The third round of the Online International Mentoring Programme by the OHBM Student and Postdoc Special Interest Group is coming!

The Online International Mentorship Programme by the OHBM Student and Postdoc Special Interest Group is an ongoing initiative, in which every member of the OHBM community can apply for a mentor or volunteer to mentor earlier career stage researchers. Mentoring pairs meet both online, and face to face during the OHBM annual meeting in a venture to work together on the career development of the mentee.

To date, 460 participants have signed up across two rounds of the programme.  A new, third round of the programme will be launched in August 2018. As with any network, the programme is subject to Metcalfe’s law: efficiency of communication within the network is proportional to the square of the number of network participants. As the quality of the matching will depend on the number of participants in the programme, we are encouraging researchers of all career stages to join us for the incoming third round!

During the recent OHBM annual meeting in Singapore, we asked current and previous participants of the programme about their experience and suggestions for the incoming third edition, and we are reporting their impressions below.

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Dr Samudragupta Bora is a Group Leader (Principal Investigator) at the Mater Research Institute, Faculty of Medicine, The University of Queensland, Australia. He leads the Neurodevelopmental Follow-Up and Outcomes group, an enthusiastic team of 13 researchers. Along with his clinical research, Dr Bora is passionate about mentoring the next generation of scientists and clinician-scientists.

As part of the Online International Mentoring Programme, Dr Bora was matched to mentor two PhD students, one based in the UK and another in Brazil. Despite the time-zone differences, the mentor-mentee pairs maintained a productive relationship for almost a year and still continue to remain in contact as needed. At the very start of the programme, Dr Bora and his mentees developed their own scheme for online mentorship by scheduling monthly Skype meetings for the rest of the year. To encourage ownership, these meetings were scheduled by the mentees. They worked around the hurdle of different time-zones by alternating the meeting time every month so that neither the mentor nor the mentee was in a disadvantageous position. In these Skype meetings, which lasted for 30 to 45 minutes, they discussed multiple aspects of the mentee’s academic career development, including conference and grant opportunities, teaching portfolios, manuscript ideas etc. Overall, Dr Bora had a positive mentoring experience and now has a few suggestions for the next edition of the programme.

Firstly, according to Dr Bora, despite mentoring relationships being a lifelong commitment (if the match is right), it is important for a formal mentoring programme like ours to have a clear timeline for this mentor-mentee partnership. This would attract more mentors to the programme, as they would know more precisely how much commitment their participation requires. At the same time, a final end date would motivate mentees to make the best of this opportunity within the given time-frame by clearly identifying their critical needs and defining their goals along with adequate preparation for a productive meeting. Furthermore, different types of mentorship may be necessary depending on the circumstances, as mentees need different advice for planning activities for next week at the office as opposed to planning career steps for the next few years. Therefore, it would be efficient to split mentorship into two layers: daily, peer mentorship (dedicated to solving everyday issues) as well as senior mentorship (dedicated to giving high level career advice ). Finally, Dr Bora shared his thoughts about mentoring not only mentees but also mentors. Currently, it is a rare practice that academic mentors have an opportunity to leverage their mentoring skills in a systematic way rather than by trial and error. Therefore, it could be very useful if mentors also have an opportunity to have some form of formal induction or training in the art and science of academic mentoring as part of this OHBM programme.

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Dr Pradeep Reddy Raamana is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, Canada. His research concerns deriving imaging biomarkers and computer-aided diagnosis techniques with use of machine learning. In his free time, Dr Raamana is big on sports, road trips, photography and philanthropy. Dr Raamana chose Toronto for his postdoctoral work as it offers several opportunities to develop close clinical collaborations, exposure to broader fields of cognitive neuroscience, a new and different working environment, and a broader healthcare research ecosystem. In our programme, Dr Raamana was assigned as a mentor to a few early career stage researchers.

Dr Raamana was born and educated in India before moving to Canada. This personal background as well as his extensive involvement in student associations (as a “buddy” for new students and as the President for a graduate student association) shaped his outlook on mentorship. As a result, he has very specific aims when it comes to mentoring young researchers. For example, he is interested in empowering mentees coming from countries with relatively more authoritarian/hierarchical cultures/systems, which make students submissive to authority/power. He hopes to improve their confidence, encourage them to assert their rights, help them exercise independent thinking and develop a strong sense of value for themselves as well as their ideas and hardwork. In his observation, many such students do not even realise their own problems, as they have come to accept their research life as it is - even if it is miserable.

