As life scientists, you likely know some bad advisors. What options are there if your advisor is just not helping you reach your goals?
This post will discuss a few ways that your advisor may be damaging your career, and will offer suggestions that might help you or someone you know. But first, what kind of mentor should your advisor be?
Your advisor should be an active member of your academic (or biotech) life. You will expect him to play an active role in your research, your projects, your thesis, your publications, your dissertation, and any activity that will make you competitive in the real world.
Your advisor should be willing to support you when you are ready to move on. Yes, including writing good reference letters.
So, what makes a bad advisor?
During the 10 plus years I spent in academia, I have seen and interacted with several students, postdocs and their advisors/mentors. From the student’s or postdoc’s perspective, an advisor is “bad” if he is too busy for you, or is never around. No matter how well your research is going, you need to have ongoing discussions with your advisor. After spending hours analyzing data and writing that first draft, you need your advisor to review it as soon as possible. Without publications, you will not be competitive for funding or positions you may be interested in.
Bad advisors also include those who are bent on publishing only in high-impact journals. So what options do you have if your advisor is always away, and have little (or no time) for your career endeavors?
Communication is key. Ideally, make an appointment to talk face-to-face with your advisor, and remind him of your goals. Be specific. If publishing is currently an issue because he is too busy to read your drafts, remind him of the damage “not” publishing will do to your career. When he is away, if you are not actively communicating by email, recommend this to him. Use Google Docs or other secure means. However, for the electronic communication to be effective, it must be two-way; similar to the normal conversations you have when he is in the lab.
Seeking other mentors, including eMentors. This worked for me when my mentor/advisor accepted a faculty position at another institution. As much as I wanted to continue my research endeavors with that mentor, my circumstances were not compatible with the commute or relocation. I sought out another primary advisor, but most significantly, I had two secondary mentors at Penn whose personality and work I admired.
One was Dr. Helen Conrad Davies, also known as the singing professor. Helen, as she insisted I call her—and she calls me “Wara”, my native African name—always made time to read any correspondence I sent her. I also admired her style of teaching, how she interacted with her students.
One other mentor I had was Dr. Sigrid Veasey. I met Sigrid shortly after I met my primary mentor, Andrew Gow. She collaborated with Andrew on a project; so I had the opportunity to contribute to some of her work, which is now published.
One other option that is often overlooked is eMentorship. eMentors are not constrained by time and/or location. I greatly benefited from an eMentor in the past. She reviewed some of my proposals, and offered constructive criticism.
In summary, regardless of the type of advisor you have, good or bad, having secondary mentors, including eMentors, will benefit you. I believe that the support I had from my primary and secondary mentors helped me to be more self-sufficient and independent.
In fact, while still a postdoc, I was able to write grant proposals, including a R21 (innovative) grant proposal, an opportunity most postdocs do not get. How did that experience prepare me for a writing career in industry? What do I know now that I wish I knew then? The answers will be highlighted in future blogs. Until then, “Happy Reading.”
Christiana W. Davis, MD
Owner, Consult To Aspire