Becoming a Unicorn

This week, @biochembelle tweeted:

Sometimes I think my boss is the unicorn among postdoc mentors.

This got me thinking about what makes a mentor a unicorn (or even just one of the good guys). I welcome input from those of you who have views, especially from a PD position. First disclosure: none of my trainees ever told me I was a unicorn. One did say she liked my new glasses because it made me look like the wise owl that I am. Needless to say that was in the early 90’s.

But… what makes a good mentor?

1. Think about what it was like to be a trainee. And then interact with your trainees the way you would have liked to have been treated (and all the rest is commentary). I could stop there, but I am trying to think of more specifics, to refresh my memory.

2. You listen to the trainees. Really listen, and not just for the stuff you want to hear.

3. Understand that they have a life. Discuss experiments that run all night in advance. You understand that child care doesn’t always work as advertised and understand/remember what the heck morning sickness is.

4. You think about what they want for the future, not just what you want. They may not (probably don’t) want to grow up to be just like you. And you try to make opportunities available for them to reach their goals.

5. They are partners (albeit junior ones) in the pursuit of science.

6. They are not your friends, your buddies, or your drinking pals and they really don’t want to hear about your private life. Likewise, they may not want to talk about their lives. You are not their parent. It is none of your business how late they stay out and what their recreational habits are. It is your business how they function in lab/class/discussion. A good mentor can find the place between ignoring them except in the lab and getting soused together, a place that involves an occasional after work beer/glass of wine or lunch.

7. Likewise there is a place between, on one hand, pointing to the lab and saying “go do science” and, on the other, giving them absolute explicit instructions and hovering like a dragonfly over their bench, desk or treadmill. Activities involved in teaching trainees have the same non-linear curves as writing papers.

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3 thoughts on “Becoming a Unicorn

  1. I mostly agree about the personal life one. I got divorced during my post doc, and I tried really hard to keep it out of the lab and from affecting my science. However, after telling my mentor what was going on, he told me that he essentially went they the same thing at the same time in his career. He told me what he did to get his science and personal life together, and he recognized that I was needlessly spending 14 hours a day in lab trying to work away the hurt. (He sent me home a few times). He did none of this as a “dad”, but more as someone that was emptying the wisdom of a shared experience.

    For the time I worked for him, he never discounted a theory, always treated me as I knew something, was always truthful, and let me learn independence and leadership.

    He’s a little scatterbrained though. I haven’t worked for him in over 3
    Years and I still get phone calls asking about locations of things and experiments.

    He is totally a Unicorn.

  2. A great postdoc advisor helps you grow as a scientist rather than just using you as a tool to further their own scientific interests. In the latter (undesirable) situation, you are treated as a technician rather than a scientist.

    On a related note, they encourage you spend at least a small portion of your time exploring your own ideas, rather than just doing their projects for them.

    Also related to what you said…they don’t give you a hard time if you want to teach at a teaching-focused institution or work in industry.

    They foster a sense of community rather than competition in the lab.

  3. I think my PI from when I was a tech was such a unicorn. I can’t speak directly for the postdocs of course, but they seemed to thrive in that lab. This PI seemed to always find the exactly correct balance between micromanaging and giving completely free rein to every one of her advisees. And the correct balance between asking for more hard work and letting people have a life. I certainly thrived in that environment.

    Now I’m mostly done with PhD, so I’ve seen a few more advising styles. My current advisor is good enough, but something is lacking. I’m starting to realize that any success is entirely my own responsibility. I don’t think I could keep moving in a productive direction without the influence of my prior PI (who still stays involved with me by email!)

    I wish I knew what made my former PI a unicorn. All I can tell is that she has a certain level of people skills that have been lacking in the half dozen or so people that have been my rotation or committee advisers…

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