Skip to content Skip to navigation

Finding Success in Failure: What lessons can you share from mentoring experiences that were less than ideal?

SoAP Box: 
Finding Success in Failure

Summer 2020

Jennifer Buckman, PhD

What lessons can you share from mentoring experiences that were less than ideal? How did you handle this, what did you learn, and what would you recommend to others who might find themselves in a similar boat?

Jennifer Buckman, PhD
Rutgers University

A huge part of being an academic scientist is mentoring, but you’ll receive no training in how to do it. Your only hope is that you’ve had at least one good mentor along the way to model. Mentoring has many hidden dangers and trapdoors. Mentoring will bring the best and worst out in you. Mentoring requires you to bring your best self to individuals of various ages, educational backgrounds, intelligence, and ability…. with different habits, history, personalities, and psychological wellness. Each individual is a challenge unto themselves, and a key job as mentor is to parse what a person can do well from what they can’t. This is critical to optimize lab functionality and prepare them for success.

Know thyself and thy enemies.

As a female, I have learned to draw a clear line between comradery and friendship, and between mentoring and mothering (FYI: “mothering” is not the female form of the word “mentoring”). Some mentees are looking for a friend, a mother, or a cheerleader; some are looking for all three. These are roles not well suited to me. I know that I work better with certain personality styles and temperaments (arrogance and entitlement need not apply). But, alas, more than once, I have found myself mentoring someone looking for something I could not provide. I can’t figure out what I missed in the interview. These mentees shared nothing by way of history, personal style, or even graduate program. One came recommended from a trusted colleague. Another came with an outstanding Ivy League pedigree. Only in the long-run have I realized that they have two striking overlaps:

  1. They always had excuses for what was not done (i.e., they took no responsibility).
  2. They were always solely responsible for what was done (i.e., they took full credit).

This is irritating, for sure, but what’s worse is that it leads to interpersonal chaos in the laboratory.

Pick thy battles.

Perhaps my biggest lesson to date (I still have a lot to learn) is that it is not going to get better by itself. There are two ways forward: deal with it or suffer through it. Dealing with it seems like the grown-up thing to do, but brace yourself.

  1. Don’t say too much, but don’t say too little.
  2. Stay on point. Really stay on point.
  3. Don’t practice what you are going to say; practice what you are NOT going to say.
  4. Be honest, with as much kindness as you can.
  5. Stay on point. Don’t deviate or back down.

And, I think even more importantly:

  1. Speak not only to the difficult mentee, but the other mentees/lab staff as well. A difficult mentee can force differential treatment by making every traditional path a challenge. Other mentees notice this and can feel angry, frustrated, and alienated (and maybe despondent?). Maybe even more importantly than trying to be a friend, mother, or cheerleader to your difficult mentee, make sure you remain an accessible mentor to your not-so-difficult mentees.

In line with the recent trend of prominent academics and clinicians sharing their “CVs of Failures”, we want to hear about a time in your career that things didn’t go your way. For this next issue, I am hoping someone will share lessons learned from shopping around for a paper that took a while to find a home. Please limit responses to 500 words and send to by October 1, 2020.

Follow Us

Facebook IconTwitter Icon