Mentor relationships may develop organically and be informal, time-limited advice, or they can be more formal, tailored, and comprehensive advice in an ongoing relationship. You might also learn simply by observing or even volunteering in a lab. A good mentor is someone who has successfully achieved what you wish to achieve. You might meet potential mentors at networking events, at a conference, or by reading about their work. There are also a number of formal mentoring programs where you can register to find a mentor. You may also ask other scientists who are slightly ahead of you in career development to be your mentor.
Informal mentoring is typically brief, focused on a specific question or problem, and offered gratis. You can write a contact having expertise in a specific area, asking for help in dealing with a certain problem or advice on how best to achieve a specific goal. Ask if they are willing to talk with you for a few minutes. Another form of informal mentoring is to ask if you can visit a lab just to learn from observation.
Many scientists enjoy helping other scientists if they can; however, it typically needs to be brief because they are often very busy themselves. It helps to have very specific questions. Be sure to let them know what you have tried so far and how well it worked. A disadvantage of informal mentoring is that if you are new to entrepreneurship, you may not be aware of some problems you need to address or skills you need to learn—you may not know what you don’t know.
Alternatively, you may wish to develop a more formal, ongoing mentor relationship, where they learn what your needs are and guide you in developing them. There are a number of programs and businesses available to facilitate these relationships. This arrangement, especially when the mentor is compensated, are more conducive to having a more comprehensive mentor that helps meet all your needs in starting your business.
A good formal mentor supports your goals, aspirations, and interests. Key elements to look for in a mentor include being honest, good at communication, successful, and having your best interest at heart. Tips for setting up the mentoring relationship include the following:
- Discuss expectations at the outset including time commitments.
- Set goals and revisit them regularly, for example, after each is achieved.
- If you are not getting what you need from the mentoring relationship or you are uncomfortable with the relationship, try discussing it confidentially with a trusted third party. You can end the relationship graciously by showing gratitude for what you did get from the relationship and citing a need to learn something else to meet your next goals.
Example mentoring programs
- National Research Mentoring Network (NRNM) – An NIH program of mentoring and networking opportunities for biomedical researchers from diverse backgrounds, including those from underrepresented groups, from the undergraduate level through early career faculty, women, and minorities.
- Women In Bio Mentoring Programs – Women in Bio offers several opportunities for obtaining mentoring: Mentorship, Advisors, Peers, and Sponsorship (MAPS) discussion groups, university outreach, and virtual programs as well as a 1:1 mentoring program.
- Springboard Enterprises – A nonprofit that promotes female-run or led companies, helps them get funding and offers mentoring.
- Student Biotechnology Mentorship Program – Successful biotechnology professionals are paired with students to explore career opportunities.
- SCORE – A nonprofit association of volunteer business counselors who provide free education for small business owners in-person, online, or in workshops. Available by business type and locally.
- International Mentoring Group (I-mentoring) e-books
The Science of Effective Mentoring in STEMM Podcast – The National Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicine Podcast. Topics include finding a mentor, setting expectations and boundaries, and many more.
Advance Mentoring Toolkit – Syracuse University. Topics include getting the mentoring you need and sensitivity to differences.
Tips on Finding Mentors
- Remember that the NIH program officers will provide some mentoring regarding obtaining SBIR funding and subsequent commercialization. For example, they will review and give feedback on your proposal’s aims.
- Contacting alumnae from the institution where you go/went to school who are successful life sciences entrepreneurs can be an effective way to network to find mentors.
- Reflect on the exact problem or guidance needed so that you can get the most out of usually limited time of the scientist offering mentoring.