According to Dr Raamana, there are two  fundamental aspects to personal development in academia. Firstly, you need to be self aware and objectively assess your situation at any moment. A typical question he asks mentees when assessing their situation is ‘do you smile when you see your PI?’  He also aims to teach his students how to figure out which factors are under their control, and help develop an exit strategy in every situation. Even in what seems to be the worst case scenario, he helps them remember that they always have an option to walk away and that is completely okay. The second aspect is realizing where their inner motivation lies and helping nurture it and align it with their actions and research plans. According to him, strong inner motivation is necessary for a sustainable and successful career. Therefore, when he recruits students for a particular project, Dr Raamana asks himself two questions: does the student understand the problem and, is the student actually interested in the problem?

Dr Raamana still holds a postdoctoral position, but thinks ahead about his future plans as a PI. He believes that it is very important to have a transparent line of communication between mentors and mentees, and to develop mutual trust. He plans to set a sort of constitution, once he launches his own lab: a set of clear rules which everyone in the group needs to conform to. He is planning to hold himself accountable to the same constitution, which means if he happens to break one of the rules, the students could always point to the associated rule, and claim their rights. Dr Raamana believes that a sense of job security is very important to students’ well being and to do their best possible work. He plans to ensure students are well-compensated for their work (within funding limits) and they are treated as an individual employees and not as a research resource to complete his projects.

Dr Raamana is a supporter of long-lasting self-development programs such as the Individual Development Project (IDP) which allows for self-monitoring and tracking progress over time. Dr Raamana was also happy to join our programme as a mentor. His personal experience is that many mentees do not have clear aims when it comes to mentor-mentee collaboration, and do not know what they would like to gain from it. Therefore, he recommends  mentees to take time to figure out what they need and what their goals are, before talking to their mentors.

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Dr Gaelle Doucet is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychiatry, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, USA. She is particularly interested in cognitive neuroimaging in a clinical set up, aiming to find new functional markers that might help clinicians make informed decisions for individualized treatments.

Dr Doucet joined our programme as a mentee when she was still working as a postdoctoral fellow. She entered as a mentee, with a clear goal of getting advice on how to proceed towards a faculty position. Her mentor provided useful advice regarding options for a European career. In this context, Dr Doucet makes the point that the grant system is different in various countries, and it is important to give trainees a choice whether they wish to be paired with a mentor  from the same country, or at least the same continent. She would also enjoy a separate social event during the OHBM annual meeting, in which participants of the online mentorship programme could meet informally in a group, and chat about their experience. Dr Doucet agrees with our other participants that setting a clear timeline for a mentor-mentee collaboration is key to success as it stimulates mentees to be proactive and to make best from the opportunity. Furthermore, according to Dr Doucet, reaching out to non-profit foundations around academia could increase the database of potential mentors and provide novel information for the mentees about other possible career paths outside academia. Keeping the participants of the previous rounds up to date with new initiatives related to mentorship is also important as a large portion of these mentors are likely to re-enter the programme in the future.

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Prof. S. H. Annabel Chen is a professor of psychology at the School of Social Sciences, College of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, with joint appointment at LKC Medicine and Acting Director at the Centre of Research and Development in Learning (CRADLE) at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Prof. Chen has a diverse research background, including animal drug studies, human neuropsychological research and cognitive rehabilitation. She is a clinical neuropsychologist by training and has worked with both adult and child populations. Her current research focuses on cerebellar contributions to higher cognition, optimizing cognition in aging neuroscience, affective neuroscience in learning, and translating cognitive neuroscience for education. She has mentored many postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students in her career.

