Transitioning from PhD to Industry: An unclear path with significant challenges and rewards

My journey post-PhD was a baptism of fire. Though I had been intimately exposed to the early commercialisation activities of a technology to which I contributed during my PhD, I still found myself under-employed for a period of 2 years before landing a secure role. It was depressing; I lived off the patience and generosity of my family which had already endured my PhD journey, while scraping money together by engaging as consultant with various start-up companies on short contracts – something I didn’t entirely want to do. I also went back to my retail job I had as an undergrad for a short period of time when my situation became dire. However, it taught me a lot about what not to do, and there were some fulfilling career rewards that money could never buy.

Lesson 1 – Run your post-PhD transition activities as a small business

With the very basic knowledge I’d gleaned about medical technology commercialisation, I used the reasonably large network I’d established during my PhD to seek out any opportunity to add experience to my CV. I was mostly unpaid, or paid very little for these engagements. However, my key goal was to break the “not-enough-experience-to-get-the-job-but-need-the-job-to-get-the-experience” vicious cycle and establish my reputation, so I endured the exploitation to maintain some cash flow, and leverage to other, bigger opportunities. I performed these engagements primarily as a sole trader consultant.

This meant learning how to operate as small business and learning everything I could about the ecosystem and people I was talking to in order help them solve their problems. As a young consultant with a newly-minted PhD, life isn’t easy. You don’t have enough “grey hair” to be seen as an experienced consultant, and you’ll be competing with other experienced people. It’s also likely you’ve not had any real commercial experience. You’re answerable only to yourself for finding new consulting and employment opportunities through networking activities to maintain cashflow, and only you can develop and maintain your own reputation.

To be successful:

  • Adopt the start-up mindset to understand and solve your clients’ problems
  • Provide a point of difference against other competitor consultants•
  • Work your butt off to prove you’re capable and worth re-/hiring for the next contract
  • Behave like a professional (doing what you say you’re going to do, and learning how to act professionally by asking and observing mentors, and people you respect)
  • Know what’s going on in your area as a matter of professional practice, and not because someone told you to
  • Monitor and maintain cash flow
  • Know your tax obligations intimately (or getting a good accountant)
  • Network a lot (needed to manufacture serendipity for new opportunities and chance discussions/engagements)

Where academia often undervalues one’s contributions, there is nothing wrong with earning money and acting like the CEO of a business – bills need to be paid.

Lesson 2 – Establish a diverse mentor network as your advisory board

No-one knows everything, including experienced CEOs. That’s one reason why companies have Boards, and so should you. Not only do they (hopefully) demonstrate professional practices in the areas you’re aligned with, they can act as your extended radar, seeking out new connections and informing you of potential opportunities, but they also steer you away from risk areas.

I am grateful for my mentors for their help with the following:

  • Helping me to focus on my contractor responsibilities when my client was on shaky ground
  • Alerting me to the full nature and scope of legal risks I was only partially aware of following some naïve decisions I made
  • Listening and reflecting when other people close to me couldn’t understand my post-PhD journey
  • Providing me with the right connection at the right time, which put me on the path to a secure role

An IMNIS mentor is a great start, but additional mentors provide diversity in advice and guidance.

Lesson 3 – Unless you are a founder,  carefully weigh up the pros and cons of working for pre-investment start-ups

Start-ups are trendy, sexy, and you learn lots by working in them. However, pre-investment STEM start-ups are especially risky unless you (or your legal advisor/generous mentors help you) put in place appropriate contractual protections for all parties.

Typically:

  • Contracts are short – this affects the perception of your employability when HR managers at more established companies evaluate your CV, and form an impression that you can’t hold a job. Sad, but true.
  • The founders are often technical experts, but not necessarily commercial experts, or understand the difference between a technology and a product. Unless there is a strong management team, it’s easy for such companies to lose their way, and you can potentially be forced to follow along.
  • If you’re an employee, you may have shares as part of an employee share option plan, as start-up pay can be lower than market averages. As a contractor, you’re not entitled to anything outside of the contract value and benefits you’ve negotiated. I hazard a guess that shares for contractors would not typically be offered, and as a young STEM contractor, it’s hard to command a high contract value. Low pay plus short contracts, with no long-term share options? Be wary!

