Weathering the academic storm: how PhD friends became safe ports

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Weathering the academic storm: how PhD friends became safe ports
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During our scientific careers, we all encounter challenges for which we typically have not been trained. Instinctively seeking for other colleagues’ support is, in essence, a peer-mentoring activity. This is exactly what we did back in 2020.

We are a group of six biomedical scientists (four women and two men ) who met more than 12 years ago while doing our PhDs at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) in Madrid (Spain). We are currently disseminated at research institutes and hospitals in London, Brussels, Boston, Madrid and Barcelona, and have past multi-year experiences in New York, Montréal and Manchester. Some of us are single, some are married; some have kids, some do not. Most of us work in academia while one of us has transitioned to a research officer position in a non-profit organization. Our career stages range from senior postdoc (with over 7 years of postdoctoral experience) to junior Principal Investigator (PI), as well as semi-independent scientist positions.

The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed the creation of successful support groups and other interesting initiatives for early career researchers, and it also prompted us to start our monthly peer mentoring group. Now, after three years running this initiative, we reflect on the joy and value that these gatherings have returned for our scientific careers, and the importance of making it last as our “safe place”  when professional challenges arise. Although we understand that each group has unique characteristics that cannot always be extrapolated, we hope that by sharing our experience of what we believe is an innovative mentoring formula, we can inspire other early career researchers in their own paths.

 

How we do it

Once we all graduated from our PhD, we remained connected over the years, keeping track of our lives and careers. In April 2020, motivated by a widely shared feeling of isolation, we came up with a virtual group meeting idea: we basically upgraded our very active messaging chat and occasional phone/in-person conversations to create a monthly peer-mentoring virtual meeting. The former has turned out to be a setting that provides us with complete control about what we want this forum to be (vs. more structured mentoring experiences provided by professional societies). We take turns to present scientific ideas and ongoing projects, but we also discuss about non-scientific professional issues. We focus on topics for which scientists typically receive very little training before having to apply them on a daily basis, such as mentoring people (and being mentored), career advice, getting funded, confidence building, balancing professional and personal life, developing a personal brand, negotiation and leadership skills, making the most of professional opportunities or conflict resolution. There is always room for small consultations and ad hoc meetings when an urgent matter arises.

A large part of the success of our group formula is the fact that we enjoy spending time together. Our long-standing friendship gives us the freedom to alter our meeting schedules and to indulge in discussions about personal topics, not directly related to our professional situation. Nevertheless, a solid commitment to the specific purpose of these gatherings is needed to make the most out of them. To that end, it has been useful agreeing in advance to a specific agenda and defining each month’s presenter. Likewise, we provided a basic structure to the peer-mentoring group: it has a name, a fixed two-hour slot on our calendars and a common folder where all documents are stored and shared. We still keep these meetings flexible, but having a general organization avoided unproductive emailing and allowed us to be on the same page even before each meeting.

 

Why we like it: the key to make it last.

We have a level of confidence that we seldom share with other peers. We are invested in each other’s careers and celebrate our successes. We are not too far apart in career stages, but we hold different positions. This is quite unique in the sense that these initiatives typically cater to a very homogeneous group with defined interests, e.g., postdocs looking for a job in academia or in the private sector, or young PIs trying to set up their labs. Our mix ensures that voices from our career’s immediate past and possible future are heard at the same venue. We believe this is particularly important, as the extreme pyramidal nature of scientific careers tends to allocate people into sealed positions with scarce opportunities for vertical exchange of ideas.

On top of these, we enjoy having a group composed of colleagues with an established friendship, rooted in mutual respect and admiration. We regard our meetings as the “comfort food” on our seminar menu. They provide a warm and honest environment in which we are not afraid to show our true selves, whether we are going through a successful phase or are in the midst of an uncertain stage. In contrast, public roundtables such as scientific social media platforms, although they represent a great tool to engage with other people’s science, tend to depict unreal projections of the best versions of ourselves (e.g., published papers, awarded grants), thus being ineffective at candid problem-solving. In addition, we are not afraid of giving genuine feedback to each other, something that is not easy to get in a more formal environment.

 

What we have accomplished (so far)

The following items are real examples of some of our accomplishments as a result of our peer mentoring meetings, attesting to their utility.