 

Prof. Chen joined our mentorship programme both as a mentor and as a mentee, proving that self-development in mentorship is possible at every career stage. Prof. Chen declares that she is very happy with her experience with both of the roles, and she also recommends joining the programme to others. Even though her mentor is a very busy person, prof. Chen reports that she gained very good advice from him. Interestingly, prof. Chen’s mentee also turned out to be a PI (just more junior in terms of career stage). As the mentee was based in a European system, prof. Chen felt she could not provide as much advice about career development within the European environment as she would wish. Therefore, prof Chen emphasises the importance of adjusting geographical location between mentors and mentees as this may have an influence on the quality of the career advice.

 

Prof. Chen also advises prompting mentors and mentees to touch base after, e.g., half a year, to check where they are. She points out that there could be an option for mentees to switch mentors anytime there is a need to do so, e.g. when the current mentor is too busy to meet, or is not able to advise on a topic particularly important to the mentee. This service is non-profit and voluntary, and the focus is on participants making progress, even if this means dynamically switching mentors. Mentees could be prompted to make an initial contact with the mentor early on when the round starts - which can be achieved through setting a deadline, or a set of reminder emails. Nevertheless, she strongly supports the continual development of this mentoring initiative at HBM.

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Dr Ilya Veer is a postdoctoral fellow in Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. In his research career, Dr Veer performs neuroimaging studies on stress and emotion regulation, as well as on patterns of functional connectivity in the brain.

 

Dr Veer joined our programme as a mentor and to date, has mentored one person - who, by coincidence, happens to work at the same campus. Dr Veer reports that he started working with his mentee at the point when she was slowly coming to the end of her PhD, and was experiencing lots of doubts related to her future career path. They talked for an hour about her situation and it seemed that there were some difficulties finishing her PhD. Dr Veer took a practical approach: as the mentee had a clear preference for finding another position in the city she came to Berlin from, he used his contacts in order to help her find a job in her dream place. He also offered to take a look at a draft of her paper, and they had a follow up email conversation about her situation.

Dr Veer has a few pieces of advice for our programme. First of all, he agrees that matching mentors with mentees on the basis of the system in which they work and function matters a lot, as it is often difficult to advise on finding jobs, grant possibilities, or lab interactions in a system you do not know. Secondly, he also underscores that the mentees should have a more structured set of milestones before they ever contact their mentor, as it was hard for him to get a grasp on what he could actually do for the mentee. Furthermore, Dr Veer believes that the mentor-mentee cooperation should in general be limited to one year to allow for clear aims and endpoints for the mentorship. He is, however, happy with the experience and he would like to volunteer himself as a mentor more often, as well as get engaged in our other initiatives - such as Lunch with Mentors - in the future.  

 

Conclusions

We are delighted that mentors participating in the first two rounds of the programme, find the experience enriching, and are willing to continue their participation in the programme. However, given the feedback, we also understand that there is a number of further improvements that should be implemented into the programme so that the future participants gain even better experience.

One note to make, is that the programme encourages personal and professional development of the mentees as a researcher, not necessarily on specific grant applications. Therefore, if mentees are seeking information specific to the geographical location - such as the details of local grant opportunities for early career researchers, we recommend that mentees seek the relevant information online, or contact colleagues that have an additional  3-5 years of professional experience. Although your matched mentor in the current programme may not be able to give detailed information on the requirements related to particular local grants, these international mentors are still able to give valuable personal feedback on grant proposals and a potential fresh perspective that may not be given by a local mentor. Although we will not be adding geographical location as a match criteria, to additionally accommodate this feedback raised by the current programme participants, we are currently creating a database which will help the mentees in self-management and in finding information important for their own career development without assistance of a mentor.

Having said that, we are happy to announce that we are going to launch the third round of the programme in September 2018 with the following improvements:

  1. A clear timeline for the mentor-mentee partnership, with the official closure after one year (with a possibility of prolonging the partnership if both sides declare willingness to do so)

  2. Preparatory materials available for the mentees on our websites

  3. The inclusion of industry based mentors for mentees interested in careers outside of academia

We hope that the incoming third round will make high-quality career advice accessible to a range of mentees from around the world. The programme also provides a unique opportunity to train your mentoring skills - something often unavailable to early career stage researchers in their daily jobs. We would like to welcome you to join our programme - to meet new people, challenge your own beliefs about self-development in academia, to grow personally and give back by letting others grow next to you.