It’s slightly safer to work for a start-up company that has received some funding from professional investors (venture capital funds or angels, rather than or in addition to friends, fools and family). They generally undertake a level of commercial due diligence to ensure that the investment they intend to make into technology is sound, and that they get their money back at some point. Investors typically appoint a nominated representative to the Board of the company to ensure their interests are met. If the investors have sufficiently large equity share, they can exert their agenda and influence over the company. This situation may provide a more stable employer or contractor environment, as investors will typically focus company activities so milestones are met. As a young contractor or employee in a start-up, stability and the company’s clarity of focus is essential for a regular wage and CV growth.

Though there are many other topics and details I could cover, I hope these 3 major lessons provide some foundations for your business acumen and your next steps, wherever they take you. Never underestimate your worth – a commercial mindset paired with the ability to break down and solve highly complex problems is a force to be reckoned with.

About the author:
Andre Tan is a medical technology innovator, biomedical engineer and scientist. Between 2005 and 2014, he worked on developing a non-invasive, pain-free electrical stimulation treatment for chronic constipation at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. Some of his involvement with this research led to the eventual launch a medical device start-up, GI Therapies, in 2012. This exposure set the scene for his interest in medical technology innovation, regulatory affairs and commercialisation. Since completing his PhD through the University of Melbourne in 2014, he has worked across a range of pre-investment Australian medtech start-up opportunities, in both technical and commercial roles.

Over the course of his postgraduate studies and early career, he has been involved with AusBiotech, the Australian Science & Innovation Forum and the Swinburne Design Factory in a variety of volunteer and mentoring capacities. He has also blogged extensively about his pre-PhD to industry transition, which can be found at here.

 Andre is currently the Business Development Manager for Zicom MedTacc, a medical technology accelerator based in Singapore. The primary focus of his and his team’s role is to bring their portfolio companies and their technologies to Australia and New Zealand. He is currently seconded to one of the portfolio companies, HistoIndex, which is commercialising a next-generation tissue analysis system for more precise imaging and quantification of fixed tissue.

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PhDs in Industry – a path to the top

I left CSIRO around 25 years ago. I think it was fair to say I was successful there. I had tenure, grants, and ran a good-sized research group. But I realized that the next thirty years of my career would all, roughly, be the same, and that prospect scared me. Many of the years that followed were very tough, but they were exciting. In writing this blog I was trying to think of what motivated me to move out of academia (CSIRO is pretty much academia). Why wasn’t it enough, at least for me?

“Scientists and engineers! Always on tap, never on top”

These were words my mother’s father uttered to my engineer father on their first meeting, often repeated to me. My grandfather had dragged himself from illiteracy and abject poverty to a knighthood, so he had earned some right to comment on life.

When I later quit being an employee and with a close friend started a company, those words of grandfather were still a motivation. Why was I solving problems for others who knew less about our actual work, but mysteriously managed to be in charge?

And maybe my grumpy Grandpa was right. The attitudes of many Australian scientists and engineers often seem disempowering. They don’t expect to be in charge, outside academia they often never quite aspire to the top job, they leave that for others. But a fact of life is that if you don’t believe you deserve authority you will rarely acquire it, irrespective of your skills base; greatness is rarely thrust upon you.

Scientists in industry

This lack of respect for STEM professionals as corporate leaders is reflected in public attitudes. When I was running a public biotech company, I was often told by shareholders that, as a scientist, I shouldn’t be in charge. I was asked when was “the real manager” taking over? Can you ever imagine an accountant or banker being told they couldn’t run a finance company?

Why the persistent Australian perception of the commercially useless boffin? There are some very successful STEM PhDs. Andrew Mackenzie successfully runs our biggest company, BHP Billiton – but did you know he is a widely published PhD research geochemist, that he has publications in Nature? The board of nearly every German company of any type is littered with PhDs, and the US is knee-deep in successful entrepreneurial (sometimes billionaire) scientists. But apparently this doesn’t register in Australian consciousness.

I would hazard that many of you undertaking PhDs secretly think something you don’t say out loud; you see yourself as the best and the brightest. And so you should. But if the only ambition you have is to become increasingly more expert on an increasingly narrower technical subject: well, to me you are missing your full potential. Don’t get me wrong, research is valuable and can be exciting. But it’s not the only thing there is. Your PhD is a chance to learn to think, to plan, to analyze, and work at a daunting task and succeed! To become skilled at working with imperfect information, become used to living with uncertainty to ultimately making sense of it all and communicating complex things clearly…. These are big skills, and they are not common.

