Your mentor can make or brake your academic career

Lenny Teytelman Jul 28, 2014

Barely a day goes by when I don't see a mention or active discussion of abusive PIs on Twitter. This isn't surprising. I've personally heard countless horror stories about dysfunctional labs. Sometimes people are lucky to get out. Sometimes they suffer for years and tolerate the abuse. Often, they leave academia. Given how common these stories are among the people we know, if you follow 300 or more scientists on Twitter, your feed will be full of them. Here are just a few snippets from conversations I noticed in the past few days.

Academia has a particular problem when it comes to mentoring young scientists. As I've written before, we don't hire based on mentoring talent, we don't train faculty how to manage labs, and we don't reward good advisors when it comes to grants and tenure. This is a disastrous setup that results in mostly mediocre mentors, lots of terrible ones, and by chance, only some who are terrific.

The other problem is that scientists often pick labs without paying enough attention to the mentoring quality of the PI. Postdocs get a one-day visit, with virtually no ability to assess in that day what their relationship with the future advisor would be like. Not all students rotate and can evaluate the personal fit with the professor and avoid the terrorizing ones. And even entering students who do rotate frequently underestimate just how essential a good mentor is to a successful career. 

In my second year, I asked my advisor Jasper Rine why students some times knowingly join labs where the PI is a clear nut case. Jasper shrugged. I then asked, "For how long does your graduate advisor matter?" Jasper replied, "For your entire academic career." I can't emphasize this enough. Getting a good postdoc, recommendations for fellowships, and everything that follows - you can do all of this without a great advisor, but it's so much harder.

Of all the decisions we make in the decade or more of our training, picking the graduate/postdoc advisor may be the single most important decision that influences whether or not you enjoy your next six years, whether or not you finish the PhD, and whether or not you end up in the job that you love.

Here is a fantastic guide from Professor Barres, aptly called "How to Pick a Graduate Advisor".