Posted by Filipa on 19, September 2016

“My supervisor has been ignoring me”. How to demystify mentoring


Sometimes you feel that your supervisor should be more supportive, that he/she doesn’t listen to your ideas, that he or she likes your colleague better than you… and on and on and on…. I have been there.

These are common feelings for people in all areas of academia − Masters, PhD students, Postdocs, Researchers etc…. And the academic community is a nest where these feelings are nurtured and fed. It is very competitive and sometimes gets nerve wracking. I am not saying this is not common in other sectors, but I am writing about what I know and with what I am more familiar.


From my experience during the last 10 years while working in Academic Environments,

I can tell you how emotionally destructive it can be working in this area.


There was that time during your PhD when you spent an entire hour complaining about your supervisor or your colleague, right? I truly think that we have to channel our frustrations and get support among our peers. But please tell me the truth…

How can 4h/week complaining about unfair work place help you finish your thesis? Or write that paper?

The amount of time we lose complaining is something that is destructive, gets us out of focus, and diverts us slowly from our goals.

This need comes from the constant feeling of isolation and insecurity students have, but we have to realize we are not teenagers anymore whining about our colleague in high school.

Some academics are not trained to be mentors; some do it better than others do. Students are not trained to be mentees. There is nothing wrong with that but one thing I learned from the US is that you don’t have to know it all, you just need to identify what you need to learn and proactively seek that training.

You have to think about what you want from your mentor.

  • Is it publishing?

  • Help with paper writing?

  • Getting grants?

The majority of the supervisors should be able to provide this kind of support.

  • Is it emotional support?

  • Solutions for your career?

  • The meaning of life?

For these last topics, you have to think about what are you asking from your mentor. This kind of support should not be their responsibility.


Your supervisor does not have all the answers (thankfully we are all humans), and won’t be able to give you all the support you need during your research work.


I know that every once in a while we need a supporting shoulder to listen to our complaints about how that experiment did not work as expected, how our colleague stole our project, or how no one listened to our ideas during the lab meeting. Try to time these conversations and try to gradually reduce them to a minimum.


My postdoc supervisor was one of the greatest mentors I have had in my life so far. He was supportive, encouraging and gave me all the tools to be successful in the lab. However, I decided to pursue a career away from the bench. When I told him I wanted to pursue a career in education and career strategy, his answer was simply: “You’re crazy.” I knew that I could not ask him for any help with networking outside academia; he did not know about this area, so this was too much to ask from him. So I sought mentors in the Teaching Center and in companies wherever I found people working on the subject that interested me.


To build a good mentoring network, ask yourself:

  1. What do you want to do next?

  2. Do you need more information?

  3. Do you need training?


If you need some help to explore possibilities about your future, be proactive and find the mentors you need in each path in your career. Some of the myths involved in mentoring are very well described in this article from Amy Gallo. Here you will find additional tips to help you figure out who to turn to and how.

I found that having a mentor to whom you can relate is very valuable, in addition mentoring is important, not only because of the knowledge and skills students can learn from mentors, but also because mentoring provides professional socialization and personal support to facilitate success in graduate school and beyond.

Keren Witkin at National Institute of Health, in United States gives some guidelines  to help you getting the most out of your mentoring relationship. 

Life is a continuous learning journey and you should not give the choice to others about who should mentor you. It is your life, and your choice, not only rights but duties too.

  1. Amy Gallo. Demystifying Mentoring. Harvard Business Review. February 2001
  2. Nancy Dunham. The mentors you choose shape you. 
  3. Keren Witkin. Thoughts on Choosing a Research Mentor.