So, when I joined with the Foundation donors to co-found the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS), my personal aims for IMNIS reflected my experience. Yes, I wanted more academic-industry collaborations. I would certainly like to see an Australia where careers could cross from industry to academia and back.

But what I really want are PhDs in STEM who see that the world outside academia is also a natural career path, and a path that  leads to the top. Australian PhDs that not only make discoveries but also found companies, run major organisations, show leadership and achieve real change.

And if you want wealth, well that too.

About the author:

Dr Tony Radford AO is a senior biotech executive with over 30 years experience in pharmaceuticals and diagnostics. He obtained a PhD from La Trobe University,  and then joined CSIRO for 8 years. As a member of the CSIRO research team that invented the QuantiFERON method for Cellular Immune based diagnostics, he received the CSIRO medal of Research Achievement. In 1993 he joined the pharma development company AMRAD, later acquired by CSL, initially managing external research projects,  then as head of development managing both pre-clinical and clinical research teams. In 2000, he co-founded Cellestis Limited. Cellestis listed on the ASX, and developed more accurate and user-friendly tests that made QuantiFERON the gold standard worldwide for diagnosis of tuberculosis infection. Cellestis trialed these products extensively, and registered and sold products in every major world market. The company had offices in the USA, Germany, and Japan, with staff in many more countries. Dr Radford was Cellestis CEO from founding until its acquisition by QIAGEN NV in 2011 for $400m. For his contributions to tuberculosis diagnosis and enterprise he has received the Clunies-Ross Award for application of technology, and is a Distinguished Alumni of La Trobe University. He was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2016. He is a founding director of the IMNIS initiative, and director of the Radford Foundation, a philanthropic trust.  Dr Radford is a non-executive director of Nucleus Networks (2013- ) and Genetic Signatures (2015-) and an active adviser and investor in many other biotech/medtech companies. Dr Radford is a co-founder of IMNIS and was appointed to the IMNIS Expert Advisory Panel in 2017.

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From academic to startup founder – so far, so good

I recently saw a tweet asking if there were ex-academics interested in contributing to the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS), and I jumped at the chance. I wish IMNIS were around when I was a researcher, as it would have helped me to transition from academia to industry sooner. The following is a description of my career path along with my take on the importance of networking, having a mentor, and collaborating with research organisations. I hope it is useful to researchers who are thinking of taking the leap and starting their own company.

The story so far …

I completed my PhD at the University of Wollongong, and worked as a research academic at universities in Australia and abroad for over ten years. I have developed sensors, computational modelling software, and virtual/augmented reality technology for quality assurance and training in radiotherapy. I loved undertaking the research itself. Being part of multidisciplinary and international teams discovering and disseminating knowledge for the betterment of humanity was a challenging and rewarding experience. However, I was frustrated by the vicious cycle of grant writing and the publish-or-perish game, and was never fond of lecturing. As such, I was not a good fit for a permanent academic position which resulted in me becoming a nomadic research academic on short-term contracts.

I attempted to leave academia on two occasions: the first to transform my filmmaking hobby into a career, the second to undergo officer training with the Australian Army. Both were intense learning and humbling experiences; however, neither went according to plan and I had to fall back on my PhD in Physics and return to academia.

I ultimately left academia in 2014 to start a company with a friend and fellow researcher. The company provided a computational modelling service to clients in healthcare, energy and resources, and defence sectors. We were rookies when it came to business, yet we gave it a go, learned on the fly, and established ourselves. I highly recommend having a co-founder when starting a company for the first time. It can be an overwhelming experience and having a co-founder distributes the workload and increases the chance that one of you is having a good day when the other is having a bad day. Although the company was progressing reasonably well, it was not scalable as it required a very specific set of skills to do the work. In 2016, we each decided to spin out our own technology development companies from the mothership.

The company of which I am Managing Director is Amentum Defence and Security. Amentum’s mission is to improve global security by solving problems in nuclear security, counter-proliferation, and CBRN (Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear) defence. Amentum is making steady progress: generating revenue from service-based contracts, and currently scoping development projects in collaboration with SMEs and research organisations. So far, so good.

