Achieving Career Balance through Mentorship

In my first post-doctoral professional experience, I was asked to teach introductory statistics and epidemiology to young public health students. It was my second time teaching these topics and I greatly looked forward to it. Because I had sat through too many statistics lectures, glazed over with boredom, I wanted to liven up the content from its all-too-dry state into something my students would dream about in their sleep. A lofty goal! But as I prepared each lecture over that long semester, I felt myself losing a balance, one that is critical to any public health researcher: perfecting lecture content and lesson plans versus writing grants to obtain an independent funding stream through grants. In one short semester, my eagerness was replaced with a sense of great burden.

When I expressed my concerns to more senior faculty, I was repeatedly counseled with the same advice: give up time with my spouse, skip the gym, delay having children, and worry only about only one thing: getting that first big grant. This advice seemed depressing at best. It was no wonder that, despite spending months preparing a career development award toward that end, I decided that this was not a lifestyle for me.

Luckily, the stars aligned and I found another great professional opportunity. I accepted a position as the Director of a large, national database of cancer patients, followed along their disease trajectory for cancer outcomes and quality of life. I was fulfilled and properly challenged….with a new challenge: I was now in charge of a team of young public health professionals, not as their teacher but as a prospective mentor. In the coming months, I would face one of the hardest but most rewarding transitions of my short career—I would finally begin to understand and practice the critical skills of “managing up”, “managing down”, and managing my time down to the minute. My small team of Millennials (i.e., officially defined as those aged 18-34) had a reputation for being too fragile and adverse to critical feedback. To my pleasant surprise, I fell in love with this generation and their workplace attitudes. I quickly learned that they are self-reflective and supportive of one another, often bolstering each other’s chances of success. Being someone who greatly values the concept of bringing others “up” in the workplace, trying to help colleagues find work that satisfies intellectually but also allows for a desired work-life balance, I began to appreciate their unique approaches to their careers. Since the Millennials are expected to make up 75% of the US work force by 2030, (US Bureau of Labor and Statistics), this realization gave me great relief! So, with this fact now on my radar, I wondered: how are we helping to guide this generation toward better careers? As one of the best educated generations from the last 35 years, they are also more likely to be unemployed, live with a parent, and live in poverty (BLS, 2013). How was I, personally, going to help this generation get promoted?

Unlike my teaching experiences, when my time and energy was spent on my own research, behind a closed office door, it gave me a great sense of personal satisfaction to help in their professional advancement. I wanted to inspire and pass along a blazing torch of knowledge….and with the right intent: to help them identify and fulfill their goals. I will refer to this as being a real mentor. What an incredible opportunity it is to guide the next generation of public health scientists!

Now, in my mid 40’s, I have a wonderful team of epidemiologist and statisticians at varying levels of their career who I get to “mentor” on a daily basis, not only on the fundamentals of our respective scientific disciplines, but far more important in any professional space, I am trying to impart on them the art of “managing”. I am a professional role model for them and I take that responsibility very seriously. I am modeling for them how to manage time, complex personalities and organizational structures, and overall work-life balance—not merely my professional abilities. I have come to a point in life when I personally love to give talks to any size group of listeners. I am trying to also model to my team how to relax and deliver information in an effective, audience-dependent manner. I tell them that this will be an increasingly important skill in the public health field, in a world of sounds bites, how to be heard. Finally, perhaps the most important one for the greatest rewards I reaped from having the courage to move positions was a firm trust in myself, my ability to contribute in any setting and to be valued (or move on!). I no longer agree with the expression “imitation is the greatest form of flattery”. Instead, my mentoring experience has taught me that, at least in the workplace, “promotion of others is the greatest form of flattery”.


Learn more about ScienceDocs Epidemiology Consultant Dr. Cullen Dr. Cullen Biostatistician


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