Successful Mentoring Relationships in the Postdoctoral Years

By Donna J. Dean, Ph.D, Former AWIS President


“I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that.
Then I realized, I was somebody.”   –  Lily Tomlin

The Need – Guidance for Postdoctoral Mentee “Wannabees”
Over the past two decades, there have been innumerable books and articles written for mentors and from the mentor’s perspective.  However, there are far fewer sources of information for individuals who want to acquire the best possible mentoring experiences for themselves as they move forward in their career progression.

As I looked back over my own career in science, I realized that I had few frameworks to develop my own mentoring relationships for career and life, particularly in my postdoctoral and early career years.  I decided to do something about it, the thrust of which is captured very succinctly in the quote leading into this article. My experiences (both good and bad) led me in 2009 to write a book on “Getting the Most out of your Mentoring Relationships” as a labor of love for the Association for Women in Science, an organization that has been pivotal in providing me a supportive framework throughout my entire career.

In this article, I will address some aspects that individuals in the postdoctoral/early career phase can consider as you embark on your own pathway in science.

A Few Definitions

First, some definitions are in order.

  • In the most succinct form, a mentor is a wise and trusted person who guides, protects, and promotes a mentee’s (or protégé’s) career, training, and overall well being.  Mentors are different from advisors and supervisors (‘bosses’) – terms often used interchangeably and erroneously.
  • An advisor is someone who offers advice, usually from some base of knowledge, wisdom, and experience.
  • A supervisor (‘boss’) is a person with the official task of overseeing the work of others.

An important point is that a mentor is not by definition the Ph.D. advisor or postdoctoral supervisor, although many (but not all!) such individuals are mentors in the best sense of the term.
The Graduate Student Context

While graduate students have a dissertation committee and other formalized support structures, postdoctoral fellows rarely have equivalent resources, even though their positions are considered to be training in nature. At many institutions, postdoctoral fellows fall between the designations of student and employee, and may be completely at the disposal of their principal investigator.

While there are frameworks for formal mentoring and other career development activities available at NIH, it is very likely that these will not meet all your needs. You may need more than a single individual mentor as you contemplate the next steps in your career, particularly if you want to move into pathways or positions that are different from those occupied by the individuals with whom you did your graduate and postdoctoral work.   From the visiting fellow’s perspective, it may be important to have a number of individuals whom you would consider your ‘advisory board of mentors’ and who each bring a different facet of experience.

Locating great mentors can be challenging because what it really entails is developing professional friendships with people who understand one’s concerns and constraints, can advise on the state of the current job market, and ultimately have already overcome the obstacles that lie in the postdoctoral fellow’s path.   It is important to realize that you, the visiting fellow, are in charge of your professional development, and if the proper support does not exist in your work environment, you must actively seek it.

Professional Options

Participation in local professional organizations is one of the best ways to meet new individuals that can offer vital advice and direction. Local chapters of professional disciplinary based societies, as well as the Association for Women in Science, host both workshops and social events for members to network.  These present great opportunities to identify prospective mentors in the larger scientific community.  It is also noteworthy that the relatively new postdoctoral associations and groups provide excellent opportunities for peer to peer mentoring.  Here rich networking and mutual support opportunities are also strong features with colleagues who are at the same career stage.

What to Expect from a Mentor

When you are looking for mentors, be sure to consider the following aspects.  You have the right to expect a mentor who:

  • treats you with respect,
  • gives you the opportunity to have and express your own feelings and listens to and takes you seriously,
  • understands that your values and priorities may not be the same as his/hers,
  • helps you identify the balance between personal fulfillment and professional success that is right for you, and questions you on the level of satisfaction you feel with the work-life choices you are currently making and the way you divide your finite resources (time, money, energy),
  • understands your current situation and the systems in which you live and work, and
  • helps you to recognize your strengths and weaknesses.

What You Must Do As a Mentee

In parallel, you as the mentee (protégé) have the responsibility to:

  • establish your  expectations early on to make interactions more productive, but also to minimize possible misunderstandings,
  • mutually set goals with your mentor to accomplish during the mentoring relationship,
  • set guidelines for how you would like to proceed, including mode of interaction and topics that may be “off-bounds” during the mentoring experience,
  • develop a regular meeting or contact schedule, at a frequency with which you both agree,
  • be able to listen and take criticism to apply to areas that need to be improved, and
  • remember that your mentor is not an expert in every area but will help you to the best of her/his abilities.

Be sure to take advantage of all networking opportunities to talk to people who are not like you, but have similar interests.  It is all right to question the “conventional” wisdom.  And, do not be afraid to choose new pathways when you are frustrated with your current career or life status, but only AFTER you have seriously thought about and reflected upon what is most important to you.   Good mentoring relationships can help you surmount obstacles and make tough decisions for career growth and advancement.


The Association for Women in Science (AWIS) is the largest multi-discipline scientific organization for women in the U.S. AWIS champions the interests of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) across all disciplines and employment sectors.