On networking – invest in shoe leather

When starting out, it is tempting to solely focus on activities that generate revenue in the short term. Networking events that appeared to have little immediate benefit to the company have directly or indirectly led to new customers and project partners. I enjoy meeting new people and believe that you can learn something from everyone, so I really enjoy networking. Moreover, networking events offer an opportunity to meet those who have founded and grown their own companies, often resulting in impromptu mentoring sessions. I echo the advice that I was given: invest in shoe leather and attend as many networking events as you can.

The events of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) are great value. The presentations are insightful on both scientific and business levels, with the added bonus of sharing a meal with captains of industry and learn-ed professors. I highly recommend attending these events, listening, and taking notes.

Startup community events such as pitch nights, panel discussions, and fireside chats at incubators and co-working spaces are also worth attending. The overuse of buzzwords and hockey stick projections can be trying at times, yet these events are a great opportunity to share war stories with other startup founders, and to learn. I have learned a lot from the startup community – it generally adopts a ‘customer pull’ approach to technology development (eg. the lean startup methodology) in contrast to the ‘technology push’ approach of academic research (creating solutions to problems that may not exist).

On collaborating with academia – playing the long game

Time is the enemy of the startup and publicly funded research organisations (PFRO) are slow moving giants. If a startup with very limited resources collaborates with a PFRO, it runs the risk of going out of business waiting for things to happen; however, access to game-changing technology could provide an unfair advantage over the competition in the long run, resulting in a win-win for the startup and PFRO.

As a startup founder, I prefer to collaborate with a university on a high-risk project that is not critical to the core business activity. For example, development of a component that could significantly increase performance or reduce cost. Such a project could include a paid internship, PhD scholarship, or a small R&D service contract, and could be de-risked by leveraging matched funding opportunities such as CRC Projects, AusIndustry’s Accelerating Commercialisation, and the like.

If you don’t have a suitable collaborator in your existing network of researchers, I recommend contacting the Cooperative Research Centres Association and attending their networking events. Get to know the Business Development Managers of the PFROs, and they can introduce you to researchers as needed.

On mentoring – find a mentor

I was pleasantly surprised by how generous industry mentors are with their time, how ready they are to share their tales of success and failure, and how they genuinely want to help others succeed. A mentor can offer advice on all aspects of the business, be a sounding board for your ideas, introduce you to potential customers and partners, and provide advice on a personal level to help you survive the emotional rollercoaster ride that is startup life.

It pays to be humble, listen to and act on the advice that you are given. Also remember that it is your show – if you strongly disagree with a mentor’s advice because you believe it isn’t in the best interests of your company, do what you think is right and give your reasons.

I have monthly meetings with a mentor over coffee or lunch. The advice that I have received has helped me a great deal, and I look forward to giving back and becoming a mentor in future.

Take the leap!

To any research student or academic thinking of starting their own company, I highly recommend that you give it a go. You may be wasting your time and talents in academia writing journal articles that nobody reads, and the world needs more advanced technology companies that make a positive impact. If you do decide to take the leap, get ready for a challenging and rewarding experience, and make sure that you have support in the form of co-founders, a network, mentors, and loved ones. Godspeed!

About the author:

Dr Iwan Cornelius holds a PhD in Physics from the University of Wollongong. He has researched and published for over 10 years in the fields of detection and measurement of ionising radiation, computational modelling of ionising radiation environments, and virtual/augmented reality training tools for radiation workers. He has co-authored over 70 peer-reviewed journal publications. Iwan left academia in 2014 and is now Managing Director and founder of Amentum Defence and Security. Amentum’s mission is to improve global security by solving problems in nuclear security, counter-proliferation, and CBRN defence. Iwan is an active member of the Defence Industry, an Honorary Fellow of the University of Wollongong, and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

 

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The future is in our hands: knowledge translation and the importance of mentors

Australia’s medical technology, biotechnology and pharmaceutical (MTP) sector is acknowledged as a world-leader. We have a vibrant ecosystem of start-ups, and have created highly successful MTP companies such as Cochlear, CSL, Mesoblast, Nanosonics, ResMed, Bionomics and Starpharma.

