Lately I’ve found myself being asked for a lot of advice from friends and work colleagues that are looking to find their feet, both in their personal and professional lives. Everything from product innovation through to inventorship, career guidance through to dealing with the challenges life throws at you during the “quarter-life crisis” years. Though I like to feel like I’m lending my ears and acting as a sounding board, it’s dawned on me that I’ve started to take a more proactive role in mentoring these individuals.
Now, I’m not sure how good a mentor I am, given my limited life and professional experience, but it would seem that the little tidbits of advice and knowledge I’ve collected over the last few years seem to be valuable enough for others to want to know about and put to use in their own lives. It would seem that had these people found mentors earlier on in their lives, perhaps many of the issues they face today would have been overcome yesterday. But hindsight is the best source of insight – you can’t learn about your mistakes until you’ve made them. I seem to find that many students I’ve met, either undergraduate or postgraduate, are still quite disillusioned about what they would like to do beyond their tertiary education. More worryingly are the postgrads, that took on a PhD to procrastinate their decision about what they would like to achieve in life. It’s all well and go if you know that you really do want to pursue a post-doc in a lab in the US or an EU state, but for the many that don’t want the uncertainties a life in research career presents, there doesn’t seem to be any schemes that I can see at the university level in Australia that actively encourages industry and political leaders to mentor upcoming scientists*.
But why would you want to do that? It’s so left-field, getting someone who has nothing to do with science guide a scientist. Yeah, I know it’s a crazy idea, but hear me out.
My rationale is that the education of both the mentor and the mentee in such a program would work both ways. Our political leaders are generally law grads, very few have the background or the time to fully understand the science behind current issues. Sure, they have advisors, but when it comes to the nitty gritty, scientists generally have to dumb down the story and take out all the details to sell the message. So as a result (and probably not by choice), the weak scientific leadership at a national level means that we don’t have the leadership clarity to prioritise funding of science and innovation. At the AusMedtech conference in Sydney last week, I heard that Science innovation is only funded at 1.5% the amount that science research is.
1.5% – is that all??? And with the decimated VC community globally, where on earth would anyone find money to fund a commercially-viable scientific venture? A topic perhaps for another blog entry…
So we fund the science, but we don’t fund the pathway to make the science benefit society. Political heavyweights and industry leaders would learn a lot about how science and a knowledge economy improves the lives of Australians and our upcoming scientists would learn more about what affects research in this country, what Australia’s challenges are that science could contribute to overcoming, and what barriers exist. The dialogue generated would be valuable, and had this type of engagement happened previously with both our scientific and political leaders, perhaps the Discoveries Need Dollars Campaign wouldn’t have been needed? Who knows….
What about scientists mentoring scientists? Well, I have nothing against that, and certainly if an individual chooses to purse a career in the fundamental sciences, I’m more that happy as basic science must never stop. But they need to not only provide the mentee with the scientific guidance but also the communication skills that all scientists should (but don’t) have.
The Australian Society for Medical Research run their Annual Medical Research Week – there have been talks given to students at various universities about career options in research, and (hopefully) in other areas where a medical research background is seen to be advantageous in a particular job or role. The pathways to jobs outside of medical research is often hazy – this is where the mentor’s role becomes important.
I often wonder about the more disillusioned PhD students and post-docs – they’re the ones that could potentially apply their knowledge and thinking in leading this country. It’s just a shame that at an early stage, they’re not provided with the global outlook they need to make these rational decisions. We need to give them the insight, without the drawbacks of hindsight, to allow them to find their directions faster, make an impact more quickly following the completion of their tertiary education so that we as a society, benefit from their contributions faster, in whatever form they take. Mentoring is a great shortcut, and more should be done to bring our leaders in society to give our upcoming scientists the global outlook they need to guide our country into the future, as well as make informed decisions about their career aspirations and goals.
As always, thoughts and comments welcome.
*If you know of any, please let me know!