The author Inna Bakman-Sanchez is a PhD Candidate in Biochemistry at Brooklyn College and CUNY’s Institutional Representative of INet NYC. Inna can be reached at: email@example.com
By Inna Bakman-Sanchez
Edited by Gayathri Devi Raghupathy
Finding a good career mentor is very important and yet at times we take it for granted. Career mentors have valuable experience and can help guide and advise you on your career path, establish clear and achievable goals, teach you how to overcome challenges in your field of work, as well as introduce you to the right people. For international students, such as myself, finding the right mentor can be priceless. Having come to a new country to pursue a PhD in the STEM fields, far from all things familiar and comfortable, sometimes you may find yourself overwhelmed by the language, culture, work demands, and lack of connections. Without guidance and help, it's far more challenging to discover all the great career opportunities that await outside academia.
So, how do you find a mentor? Your PI can answer some of your career related questions, but if they are not international or if your questions are not necessarily in their zone of expertise, there is a small but an important gap that needs to be filled.
I decided that first step will be to go to the event hosted by INet NYC with collaboration with the Science Alliance of the New York Academy of Sciences - “Success Stories in Non-Academic Career Tracks: Overcoming the Barriers of an International Scientist in the USA". The major point that was made by the speakers was the importance of a career mentor and how that helped them to pursue and achieve their high positions outside academia, either as a science journalist, patent lawyer, consultant, pharmaceutical industry position, and more. At that event, I also learnt about the INet NYC Mentor-Mentee program.
I am glad to have had the opportunity to be a mentee at the INet NYC Mentor-Mentee Program.
At first, I hesitated to partake in the program since one of the guidelines was to know what I want to do after my PhD. The goal of this information was to match you with the right mentor. But what if I don’t really know what I want to do? Having a career mentor pushed me to do some soul searching and to be honest with myself about what I am passionate about and what will make me happy even if that is not directly related to what I am doing right now.
My mentor, Dr. Roberta Marongiu, an assistant Professor of Neuroscience in Neurological Surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine/NYP hospital, does research on developing novel gene therapy approaches for Parkinson’s disease. She moved to NYC from Rome, Italy where she did her PhD in Medical Genetics and Neuroscience. Even though our research interests are different, we were able to connect on a personal level - we could relate to the challenges of being foreign in the US. Having open conversations with my mentor allowed me to learn that sometimes your path is not clear right away, but with an open mind you may fall into research that you never thought would interest you, yet surprisingly grow to love and find success. The most inspiring moment for me was learning about my mentor's achievement in organizing a non-profit organization that combines both her passion for boxing and the fight against Parkinson’s disease - stoPD. Her example has inspired me (more than I can give credit to it in this post) to consider my own joy in the practice of painting, photography and working with children in the sciences, as well as the wonderful potential in combining these activities into an ideal career.
Next, I wondered whether there are other ways to still be a scientist and educator in the US without going through a post-doctoral training or dealing with limited OPT. Dr.Marongiu’s perspective was that it is preferable to do at least one post-doctoral research in order to take up more responsibilities, be more independent, extend your network and potential collaborators for the future. One key point is to put a strict deadline of two years to the length of that position. Since I am interested in teaching and working with the youth, my mentor recommended me to look for positions as a post-doc at universities and community colleges that have undergraduate programs rather than graduate-research programs or medical-research colleges.
Following my mentors’ advice, I took immediate action in finding volunteer programs and grants that will strengthen my resume as a science educator. Ultimately, my time with her so far has been transformative in coming to terms with what I could be passionate about and what work makes me happy, regardless of its relevance to what I am currently doing.
It is important to remember that a career mentor is one of the best tools at your disposal to figure out and navigate your future. Sometimes you may need only two or three meetings before you are looking in the right direction. It could also be a longer process that requires opening up, exploring, researching, and deciding on a path. Our relationship has run for several months so far, extending beyond the program’s pairing, since a mentor cannot simply help you forge your career overnight. I connect with my mentor primarily via email and phone conversations.
Should you apply for the mentor-mentee program even if you know exactly what you want and know how to get it? Definitely yes! Should you do so if you are completely lost? I believe that in order to benefit the most from this program, you should have some idea about what career paths excite you. Thus, considering this program presents a great opportunity to pause for a moment and envision your future self. Don't be shy to have open and productive conversations. Remember to have fun and, when you've found what you're looking for, to pay the service forward.