The medical technology and pharmaceuticals sector generates approximately $4.4 billion to the Australian economy in gross value added, and employs 48,000 people across medtech, pharma, and health and medical research.

We have these great achievements to celebrate, but we also have a major opportunity to increase our rates of research translation, commercialisation, and therefore jobs.

My professional journey has seen me work through varied positions in the sector in changing times. I graduated with a Bachelor of Pharmacy from the University of Queensland and then went on to work in hospital pharmacy in pharmacist, speciality and senior executive roles. I then moved to the pharma industry at a time when biotech was just starting in Australia, working initially with Schering Plough (now Merck) and then Amgen. From there I went on to work in medical, marketing and business development roles at BMS and Agenix Ltd.

My journey continued when a mentor from the investment industry supported my appointment into my first public CEO role at EQuiTX Ltd. From there I held a number of CEO and senior executive roles in smaller biotech/pharma companies across Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. I also gained experience as a Board member including both not-for-profit and for profit organisations, and I am currently a non-executive director at RHS Ltd, veski and Oventus Medical Ltd.

Many of my colleagues in the sector boast similar backgrounds. We have worked hard through varying roles, through successes and challenges, through the financial crisis, and have seen the beginning of exciting innovative start-ups that have gone on to have major international success.

In November 2015, the Australian Government acknowledged the MTP sector’s importance to Australia by nominating it as the focus for one of six areas of strategic priority, as part of their $250 million Industry Growth Centres Initiative. Ensuring we seize the opportunities created by our world-leading research into MTP is the principal task of MTPConnect, an independent, not-for-profit, and industry-led information, advocacy and grant funding body, of which I am the CEO and Managing Director.

In this position, with the MTPConnect team, I have been connecting and collaborating with individuals, organisations and companies from across the sector to work together to ensure that we continue to flourish and grow, to be a go-to spot on the international MTP map, drive an estimated additional 28,000 jobs over the years to 2025, and inspire, encourage, support and empower the next generation to carry the torch and make it all happen.

This is why initiatives, such as the Industry Mentoring Network in STEM (IMNIS) being delivered through the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, are so incredibly important.

Sue MacLeman, CEO MTPConnect, shares her mentoring journey as part of the IMNIS Program at the Victorian launch of the 2017 IMNIS MedTech-Pharma program [Image: A Bizzarri for IMNIS]
In 2016, IMNIS received funding from the MTPConnect Project Fund Program for a national roll-out the successful PhD initiative. Along with initiatives such as The Bridge Program, IMNIS is providing the structure and platform to ensure that the next generations of STEM superstars can get all the learning and support that they need, download all the knowledge that they can, and understand the exciting and varied pathways ahead of them, from those of us on the other end of our career trajectories.

I am a proud mentor in the IMNIS program, and in 2016 I worked with my mentee Claretta D Souza, a PhD student from the Department of Biochemistry and Genetics, La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science, as part of the IMNIS MedTech-Pharma Pilot.

Through the mentoring program, Claretta and I were able to discuss her interest in entering industry, and look at the variety of options open to her to help her to build her translatable skills and confidently approach future possibilities with greater understanding of the landscape and prospects ahead. We also worked on practical tasks like developing her CV and networking.

Claretta is now working with me and the team at MTPConnect, has just handed in her thesis, and is evaluating the exciting opportunities ahead of her.

Not only is IMNIS extremely beneficial for the mentees, but it is also exciting and invigorating for the mentors. Working with Claretta kept me in touch with what is happening for students in MTP streams, reminded me what it is to be a fresh, wide-eyed face entering the sector, and how exciting it is. The experience of providing support and encouragement, that can have real positive impact on someone’s future, is wonderfully exciting – let alone thinking about the impact that they will have on the sector in years to come!

So, I encourage all in the sector to get involved with incredible programs such as IMNIS to ensure our ongoing legacy and the continued development and support (in all manner of roles) for the outstanding innovations we are producing that are having impact on the lives of people across the world.

About the author:

Sue MacLeman is the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, MTPConnect. She has more than 30 years’ experience as a pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical technology executive with roles in corporate, medical, commercial and business development at Schering-Plough Corporation (now Merck), Amgen, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Mesoblast Ltd. Sue has also served as CEO and Board member of several ASX and NASDAQ listed companies in the sector and is currently a non-executive director at RHS Ltd, veski and Oventus Medical Ltd. Sue has been recognised for her leadership with BioMelbourne Network’s 2017 Women in Leadership Award.