  • Fresh take on existing data leading to a publication. One of us presented a set of experiments, looking for input about next steps on the project. Although initially conceived as pilot data for a future paper which would likely have taken 2+ years to get published, as per the group’s recommendation, these data ended up being packaged as a more self-contained publication. Having peers not directly involved in the research but being able to provide a look at the value of the findings was key for decision-making.
  • Mock meetings for negotiation strategies. Several of us went through career promotion prospects requiring negotiation with departmental or institutional leadership. Our group helped with these processes by framing negotiation priorities and refining discussion points. Peer support was essential for empowerment.
  • Group consultation informing appropriate action for conflict resolution. Some members of our group experimented the usual frictions that daily interactions in the workplace generate between members of the same research team. Sharing these experiences with the rest of the group allowed us to compare similar experiences in a judgment-free space, and to receive honest advice to properly navigate these circumstances.
  • Awareness of our personal situations helping to achieve a healthy work/life balance. We all either live abroad, need to take care of our aging parents and/or have children ourselves. We are conscious of the difficulties of reconciling work and family life and discussing these topics allows us to put professional problems in perspective.
  • Detailed feedback from peers improving grant applications. Getting colleagues to devote their already scarce time to revise and to give sincere feedback on your grant applications is both difficult and key to get funded. Many of us have gone through several submission rounds these years, and the group has supported us by listening and commenting on seminal ideas, even before they got structured in a grant format, or by reviewing application drafts. Having a group with a broad understanding of cancer research, but with specific expertise in diverse basic and translational topics allows for miscellaneous feedback pushing us to think outside the box in our scientific proposals.
  • Support for transitioning from academia to the private sector. Navigating the process by which one acknowledges their own strengths and defines their personal brand is typically not easy. The former is even more complicated when you would like to explore professional options outside academic research, but your direct mentors have not contemplated careers other than in academia. Feeling insecure and experimenting the imposter syndrome typically ensues. Normalizing conversations along these lines within our group, and being supported and listened to, guided one of us to pursue this change.

 

What to do next: a call to action

We believe that the non-purely scientific abilities, or “transferable skills”, are essential for career progression in research jobs, and cannot be always learned in a formal course, but with practice. Honing these skills while they need to be simultaneously applied to real situations feels invariably overwhelming. Here we advocate for taking action and understanding that, beyond institutional initiatives, peer-mentoring can be easily implemented: just turn your academic friends into your support group! We hope this piece can inspire others to follow suit in forming the right peer-mentoring group to accompany them in their scientific journey. We believe that this might be particularly useful for junior researchers at the crucial stage of transition from postdoc to independence, or to non-academic jobs. We are positive that this will not only help them in their careers but will also be instrumental in their personal well-being and motivation. In other words: find the right people, start your group, commit to it as if it was a mandatory training course, and feel encouraged to devise your own personal path.

 

Key tips to make a long-lasting mentoring group

1.       Choose people you like to spend time with.

2.       Select people with high level of confidence, mutual respect, and admiration.

3.       Pick people not too far apart in career stages but holding different positions.

4.       Create a warm and honest environment.

5.       Agree to a solid commitment.

6.       Decide in advance to a specific agenda.

7.       Focus on topics for which scientists typically receive very little training.

8.       Generate a shared folder where all documents are stored.

9.       Allow flexibility for ad hoc meetings when an urgent matter arises.

 

Junior researchers find real support in their peers as they navigate crucial stages of their careers

Authors: Iñigo Landa1, Luis Javier Leandro-García2, Alba Maiques-Díaz3, Ana Rio-Machin4, Bárbara Rivera5,6,#, Laura Saucedo-Cuevas7

Affiliations: 1 Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Hypertension, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital & Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA; 2 Hereditary Endocrine Cancer Group, Human Cancer Genetics Program, Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), Madrid, Spain; 3 Institut d'Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS), Barcelona, Spain; 4 Centre for Genomics and Computational Biology, Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London, London, United Kingdom; 5Molecular Mechanisms and Experimental Therapy in Oncology Program – Oncobell, Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL), L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, Barcelona, Spain; 6 Gerald Bronfman Department of Oncology, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada; 7  Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium, currently at European Cancer Patient Coalition, Brussels, Belgium.

Authors are listed in alphabetical order to reflect equal contributions.

Acknowledgements:

We thank Hugo Tejera (@HTejera_Perez) for his illustration design using the open source deep learning test-to-image “Stable Diffusion”.

Funding:

IL is supported by an NCI Transition Career Development Award (1K22CA230381); LJLG is a La Caixa Junior Leader Fellow (LCF/BQ/PI20/11760011); AMD is a Beatriu de Pinos fellow (AGAUR 2018-BP-00231); ARM is a Young Investigator fellow of the European Haematology Association (EHA RG71); BR is a Miguel Servet fellow of the ISCIIII and a La Caixa Junior Leader Fellow (ID100010434); LSC is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow.

 

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