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Mentoring Matters: Perspectives from Basic Science Hematology Investigators (PART 3)

Doing research can be likened to a long hike, where the ascent is marked by steep challenges and unpredictable terrain. Navigating through the vast landscape of information is like traversing rugged trails. The process demands perseverance, strategic planning, and the ability to overcome obstacles, mirroring the resilience required to ascend the peaks of knowledge in the realm of research. As scientists, we are continually faced with challenges that can frustrate us and make it difficult to maintain a positive mindset in our academic careers. In this third and last installment of our Mentoring Matters articles, we discuss the factors mentors believe can positively or negatively influence our careers. Though the advice given was both comprehensive and very broad, all points fell within the realm of “being a responsible and enthusiastic scientist.” The positive attributes the mentors believe are key to success include:

1. Staying focused. “Laser focus. The beauty of being an independent investigator is the freedom to work on projects of your own choosing. However, it is easy to spread yourself too thin. To make an important impact in a specific niche area, you must dedicate sufficient energy to the task. Don’t over-commit, particularly early on in your career.”
2. Being organized.
3. Completing projects. “Beyond the usual platitudes — work ethic, curiosity, and ambition — the most important strength I’ve observed is the ability to be a finisher.”
4. Having curiosity and grit.
5. Loving the work. “Fire in the belly”. “Be honest with yourself. If you do not really want to be an independent investigator, there are many other rewarding career paths.”
6. Having internal motivation stemming from a passion for research (“dedicated and passionate about your science”)
7. Setting goals. “Know what you want, have a plan, and set milestones. And once you have a plan, stay with it, and stick to your timeline.”

Some mentors in our survey elaborated further:

1. “Your career is your responsibility, so take charge. Your mentor is here to help you, but you need to be in the driver’s seat.”
2. “Own your project. No one knows it better than you!”
3. “Persistence and perseverance. Not letting challenges and barriers hold.”
4. “For a capable person, the most important strength is enduring setbacks and sacrifices to get to success.”
5. “Graduate school is a time of great flexibility — the perfect time to apply oneself wholeheartedly to research, and to broaden your horizon and to sharpen your skills, which will be harder to do later in life.”
6. “Learn many laboratory skills. Have a broad knowledge in your field and a detailed knowledge of your specific research.”

Our respondents also noted several attributes to minimize during training, including:
1. Selfishness
2. Inflexibility
3. Lack of accountability (i.e., looking for excuses when things fail/blaming others)
4. Reclusion and isolation
5. Diffused focus (i.e., spreading yourself too thin)
6. Paralytic self-doubt/fear of failure, which can lead you to spend too much time planning experiments rather than doing them
7. Overconfidence (i.e., overblown sense of self-importance or capability)
8. Disengagement (i.e., postponing studies or trying to find other people to do things for you)
9. Distrust in your mentor, initially assuming they do not mean well

Finally, our mentors had many encouraging comments and advice to offer trainees:

● There are many ways to succeed in science. Just take your own path, at your own pace.
● “You’ll never experience a lack of ideas in research projects.”
● Regarding self-doubt: “You will need to learn to bet on yourself.”
● Just remember that comparing yourself to others is useless. You have your own path, your own capacity, and your interests.

Overall, whether you are a mentor or mentee, everyone has a unique experience in terms of how they got to their current spot and a diverse set of potential career paths in their future based on their past and present experiences. We encourage open and frequent communication, discussions, and the use of a feedback system between mentees and mentors. We hope you enjoyed this series of Mentoring Matters articles for pursuing an academic career. Our survey has provided invaluable feedback that we hope mentees will take advantage of.

COI Disclosure: Drs. Han and Yang indicated no relevant conflicts of interest.

Acknowledgment: This article was edited by Drs. Kolton Smith and Andrew Volk. The authors would like to thank all investigators who participated in our survey and provided thoughtful responses to guide PhD training.