About MTPConnect

MTPConnect was formed as a not-for-profit organisation in November 2015 as part of the federal government’s $250 million Industry Growth Centres Initiative to accelerate the rate of growth of the MTP sector to achieve greater commercialisation and establish Australia as an Asia-Pacific hub for MTP companies. The MTPConnect Head Office is located at the New Horizons Building at Monash University, co-located with CSIRO and industry. There are also key hubs at the University of Sydney’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering and Flinders University (Tonsley site).

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The value of mentoring

Trainees in science often express the need for ‘a mentor’. What does this mean and what should mentees and mentors expect?

What is a mentor? The Macquarie dictionary definition is ‘a wise and trusted counsellor’. A mentor is someone with more experience, often older (although not always), who helps and guides another individual’s development. This may be to help do a job more effectively, develop a specific skill and/or progress in their career – often without any personal gain for the mentor. Scientists often retrospectively recognise they were mentored throughout their career; they just describe mentors and mentoring by other names.

What is mentoring? Many students, early career researchers and established investigators are not entirely sure what mentoring means – and expectations can vary. Mentoring continues throughout one’s career, at every level. To mentor and be mentored is not only to pass on knowledge gained over a lifetime, but to also share wisdom from past mistakes and provide guidance for future decisions. In science, the benefits of mentoring are becoming more widely recognised and valued. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US recognises proficient mentors as part of their grant evaluation process and actively encourages the practice through Mentored K Awards. These awards transition young investigators to independence under the mentorship of a senior investigator. The PhD and postdoctoral phase is one of ongoing education and training, with the ultimate goal of scientific independence. It is therefore essential that early career researchers identify one or more mentors early in their career and actively establish positive mentoring relationships.

Who should be your mentor? Early career researchers typically seek mentoring from people with more experience or different experiences. These can include senior investigators within their institution particularly those who have won fellowships and/or grants. This may be their supervisor, but for a variety of reasons this is not always the case. Supervisors have an incentive to mentor their students, fellows and staff since they have invested in them, but they are also captive to their own experiences and can sometimes have a conflict of interest. This is why it is important to consider a mentor outside your institution, such as investigators with whom you have served on committees or met at conferences. Developing a good rapport with a mentor is a plus, particularly for an ongoing mentoring relationship, but this is not always essential. Occasional mentorship from a ‘straight-talking’ individual who doesn’t know you well can provide advice with reduced risk of bias; however, they may not fully appreciate your situation.

Women in science sometimes feel they ‘should’ be mentored by another woman; however, all scientists are well-placed to mentor women (and men!). Diversity within the ranks of senior faculty will benefit everyone and contribute to a productive mentoring and research environment. With fewer women scientists in senior positions, however, it is essential women be willing to engage with mentors of both genders. In the US, Women in Biomedical Careers sponsors national workshops on mentoring women in biomedical careers and best practices for sustaining career success. Several leading scientific bodies in Australia also recognise the need to support women in science more effectively, including effective mentoring for women scientists. The National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Academy of Science have publicly endorsed such initiatives in the last two years.

A mentor we all have, but don’t always realise we have, is the peer mentor. These are friends and colleagues at the same stage of their career and lives as you. Peers can bounce ideas, share their experiences and advice they have received and, importantly, celebrate your successes!

Words describing a good mentor include respectful, honest, positive, enthusiastic, experienced, optimistic, realistic, encouraging, strategic, supportive, sensitive and ‘human’. In an informal survey by the authors of more than 150 postdoctoral fellows in the Parkville Precinct (Melbourne), the number one word associated with good mentoring was respect. Mentees want to feel respected both in a personal and in a professional sense. This was especially important to more reserved individuals and those from a different cultural background or who identified strongly with a minority group. The second most common word was empowering. One fellow said ‘I want a mentor who helps me to help myself.’ A good mentor will want to see you progress in your career and will enjoy seeing you fulfil your goals and succeed in the future.

Do and don't of mentoring

How do you find a mentor? Mentoring is often informal, subtle and non-exclusive and is easier to get if you are engaged in a range of activities such as committees and social events. It is important to talk to your colleagues – who mentors them? How did they meet? Who do they recommend? Word of mouth is a powerful thing!

