The best kind of mentor

At the recent Australian Music & Psychology Society Conference  I was fortunate to have the opportunity to sit down with Professor Peter Keller of the The MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development, Western Sydney University for an informal research mentoring session.  The conference organizers had called for students wanting a mentoring session to register their interest, and then we were matched up with suitable faculty members, and given a time and place to meet. Isn’t that a great idea! I jumped at the chance to be able to glean wisdom from a more experience researcher.

Is Yoda your idea of a mentor? It’s not who you know, it’s what you learn from who you know

So armed with my list of jotted down questions and my voice recorder app I made the most of my half hour with Peter by covering all sorts of topics from mentoring, to productivity, to juggling multiple projects whilst keeping up with all the reading. So what did I glean?

1) Set apart time for writing:

Everything else is more time constrained (data collection) or easier to get into once you start (who ever heard of analysis block?) but writing needs to be done – so make it a habit. Giving yourself deadlines, such as upcoming conferences, is also helpful.

computerincafePeter starts each day between leaving home early and arriving on campus, with a detour at one of the local cafes for some writing time; sometimes it’s only for half an hour, other times longer. But just setting aside that time first thing in the morning ensures that it gets done. It also creates some space for thinking about your writing too.

2) Get a good armchair:

Keeping up with the reading list is one of the major challenges. Reviewing a lot of papers is a good way to see a lot of things before they come out.


And if you are lucky enough to have PhD Students or Post Docs then of course they act as a sort of filter as you will discuss papers with them and see what they are reading by what they are citing.

Skim reading is also useful when papers first come out to act as a filter for what is relevant / useful. When writing a paper or working on something and needing to know more details, papers can then be deliberately targeted. But the challenge is keeping abreast of things especially working in a multidisciplinary type of environment; so filtering and knowing where to looking first is the key thing. A good armchair helps too – who doesn’t like to be comfy when reading at home?

3) A PhD is all about research training:

It wasn’t always the way (people’s whole careers depended on their PhD’s back in the 19th century), but these days the advice Peter gives to any PhD students becoming burdened by wanting to do a perfect be-all-and-end-all exploration of a topic is that really it’s about research training. Because it’s training in research and the research process it’s important to develop the ability to get through all those stages of research independently but at the same time to work out how to collaborate with other people. Depending on the topic that may mean learning how to find people and work with people who are actually going to help you get the job done because they have expertise in something. If you have an interdisciplinary project, these days you’re not necessarily expected to become an expert in all aspects of it.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew

So have a focused project – don’t try to bite of more than you can chew.

That is, don’t try to learn EEG, MRI, TMS, and Computational modelling all in the space of 3 years. Think about the story of your research and how it can be told in terms of publications.

As an aside: Peter also said the skills he wished he learnt during his PhD were computer programming and advanced statistics. So the PhD years are the best time to up-skill in these more general areas that will be needed for the rest of your career.

4) You don’t need an “official” mentor to be mentored:

Peter has had several people who he considers mentors over the years – not always just official supervisors or people he collaborated with. Though he did say that every supervisor that he has had from Honours, PhD, Post Doc and beyond, has indeed been a mentor in some sense; not necessarily for the whole career but for a season.

A mentor doesn’t need to be in the same research field. Peter and his PhD supervisor had areas of interest that weren’t exactly the same, but he nevertheless supported Peter in numerous aspects of career development. And whilst Peter’s first Post Doc supervisor wasn’t the sort to give “sagely advice”, just through watching his attitude, work ethic, and his leading by example, Peter learnt a lot.

Other colleagues have been very supportive and generous in sharing their knowledge of academia more generally.  Not only in how to do research and science, but how to thrive in what could be considered a niche topic – music psychology – in the academic environment in Australia. Compared to Europe where they fund risky projects, its more conservative here. So showing him strategies and what you have to do within the university, Peter learnt a lot about how to get by as an academic.

The academic career is a journey… if only I was this keen every morning!

Reflecting on our mentoring session I realised that the academic career is a journey. It’s a corny metaphor, but it’s true. And some parts, like writing and reading are going to be needed throughout the expedition, so this time as a PhD student is perfect for establishing these career-long habits. But as I’m a researcher in training, through watching those around me; my fellow PhD students, Post Docs and more established academics, there is a lot I can learn about how to succeed and thrive.

It’s not about finding a Yoda or Gandalf. There is something to be learnt from everyone whose journey intersects with mine along the way. And perhaps they are the best kind of mentors to have, the ones you didn’t realise you had.



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