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To be a great mentor, recognize that it’s not about you

Each person you advise has different needs and preferences

by Jen Heemstra and Jeff Moore, special to C&EN
August 8, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 29


Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock

“There are many different ways to get this wrong.” The profound truth of these words resonated with both of us during a conversation about mentoring and how we have each modified our approaches over the course of our careers as faculty. From 20 years ago, when we were a graduate student (Heemstra) and PhD adviser (Moore), until now, we’ve learned a lot from each other.

We were talking about mentoring in order to prepare for a joint presentation we gave earlier this month. We realized that mentoring styles and research group cultures are typically a mix of what people adopt from their own mentors, combined with unique aspects based on their own personality and experiences. People might assume that this approach leads to continually better mentoring and healthier lab culture. But it doesn’t work that way.

Everyone has the capacity to continually grow and improve as mentors and leaders, but people will inevitably get it wrong when they focus on themselves. We call it the “Big Me” approach: tying mentoring and culture to my past, and centering them on my own experiences and what I think. I may think I’m becoming a better mentor, but that perception is unlikely to match with reality.

Instead, we must move the focus from ourselves to those we mentor. We need to acknowledge that their definition of good mentoring is much more important than ours. We also need to understand that each person is unique and has distinct needs and preferences, and part of our job is to learn how to tailor our approach to accommodate those differences.

No matter where you are on your career path, there is a good chance that there are people a few steps behind you who are looking to you for guidance. Here are some suggestions for how to become a better mentor in whatever position you hold.

There are many ways to get mentoring wrong, but the people we mentor are counting on us to continually work to get it right.

If you’re a student or postdoc. You may not think you’re mentoring now, but you probably are sharing advice and experiences with others in your lab, and over the course of your career there is a good chance that you will formally serve as a mentor or lead a team. You can start building your mentoring skills by reading books, attending workshops, and talking with peers and mentors to learn what has and hasn’t worked for them. Consider journaling for 10 min each morning about your mentoring journey. Capturing those reflective thoughts in writing will seed a career-long habit in service of others.

If you’re a faculty member or group leader. You likely didn’t have the chance to receive formal training in how to mentor and lead. Mentorship and leadership are learned skills, and for the sake of the people who report to you, it’s critical that you make the effort to guide their development. Follow the recommendations for students and postdocs, then build on them by soliciting feedback from those you lead. Ask for specific examples of things you’ve done well and when you could have done better. Additionally, talk with everyone in your group to find out what would be most helpful to each person specifically.

If you’re an academic or institutional leader. What we reward reveals what we value. You have the tremendous opportunity to show that you and your institution value not only great research but also researchers’ training and professional development. In fact, we argue that the best science happens when we put the researchers ahead of the research. You can create a reward structure in which high-quality, individualized mentoring is a key element of promotions, awards, and other recognitions.

There are many ways to get mentoring wrong, but the people we mentor are counting on us to continually work to get it right. Growing as a mentor doesn’t happen automatically; it takes intention. At times, growing requires the discomfort of admitting our mistakes or receiving and acting on constructive feedback. But by embarking on this process, each of us has the opportunity to positively impact the lives of others, create a brighter future for our scientific community, and build a legacy that lasts.

Jen Heemstra is a professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Jeff Moore is a professor of chemistry and director of the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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