I find that sequels are always disappointing, don't you? So, it was with some trepidation that, earlier this summer, I went back to Gradschool. No, not some extended purgatory of 5 or 6 years in the United States, but rather five intense days in Derby. The Research Councils' Graduate School Programme ( RCGSP)--also known as Gradschool--brings together PhD students from all over the UK for a short, sharp session of career and personal development. But although I'd really enjoyed the experience during my PhD, I wasn't going back to relive my student days. Oh no--this time around I was to be a MENTOR.

A mentor is someone a few years down the line, often, although not exclusively, with a PhD. They can work almost anywhere, including as a postdoc or contract researcher. So, if you missed out on the Gradschool experience as a PhD student, then the great news is that it's not too late. And if you enjoyed it so much the first time that you want to go back (more about why you should later ...) then you can do that, too. If you're working on a Research Council contract, the Research Council will usually, on a case-by-case basis, find the funding for you to go. Meanwhile, in a scheme that it's hoped will be extended to the whole of Europe, EC Marie Curie Fellows working in the UK have the opportunity to take up free mentor places in 2002 and 2003. Applications can be made through the RCGSP Web site, or you can get in touch with the organisers if you want to know more about how other postdocs have had their places funded.

Gradschool: A Guide for the Uninitiated

Up to 100 PhD students are divided into eight or nine groups, each with a 'tutor' to encourage them to play a variety of team-building and business games, and to discuss what they are learning about themselves and about how well they work in teams. (Find out more about the course from a student perspective in our earlier article.) On most courses, each group also has a 'mentor' (previously known as a 'young manager,' for those whose Gradschool experience--like mine--dates back to the early '90s ...), who is there to participate in all the activities just like the students but who is supposed to offer the benefit of their accumulated wisdom having actually been in the workforce for a while.

Why would you want to? Well, just as for a PhD student, it's an opportunity to take a step back from the everyday grind, take some time to think about yourself and your own goals, learn something about your capabilities, try out some different skills in a safe environment, and figure out what you want to do in the future and how to get there.

How does being a mentor differ from going as a student, then? Hmmm--well that's a little difficult to say. For a start the mentor's role is not rigidly--or indeed loosely--defined by the course organisers. This was something that I and, I think, all of my fellow mentors found rather difficult, but on reflection I can understand why it's done this way. The whole point of the Gradschool is that it is a very personal experience. You set your own objectives and get out of it what you want to. And therefore the kind of role that a mentor plays within the group will be different for each person. There are other variables too, that are not within your control. As Chris Stewart, also a mentor on the Derby course, puts it, "what you experience being a mentor is very much defined by the individual students in the group."

You're certainly not left to sink or swim. Each mentor has one-on-one time with their group tutor every day, which is your personal opportunity to reflect on your role and get some advice about things you might be struggling with. Further, each day the mentors have their own dedicated session looking at how to practise a particular skill, such as observation or facilitation of a group. (Trying to squeeze this session into an already hectic programme means that the mentors get to behave even more like azure-posteriored flies than the students.) Finally, I really appreciated the support and advice that I got from the other mentors. "I hadn't expected that the mentors would form such a cohesive group," Chris mentions, something which was a surprise to me too, but which made a huge and important difference to the whole experience.


The author making biscuits (dig the plastic apron?)

Speaking personally, I'd say that as a PhD student attending the course I learnt a lot about myself, and as a mentor I learnt a lot about myself in relation to other people. I don't know how well I achieved my objectives (one of which was to get my control freakery under control--Well, sometimes I'm just right, OK?!), but I certainly learnt some unexpected, and valuable, lessons. For instance, the course involved a 2-day business game (setting up and running a brand-new biscuit company). It was quite obvious from the underhand goings on that many of the other teams were out to win no matter what, and from talking to some of their members, that they weren't all happy about the way things were being done. Our team, however, decided early on that working well together and enjoying the experience was far more important to us than winning. The result? Our team won hands down. I couldn't have asked for a more graphic illustration of the importance of making the team work, and the power of being process-, rather than result-, orientated (something rather alien to most scientists, I would guess).

What Some Other Mentors Said

Adrian Daly is a Marie Curie Fellow from Ireland, currently at the University of Bristol. After his fellowship he'd like to work in the pharmaceutical industry, a job which "involves a lot of the skills, team work, and so forth that we were working on" at the Gradschool. "I felt it was quite good at developing a ... slightly more advisory role," which was "not something I'd have been particularly good at," but that he now feels more confident to try in the future. As well as being "good to have on my CV," being a mentor is "good fun, and you can't help but benefit from it," he sums up.

Chris Stewart attended a Gradschool during her PhD and now works as an administrator at Imperial College, London. She feels that the experience was "very different" as a mentor. "I learnt more in 5 days about human nature than in the past 12 months," she says. "It's a real privilege," she suggests, "to have the opportunity to step out of your life and go somewhere where nobody knows you," where you can try things out without people having expectations of you. "If you've been in a job more than a fortnight [people] expect you to be a certain type of person," she points out, which means that you might not have the chance to apply the things you learn on a Gradschool until some time later.

Even repeating things I'd done before was worthwhile. For example, just as when I was a PhD student, I completed a Belbin 'self-perception' questionnaire which is designed to help you identify your preferred role in a team. Imagine my surprise to discover that, whereas as a student I'd scored virtually nothing for the 'Completer Finisher' category (painstaking, conscientious, searches out errors and omissions, delivers on time), today it's one of my preferred roles. Given that, as an editor, my life depends on having these characteristics, I have to ask myself a chicken-and-egg question: Have I developed these skills and preferences because they are essential to a job I love, or did I always have them and they've been brought out by applying them in that job? Weird, eh? Just goes to show that nothing is set in stone.

So was my initial trepidation justified? Well, yes, partly. Whereas my memories of being a student at Gradschool are of 5 days of pretty much unadulterated fun, this time around I did a lot more soul searching and felt a much greater responsibility to the other people on the course. But the result was that I feel I got a huge amount out of the experience--far more so than if I had had a really easy time. Oh, and I had fun too!

Because the course, and mentoring, is so individual it's impossible for me to give more than a flavour of what you might get out of being a Gradschool mentor. So, you won't know unless you try it. But I can tell you that, for once, I found the sequel was even better than the original.