Recently I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Gail Cassell, a member of the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine, and one of the authors of the NAS report Rising Above the Gathering Storm. Dr. Cassell is currently Vice President of Infectious Diseases for Eli Lilly. She was previously the chair of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Alabama Schools of Medicine and Dentistry at Birmingham.
Dr. Cassell has also done a great deal of thinking about the importance of mentoring, networking, and professional development opportunities in academia and industry. Here are some snippets of what she had to say in the opening part of her remarks, advice for navigating the new environment faced by junior scientists:
• There is no substitute for tenaciousness and perseverance.
• Always be open to new opportunities.
• Treat your colleagues well.
• Establish integrity of institutions. What you do is important, but how you do it is more important.
Dr. Cassell also talked about the characteristics of a good mentor, qualities that included accessibility, empathy, honesty, savvy, humility (most important), consistency, open-mindedness, and understanding of the current/new research/academic/professional environment. Mentors should be providing networking opportunities, offering moral support, and encouraging creative thinking. In turn, good mentees are proactive, probing, gracious, and humble in accepting critical feedback.
Of course, you are not going to meet all of your mentoring needs in a single relationship, so Cassell suggests to never let go of old mentors, establish both official and informal mentors and also find a set of confidants. She urges mentees to keep meetings professional.
Cassell also spoke about the differences in the way mentoring and professional development occurs in industry versus academia. She thinks they used to be quite different, but maybe not so much anymore. In her view, strengths in industry include: constant feedback and peer review; objective [and clearly defined?] performance measures; yearly development plans, treating human capital as the greatest asset; considering the sum of team and individual performance in evaluating success; and doing good succession planning. She talked about specific programs aimed at supporting scientists at Eli Lilly, including a women’s network, on-site childcare, generous maternity leave, job sharing, flex time, remote sites of work, and a VP of Diversity. By the time she was done, I was almost ready to ask for a job application.
Dr. Cassell suggested that to make mentoring meaningful is to make it part of the institution’s culture. To do that, it needs to be factored into performance evaluations, because the organization needs to put its money where its mouth is. She told us that bad mentors at Lilly get sent to “charm school.” In my mind, this making mentoring part of the institutional culture, by rewarding good mentoring, is one of the biggest challenges to mentoring programs aimed at young faculty at universities. Most universities already place low value on service, and if mentoring is just one tiny component of a low value activity, then there’s little way to provide incentives and rewards to good mentors. Of course, some would argue that seeing junior faculty succeed is its own reward. But over the course of busy work days, weeks, semesters, years… is that enough of a reward to actually motivate senior faculty to devote significant time and energy to mentoring those climbing the tenure ladder? Or will it only be enough to provide a twinge of regret when some young faculty are denied tenure?