At the American Society for Cell Biology annual meeting this year, #CellBio2020, I organized a session with three visionary friends, Jessica Polka, Joel Boerckel, and Casey Greene on “Reimagining Publishing, Networking, and Mentoring.” It was an incredible (and incredibly fun) session but in case you missed it, I wanted to post my prepared remarks on peer-mentorship and bottom-up advocacy.
Today, I’m going to talk about shedding some of our old conceptions of hierarchical thinking and finding ways to connect better with our peers for improved mentorship, success, and advocacy.
For most of us, we’re used to having a handful of mentors–maybe undergraduate mentors, graduate advisors, thesis committees, a postdoctoral mentor, and maybe one or two faculty mentors. But as you can imagine one size does not fit all and that’s a fairly small N given the great diversity of ideas, goals, personalities, and paths in science. And the other issue is that there is often a generational gap between these types of more senior mentors, which means that the scientific landscape itself looked very different when these people were going through the same stages as their mentees.
So one useful solution to solving both of these problems is peer mentorship. By that I mean connecting with others in your peer group that have already experienced the same and a much wider range of circumstances collectively than any individual might. Some of you may be thinking. Well that’s not for me. I’d rather get my advice from someone who knows what they’re doing. If that’s you, welcome to my life–you were me about 5 years ago. I really thought I had nothing to learn from people who didn’t have the benefit of hindsight and many years of additional wisdom. And of course I still think those things are valuable so I am not advocating for replacing them, but something happened that changed my mind about peer mentorship. The thing that happened is I started a wildly successful peer mentorship group for new faculty members. I”ll briefly tell you that story before explaining the benefits.
One thing you’ll hear from many new faculty is how lonely and isolating it is. You go from a cohort of graduate students to being around fellow postdocs to being quite literally alone in your office most of the time. So while you’ll have a wide range of opportunities to interact with other faculty and there is likely a formal mentorship structure for new faculty at your institution .. everyone is extremely busy with their own labs and lives.
When I started my first faculty position, I acutely felt this isolation, through no fault of my department or institution..just by nature of the job. There was only one other junior faculty member in my department and she left for another institution. I also had so many questions and massive decision fatigue about what to buy, who to hire, how to navigate funding, and tenure and more. Quite literally hundreds of questions a day. And I could spend an entire 8 hours just thinking about one of them. At that time, I had just started a Slack group for my lab (this is an online messaging platform often used by labs and companies that is great for rapid communication). So I decided, why couldn’t I start a Slack group for new faculty, all of whom were likely struggling with exactly the same problems and all of whom were probably also feeling similarly isolated? So I started one called New PI Slack, wrote a blog post about it and shared on twitter. 4.5 years later, there are >2600 people there and it spurred similar groups for postdocs, grad students, midcareer faculty and more.
There are huge benefits to this kind of peer network and it’s largely again in the numbers. Not only do you have many people who have in very recent time gone through what you’re going through but they’ve seen a wide range of circumstances. This can help reduce the decision fatigue and allow you to make choices rapidly for things for which you previously wouldn’t have had enough information and would have had to agonize about. In addition to all these other peers with extraordinarily relevant and timely advice, importantly, each of those peers has their own senior mentors so also you have this enormous compounded collective wisdom.
I also cannot overstate the benefits of having a cohort and a sense of belonging within a group. Not only is this fantastic for emotional support, but also it generates a bit of an upside down unfair advantage. One of the big perks for senior faculty is having been around long enough to have deep roots within the scientific community and having significant connections between each other to provide each other with opportunities. What if we all could have equally far reach no matter what our career stage? We could level the playing field. Some of the things we can do is push each other up, share resources, put forward each other’s names for opportunities, connect each other with our students and our mentors. We will get to know many more people that we can recommend when we have to say no to something. Our rolodex of people to get scientific help from and collaborate with also expands significantly. We literally claim all the advantages and benefits it feels like only senior faculty have.
There is also a massive power among the like minded to work together to make change. We all have the battles we’re fighting in science to make things better for ourselves and those who come after us. And sometimes it can feel like we are powerless individuals pushing against a massive immoveable system. But that system is just people allied in groups and within organizations. So with the ability to collect with other like-minded people who share our ideals and goals and vision and values, we suddenly have the power to make change against what we felt was an immovable system. We quite literally have strength in numbers. Given the ever-narrowing bottleneck that happens in academia, the more junior you are, the bigger your peer group, and the stronger your potential numbers of like-minded advocates!
Lastly, I want to acknowledge that for many, they may still have not found a place they feel at home perhaps because those with whom they identify have been excluded from STEM and there just isn’t critical mass in one place or group. The benefit of virtual networks like these is you don’t need geographic proximity or critical mass within a small group – it can be far reaching across institutions, states, countries. For anyone still feeling they haven’t found the right peer group, I would strongly recommend first searching extensively to see if something suitable exists so you don’t have to re-invent the wheel and can tap into larger numbers with the benefits I already mentioned. But if that doesn’t exist, then start something as I did. I’m always happy to answer any questions or to discuss with anyone about that, as I’ve worked with a lot of different groups to build their own communities and help them build a positive environment that makes people want to join and give back.