Mentoring Advice From a Few Young Researchers

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The Heidelberg Laureate Forum is very much about mentoring, regardless of whether we explicitly call it that. Young researchers are eager to get insight and advice from the laureates as well as each other. As part of my series that featured some of the female young researchers attending HLF this week, I asked whether any of the respondents have had a mentor, and if so, what positive impact the relationship has had on them. As you can see from their reflections below, mentorship is a very important part of becoming a researcher.

Mentorship comes in many forms, sometimes helping you improve yourself in a specific area. For example, Preethi Srinivas’ mentor helped her learn better time management.

One of my mentors helped me understand the importance of time while planning and executing research projects. I believe time management is a very important trait, and is especially an important aspect, as I move forward to industry-related projects that are often directed through strict deadlines.

Helen Wauck found a mentor in an unlikely place: a professor from a completely different department.

I have had lots of mentors during my time as an undergraduate and graduate student, both faculty and peers. One mentor who has really had a positive impact on me is a faculty member in the Educational Department at my current university. My first year in the graduate program, I had just found out that the university allowed computer science graduate students to take classes from other departments, and I saw a flyer right before the semester started for an Education Department course about the use of interactive technologies for education. This topic was right up my alley, so I took the course, and it introduced me to the faculty member who would quickly become my mentor. He continually encouraged me to pursue the somewhat risky research project I proposed in my NSF GRF application and exposed me to educational video game research. After the course was over, he continued to give me advice for my research, even though he wasn’t my official advisor. Because of his willingness to collaborate and support interdepartmental collaborations, a stronger bridge has been built between our Education and Computer Science departments, and because of him, I have much more diverse perspectives on my research project than I could have gotten from staying insulated within my own department.

If time permits, seeking out mentorship from more than one person can be very beneficial. Having more than one mentor provides multiple perspectives to a particular problem. Helen likely encountered this by having a mentor both within and outside of her own thesis supervisor. Amel Bennaceur also had two very distinct mentors:

I had two very supportive but very different people around me. The first one, a woman, instills the “just do it” methodology and often told me that only the work matters. The second one taught me that I need to think more strategically and that I need to keep flexible and adapt to situations.

Annette Bieniusa’s had a very helpful friend she isn’t sure she should call a mentor, but mentors don’t necessarily have to be formal relationships.

I am not sure if I would call him mentor, but early in my PhD I had a very good friend, who gave me valuable advice how to proceed with a career in academia. Unfortunately, he didn’t stay in research himself, but his guidance and support helped me a lot at that point in time, e.g. on focusing on a topic, organizing projects, or coding with impact.

If you are a young researcher, look around to see who your mentors might be. For many, it will be their thesis supervisors or people research group leads. But that doesn’t mean these have to be the only mentors; cast a wide net! On the flip side, consider being a mentor yourself. There’s probably a student earlier in the academic process who could really use a helping hand. There’s nothing more satisfying than knowing you’ve made a difference in someone’s life.

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Gail is Manager of External Education Programs at Shopify where her team works to make learning computer science better for everyone. Previously, she taught computer science at Carleton University. Gail was a co-founder of Carleton's Women in Science and Engineering group (CU-WISE), and has lead many computer science outreach events. You can follow Gail on Twitter (@gailcarmichael) and her personal blog (The Female Perspective of Computer Science).

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