’s also sometimes useful to talk to someone outside your immediate group to get a different perspective. After surveying the postdoc community, holding town hall meetings and focus groups, the PSA put together a proposal to implement a Lab-wide mentoring program. The Lab Leadership agreed that this would be a valuable component to postdoctoral training and gave it the seal of approval. Since then, each division has implemented some variation of the mentoring program and we are now working to assess and revise based on your feedback.

First, let’s address how it works.
Within your first 90 days of your appointment, you should identify a staff member — not your direct supervisor — to be your mentor. How do you do this? Ask your supervisor for suggestions. Find out who your collaborators are on site and talk to them. Ask your fellow postdocs. But probably most importantly, go meet your division’s Mentoring Program Coordinator. Don’t know who that is? Look it up here. Still not sure? Ask Tina.

When you have found a mentor, you need to fill out the mentoring agreement found in the pamphlet and site linked above and return to your division’s office, which will let me know. Be reassured — this is not a non-negotiable contract. It is a way to commit to at least a few meetings per year with your mentor. We all get busy. We all put things off. Having a commitment to meet someone gives you permission to take a step out of your research bubble and go have a conversation. Maybe you can do this over lunch or coffee. You and your mentor will determine what works best.

Next, you need to think about what you could gain from mentoring. This takes self-assessment. This takes thinking about what your career development needs are. This takes thinking about what your immediate needs at the Lab are. Here are some suggestions on what you might wish to discuss to get you going.

First year: What does your mentor do?
How did he/she come to work at Argonne? What do you need to know about being successful in a National Lab setting? What facilities or events at the Lab would be useful to know about? How does your mentor find the resources that he/she needs at the Lab? How does the mentor best manage his/her time to enhance productivity and keep work from piling up? What conferences has the mentor found most useful for promoting his/her work and meeting people in the field? Tell your mentor what your career aspirations are and what you like most about your research.

Second year: Time to kick it up a notch.
Have a paper in prep? Can the mentor provide some feedback on your writing style? Want to hone your presentation skills? Ask your mentor how he/she prepares for a talk. Want to make more connections and build collaborations? Can your mentor introduce you to colleagues? Still trying to improve work/life balance? How does your mentor do it? Your supervisor has suggested some skills on which you can improve. Does your mentor have any tips to help you be successful? You have an idea for an LDRD. Can your mentor offer advice or suggest a collaborator?

Third year: Time to get ready for the next phase of your career.
Get your CV or resume updated and polished. Get a cover letter template ready. Clean up your LinkedIn profile. Not on LinkedIn? Get on it! Have an interview coming up? Ask your mentor to throw some practice questions at you. Talking with your division about a staff position? Ask your mentor what a new staff member should know. Ask your mentor to recommend you. Most importantly, meet people!

mentoringCareer development resources are popping up everywhere. The National Postdoctoral Association published a list of core competencies that every postdoc should work towards developing. This is a good place to start with your self-assessment. You can find a full description of the core competencies and a check list to rate your abilities at under Publications and Resources. By the way, Argonne is a sustaining member of the NPA, which means any Argonne postdoc or staff member can join as an affiliate member.

All you have to do is sign up. I highly recommend it. This is also a good mechanism to do a little homework before you fill out your Initial Discussion form with your supervisor. Please be specific with this. It should be used as a tool to guide you through your appointment.

Finally, how do you keep track of how you are doing and how is mentoring helping? Every postdoc whose appointment is up for renewal must fill out the ANL-699 form or the Postdoctoral Performance Evaluation. You should be an active participant in evaluating your performance and setting goals for the following year. You should also discuss your performance each year with your supervisor and comment briefly on your mentoring needs. Your mentor should also sign the form—not to evaluate you or your supervisor, but as an active participant in your experience here. It is also a reminder to you and your mentor that you should meet a couple of times each year.

In the months ahead, you will see more communication on mentoring at the Lab. I’ve asked that if you have a story to tell, please share it with your fellow postdocs. One way to do that is through a rolling feature on the quarterly Postdoc Journal Newsletter. Other ways in which you can do this are through the Postdoc Blog, the new Mentoring Blog for the Lab, the Mentoring at Argonne LinkedIn group and through Focal Point. There are many avenues to communicate here at the Lab. We just have to make an effort to look for them every now and then.

I’ll conclude with a reminder that I was a postdoc once, too. I had a direct supervisor who was fantastic to work with. But even she would concede that I should meet other people to get their perspective on a variety of issues. I’m glad she encouraged me to do that, too. There were weeks where the only things I saw were my lab equipment, protein samples and computer. Having someone encourage me to get out and go to a seminar or talk to so-and-so about protein biochemistry, or bioinformatics, or life in general really made my postdoc experience rewarding.

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