How to support junior researchers and be a good mentor

27 February 2019
Professor Maree Teesson AC shares her advice
Professor Maree Teesson AC is the Director of the Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use, and is committed to supporting junior researchers, women and those with children.
Marie Teesson

Professor Marie Teesson AC

Professor Maree Teesson AC is an international authority in mental and substance use disorders, two of the most prevalent and burdensome health conditions in developed countries.

She joined the University of Sydney last year and launched the Matilda Centre, a world first translational research program for the prevention and treatment of comorbid mental health and substance abuse. Her team’s research is at the forefront of prevention and treatment of mental and substance use disorders, having led to numerous ‘firsts’ in the field.

The first in her extended family to attend university, Professor Teesson knows the value of a supportive network.

“It is not easy balancing a full-on academic career and family, and I have been very lucky in terms of individual support throughout my career,” she says.

“But I also recognised early on that there was little formal, structural support for young researchers, including young women and those with children. In my team and in medical research in general, I am always looking for ways to deliberately address this deficit.”

Professor Teesson won the 2014 Eureka Prize for Outstanding Mentor of Young Researchers. She works to ensure junior researchers are fully credited for their work, including placing them first on published papers – even when this means taking risks with her own career along the way.

“Placing the names of junior staff high on published work and encouraging their autonomy can be risky in science,” she says. “It’s not traditional to build a community of researchers and there is the possibility that I would not get grants or fellowships or promotions because people wouldn’t recognise me as the leader.”

“With complex challenges like mental disorders and addiction we need a community of researchers to drive the innovation.”

Flexible work arrangements are available to staff, and the money and infrastructure that enter the centre filter through to researchers from top to bottom.

Professor Teesson’s 5 tips for being a good mentor

  1. Instil in people the self-belief they need to realise their potential. Sometimes, this means nurturing and protecting the promise and potential of a person even when they’re not feeling confident. They can then come back to it as their confidence increases.
  2. Create and implement targeted policies and programs to enhance and fund the development activities of junior staff and students. This means access to resources, money, grants, and papers!
  3. Make sure your supervisory and mentoring responsibilities remain a priority.
  4. The greatest reward of mentoring is watching the person you mentor ‘pay it forward’ to the next generation. If you keep that in mind, generosity is easy.
  5. Balance passion and compassion. Passion and drive are critical in academia. They thrive when a mentee is also shown compassion and nurturing.

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