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Illustration by Laurène Boglio

Spectrum Launch: When mentoring goes wrong

Having a productive relationship can be beneficial for both mentors and mentees. So what can either side do when that mentorship goes awry?

Hello, and welcome to the July issue of Spectrum Launch, a newsletter aiming to provide resources and guidance for early-career autism researchers.

One thing that can make or break an early career is mentorship. Clinical trainees in neuropsychology shared their experiences with their mentors — from poor mental health support to insensitive comments — in a series of infographics titled “When Mentoring Goes Wrong.”

The infographics, created by a team of graduate students who belong to an organization called Women in Neuropsychology, offer suggestions for how a mentor could have better handled each situation. For example, a student who was told by their mentor that they would have to accept being overworked if they wanted to make it as a clinical psychologist would have been better served by a conversation about why work-life balance is tricky — even if the mentor didn’t have an immediate solution for the problem.

Maintaining a good mentor-mentee relationship is a “two-way street,” says Anjali Rajadhyaksha, professor of neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, who also serves as the associate dean of program development, where she oversees graduate students throughout their training. She suggests that advisers do their part by learning about their mentees’ aspirations and skills in order to guide them to success.

Traditionally, that success looked like shepherding students down the same path to a tenure-track position. But as academic jobs have become scarcer, and as trainees increasingly seek alternative career paths, many mentors are having to learn how to guide them in those careers, too.

“It’s always been easy for me to help my students network with other faculty members in academia,” Rajadhyaksha says. “But when my students started looking for jobs outside of academia, I did find it very challenging.”

She says that she has made a point of expanding her own network for the benefit of her students: reaching out to industry professionals and science policymakers, for example, who might be able to provide her mentees with the information they need for their future careers.

New assistant professors might need to seek mentorship of their own on how to be a good mentor, Rajadhyaksha says. More experienced faculty members are often happy to listen, offer guidance and share what they’ve been through, Rajadhyaksha says.

“It doesn’t matter what level you’re at,” she says. “All of us need mentors.”

And for trainees who are worried about being stuck with an unhelpful mentor, Rajadhyaksha recommends seeking mentorship outside the standard advisor-trainee relationship. An advisor who is an excellent scientific mentor may not always be able to provide other types of guidance, she says. In such cases, she recommends that trainees reach out to others within their orbit, such as thesis committee members who have insight on other research techniques, or graduate school staff who can offer help with grants. “It does take a village,” she says.

Jobs and funds:

  • A new program at Seattle Children’s Hospital plans to offer financial support for postdoctoral scholars from historically under-represented backgrounds to develop “cellular, gene or protein therapeutics for childhood conditions.” Eligible applicants can receive more information about the program by submitting their contact details through this site.

Recommended reads:

  • Many professors are having trouble hiring postdocs, according to an article in Science. The issue may be a sign that newly minted Ph.D.s are finding higher pay in other positions, the author writes — more fallout from the wider labor market’s ‘Great Resignation.’
  • On a related note:

  • Nature invites graduate students to share information about their mental health, finances, mentorship experiences and more — the journal’s first survey of graduate-student life since the pandemic.
  • Academic Twitter shared advice on re-establishing routines after two years of pandemic parenting chaos, in response to a plea for help from Maria Hugh, postdoctoral fellow at the School Mental Health Assessment, Research, and Training Center at the University of Washington in Seattle. Kristen Bottema-Beutel, associate professor of special education at Boston College in Massachusetts, recommended planning for “non-negotiable exercise time” and setting aside large chunks of time to finalize projects. Other people’s tips included prepping meals over a lunch break; finding an accountability buddy; and having a “three bear minimum,” a list of three things that must be accomplished each day.

  • Asking for a letter of recommendation is not easy, but following these 10 rules can help students feel empowered throughout the process, according to Miranda Stratton, assistant director of justice, equality, diversity and inclusion at Stanford University, and her coauthors.
  • Researchers need to write better discussion sections in their papers, tweeted Vineet Chopra, chair of the department of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora, who also serves as deputy editor for the Annals of Internal Medicine. “I often read discussions that are long winded, meandering and fail to make an impact,” he wrote. For authors looking to improve that section of their scientific paper, Chopra offered up a step-by-step guide for what to include in each paragraph:

  • How can researchers best promote their latest findings on social media? In a recent article for Nature, Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunology at Yale University, details how to craft a clear and effective Twitter thread.
  • “It’s okay to feel stupid, we all do on a regular basis,” tweeted Ishwariya Venkatesh, research fellow at the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India, adding that her graduate adviser helped her through a low point of her work by sharing an article about the importance of “feeling stupid” in the midst of research — and how that feeling can be productive.

Any suggestions for how to make this newsletter as useful as possible, or recommendations for what topic we should cover next? Send them to [email protected].

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