Before seeking a mentor, it is important to self-evaluate – ascertain the areas in which you require mentoring. Critically examine your current situation and be pragmatic about your strengths and weaknesses. Needs differ between individuals, but may include public speaking, scientific writing, negotiating skills, teaching, grant-writing, priority setting, communicating your research, strategic planning or determining what you need to achieve to be competitive in the next stage of your career.

Developing professional networking skills is essential. If you are seeking a mentor in a particular field or career, then aim to meet people who are already where you want to be – attend symposia, seminars, conferences and networking events.

Some organisations have formal mentoring programs. Such programs are often under-utilised and under-valued. Yet they are an excellent avenue to mentors who are prepared to devote time and energy in facilitating the professional development of those around them. A mentoring program is particularly useful if you are shy, lack confidence, have moved interstate/internationally or simply do not know where to begin.

Once you have a mentor – what then? Finding a mentor is not that difficult, but after the initial connection, it can sometimes feel a bit ‘awkward’ – especially if the mentor is someone you do not know well or see often. As for any relationship, maintaining a healthy mentoring relationship takes time and effort. Boundaries and expectations are best discussed at the first meeting, such as where and how often you will meet, whether you are both comfortable with a formal/informal setting or a mix of both. ‘Doing coffee’ provides a relaxed setting, but is not always suitable for difficult or confidential conversations. Using technology can work well (email, text and/or social media), but only if your mentor welcomes this interaction.


 SPEAKING FROM EXPERIENCE

Mentor reflections

Learning a bit about students as “people” (their personal and professional situation without over-stepping boundaries) is a good basis for ongoing discussions. It is important for me to provide positive feedback and constructive criticism without passing judgement. Since it is easy to forget what it was like being a student, I try to put myself in their shoes. Sharing my own experiences and mistakes can reassure mentees they are not alone, but it isn’t always helpful to their situation, since everyone’s experiences and circumstances are different. With this in mind, I discuss the options, the pros/cons but always state “it is up to you”. Logistically speaking, I check if a mentee requires a confidential meeting, since this is best done in a more formal setting. If a mentee seems to be struggling with their physical or mental health – I encourage them to seek support and point them in the right direction, especially if it is something beyond my capabilities or expertise. (MVEG)

I enjoy passing on the knowledge and experience I have gained during my career to students and peers. It is important to understand everyone is different and their needs and expectations will vary. When mentoring students I have found it best to first discuss their expectations, future career aspirations and past experience. Mentoring can vary greatly and may involve providing technical advice (e.g. problem solving, experimental design, data interpretation, presentations, scientific writing) or advising about career options (e.g. choosing the best lab to do a postdoctoral fellowship and future career goals). There will invariably be occasions when you are asked for advice about a more personal issue (e.g. problems with other lab members or a supervisor). This can be delicate and whether you advise or re-direct is really up to you. If you advise, remember to consider the other person’s perspective and always be positive (often the situation is not as bad as it seems). Science is tough and researchers at all career stages can sometimes feel a bit ‘blue’. This is when your advice as a mentor can be truly appreciated. Carefully listen to your mentee’s concerns. If you are unable to advise, recommend others who are qualified to assist. Always remember that it is up to the mentee to decide whether they wish to take your advice (and don’t be offended if they don’t!). (CAG)

Mentee reflections

The truth can sometimes be difficult to take; however, we must remember it is “constructive criticism”. Your mentor wants to help you, particularly if they will not benefit at all should you take action on their advice. No matter the mentor, I aim to be open to constructive criticism. I believe there is something I can learn from everyone. Committee service has allowed me to develop a ‘mentoring team’. Some mentors I meet regularly (e.g. each month), others less often – and one only when I need the “hard word”. Peer mentoring is some of the most valuable mentoring I have received to date, especially with juggling family and career responsibilities. I haven’t always taken advice and some mentors can actually give very poor advice. Getting involved in non-research activities like fund-raising, policy development and science communication has exposed me to talented professionals who openly share their advice and skills – mentoring by osmosis! All of which has directly benefited my research career. I maintain a healthy work-life balance, but most importantly, I have a dream. (MVEG)

