Why It’s Important to Have Mentors Beyond Your PI, and How to Find Them
By Sarah Ellinwood
January 23, 2023
During graduate school we lean heavily on our Principal Investigators (PIs) to provide us guidance on our projects and experiments. And while PIs can be great mentors in this regard, that doesn’t mean they are great mentors in all areas of a student’s career development, especially if the student wants to pursue a job outside of academia.
There are two big reasons why you should not have all your eggs in your PI’s basket:
- If you’re looking for non-academic job, whether it be industry, biotech, or non-bench careers, your PI likely doesn’t have the best resources to help you get where you need to be. They’re experts in career paths related to pursuing a postdoc and ultimately becoming a professor.
- If your relationship with your PI becomes difficult or toxic, you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes time to ask for letters of recommendation or references. You won’t have anyone who can reliably vouch for you or your capabilities.
In many cases students turn toward their committee members to serve as additional mentors and references. But even so, this still might not best serve your interests. And if your committee members are buddies with your PI, you’re once again in a difficult situation if your relationship with your PI turns sour.
There is a whole world of people out there who can serve as amazing mentors and references when the time comes. Knowing how to find them, however, might be daunting. With a bit of effort and the right tools, though, it’s not as scary as it might seem.
Here are a few tips and tricks to not only finding mentors outside of your graduate program, but nurturing your relationship with them so that they can advocate for you.
Look toward LinkedIn
LinkedIn is probably one of the best tools for finding mentors outside of your university, as it’s almost expected that business professionals have one.
Create a LinkedIn profile that shines, and get to engaging with content. Search for professionals working in career areas that you’re interested in and follow them so that you see their content. Engage with their content – make sure to hit that “like” button on things that resonate with you, and don’t be shy about commenting to provide your thoughts. Even something as simple as a show of gratitude, a “Thanks for posting this!” can suffice.
Reach out to individuals who you’re interested in learning more about and request an informational interview to learn more about their career path and their current role. My personal suggestion is to reach out to folks who went to graduate school themselves, whether it be for a Master’s or PhD. I know I personally love connecting with people that I can relate to and find those conversations to be more fun and memorable.
Make sure that your message is tailored toward each individual rather than a generic “Hi, please help me.” This shows that you’re genuine and not just spamming hundreds of people vying for a response. Don’t be afraid to be honest – indicate that you’re a current student who is interested in XYZ-type of roles and you want to learn more about how they got there.
Get out of the lab
Hang up the lab coat and get involved in your community, whether it be attending networking events in the area, attending workshops, or being involved in volunteer efforts. It might feel icky at first, but make the effort to chat with people. Further, talk to people in a way that doesn’t feel transactional. It’s totally okay to talk to people about the latest hit TV show on Netflix, the terrible traffic you had coming in, or how tasty those little appetizers are. It’s all about truly connecting.
Keep in mind that while it’s nice if these activities are scientifically-focused, they don’t have to be. It’s more important that you get involved in things that you’re truly passionate about.
Love science writing? Get involved with the D.C. Science Writers Association.
Get excited about STEM outreach to younger kids? Check around and see how you can get involved – chances are there are multitudes of STEM outreach organizations in the area.
Love helping animals? Hell, go volunteer at the local animal shelter! Maybe you’ll end up coming up with a dog as well – double win.
Don’t be one-and-done when it comes to engaging
You might feel like you can dust your hands and move about your life after the first interaction with someone, but a one-time interaction does not a mentor make.
Take the effort to stay engaged after your initial connection with someone. This doesn’t have to be a big lift and can include:
- Liking/commenting on their social media posts
- Congratulating them on a promotion, job offer, or other life milestone you see
- Reaching out on occasion to say hello and see how they’re doing.
Think of it less like a business transaction and more like reaching out to a friend or relative you haven’t spoken to in awhile. For example:
How you might reach out to a friend you haven’t seen since college:
Saw your post on Instagram and just wanted to say hello! Know it’s been forever – it’s so hard to believe we’ve been out of college for 6 years. How have you been? I saw you recently had a little girl – she’s too cute!
From my end, I’m starting to get to the end of grad school, which can’t come soon enough. I’ve been in the DC area for the past few years, but hoping to make a move sometime soon. No kids, but I did just get a golden retriever recently. I guess that counts for something, right?
Hope all is well with you,
How you might reach out to a potential mentorship connection that you’ve talked to previously:
It’s been awhile since we last chatted, and I just wanted to reach out to say hello and see how things have been going. I remember last time we chatted your company was getting ready to go into the clinic. Here’s hoping you all are nearing the finish line and you’ll have room to breathe soon!
From my end, I’m getting ready to defend in a few months, which is exciting but also terrifying. Trying to figure out next steps and how to navigate applying for jobs – still definitely interested in science policy opportunities.
I’d love the chance to catch up with you soon, either over coffee or virtual. Let me know as things calm down on your end what might work.
All the best,
The key is to not overthink it – really, “mentor” is just a stuffy corporate word for a good acquaintance or, perhaps, even a friend. While you do want to maintain a level of professionalism, there’s no reason you can’t be a bit casual. Note how I even put a (gasp) exclamation point in my example above!
As the waters warm and you get to know people more, you’ll feel more comfortable leaning on them to help you as needed, whether it be navigating job opportunities, serving as a reference, or being your safety net when things go awry.
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Sarah Ellinwood is BioBuzz’s Managing Editor. A scientist by training and a science communicator at heart, Sarah specializes in making complex concepts understandable, engaging, and exciting. She received her Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology with a focus in infectious disease immunology from the University of Maryland and is passionate about all things related to scicomm, peer mentorship, and women in STEM.