I have had a number of supervisors who have provided invaluable advice and support at different times in my career. I have come to appreciate their candour and the advantages of looking at issues from a different perspective. However, I have sometimes been surprised by the lack of gender and ethnic diversity within senior faculty in universities and research institutions, especially within Australia. For this reason it can be difficult to find a mentor who fully understands the issues faced by those of a different gender or ethnic background. For example, assertive women can sometimes be considered “aggressive”, while people from a conservative culture, a different ethnic background or overseas, can sometimes be criticised for lacking assertiveness if they do not openly question things or share their opinions unasked. I have always valued an intuitive mentor who is sensitive to such issues. (CAG)


What can you do to make the most of mentoring? Mentoring is not a one-way street. You have to give as much as you hope to received – if not more. Maintain an individual development plan that involves honest self-assessment and goal setting. Use this as the basis for discussion with your mentor. Describe your career aspirations and devise a strategy to attain your professional goals. Expect the unexpected – major decision may need to be made quick and a positive ‘can do’ attitude will help. As scientists, we are trained to think critically and be sceptical in our research. This should not equate to cynicism or negativity in all we do or say! Be proactive and harness your initiative. It is your career – take it where you want it to go!

What is the difference between mentoring and sponsorship? Sometimes senior investigators will refer to a long-term mentor who has provided invaluable advice at every career transition, helped them meet the right people at the right time, put their names forward for conference – someone who advocated and promoted their talent both within their organisation and more broadly. This is ‘sponsorship’ and it has proven successful in advancing the careers of women in the corporate sector and in medicine. While every ‘sponsor’ is a mentor; not every mentor can/will sponsor every mentee – and it should not be expected.

How can organisations facilitate mentoring? Quality mentoring is central to the support and training of a diverse, well-educated scientific workforce. The culture of any research organisaton impacts on the morale of its students and staff. Dr Jennifer de Vries argues that viewing mentoring through a ‘bifocal lens’ (where organisational culture inherently fosters the professional development of its staff) increases productivity and yields a better return on investment. The NIH has developed mentoring guidelines and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute supported the Entering Mentoring seminar developed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US. All group leaders attend this as part of their introduction to scientific teaching, and it is widely shared. Training investigators to mentor minority groups has been recommended (Jeste et al., Am. J. Public Health, 2009). In Australia, Monash University has a successful Alumni-Student Mentoring Program while the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute encourages informal, ‘organic’ interactions through annual poster symposia, regular seminars and social events.

Is mentoring worth it? The inherent value of mentoring becomes clear when as individuals and as organisations, we place both ourselves and our emerging scientific leaders in the best position to thrive and excel in education, research and innovation, to benefit Australia’s future health and economy.

About the authors:

charles-galea
Dr Charles Galea is a Senior Research Fellow in Drug Discovery Biology and Drug Delivery, Disposition and Dynamics and Medicinal Chemistry at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences. With expertise in protein chemistry, structural biology, three-dimensional modelling and drug development, he develops novel protein and peptide-based therapies for the treatment of antibiotic resistance and disease. Dr Galea also collaborates with clinical and translational researchers in neurogenetic disease at the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute. A champion for diversity and equity, Dr Galea has mentored a wide range of national and international students and fellows for over a decade. With a strong interest in applied research and innovation, Dr Galea serves on the Australian Science and Innovation Forum in partnership with the Academy of Technology and Engineering to increase collaborations between industry and academia.
Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea is the inaugural Executive Director of IMNIS with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE). She liaises with University and Industry leaders around Australia to coordinate and oversee the national roll-out of IMNIS. With a PhD in molecular biology and over 15 years of experience leading translational medical research programs at world-leading organisations in the US and Australia, Dr Evans-Galea’s research and leadership has been internationally recognised with numerous awards. Strongly committed to empowering early-mid career researchers, she regularly mentors students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty. Dr Evans-Galea has developed graduate mentoring programs in the USA, was founding chair of the EMCR Forum with the Australian Academy of Science. An internationally recognised advocate for women in STEMM, she serves on the Science in Australia Gender Equity Expert Advisory Group and is co-founder of Women in STEMM Australia. Dr Evans-Galea has been recognised with an Australian Leadership Award and in 2017 was inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women.

 

This article was first published in Chemistry in Australia. Edited by Sally Woollett.

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