Mentorship in The Field of Statistics

October 16, 2013

By Thaddaeus Egondi, Data Analyst/Statistician, APHRC

 Experienced statisticians are not easy to find in most organizations, not even at research institutions, therefore it is a significant challenge for young statisticians to find mentors throughout  their careers, even though mentorship is crucial to their career development. Meanwhile, established statisticians find mentoring a highly rewarding part of their research careers.

So the question remains, if mentoring is so valuable to both the mentors and the mentees, how do we encourage more mentoring in the field of statistics and how do research or training institutions support senior statisticians to help them become top-notch mentors?

One way to look at this issue is to realize that young statisticians do not need to be mentored by other statisticians. Mentoring by people with experience in statistics from different fields such as medicine, education, demography etc. is also beneficial to young statisticians because these are fields where statistical skills are often required. Available literature provides general guidance on how to identify a mentor and the general mentorship process. Some reading literature on mentoring young statisticians has been developed recently by Prof. Thabene who shares his own mentoring experience.

Eric Parsloe of Oxford School of Coaching and Mentoring defines mentoring as “providing support and encouraging people to manage their own learning in order to maximise their potential, develop their skills, improve their performance and become the person they want to be”.

According to Prof. Lehana Thabene, a well-known professor from McMaster University, mentoring is a very useful tool or process towards developing and empowering a person in any field. Thabene says there has been little in terms of mentoring in the field of statistics in general as compared to other fields such as medicine.  He explains that many statistics training programs provide key skills required for research, however, there is little advice given on how to help young statisticians develop their careers after they have finished schooling and get jobs in the “real world.” This seems to be an even larger issue in the developing world.

So how can mentoring  be incorporated into statistics teaching programs? In my opinion, a senior statistician who is ready and willing to mentor young statisticians could easily incorporate mentoring into statistics teaching programs. One simple method could be to encourage established statisticians to engage their potential mentee in consultancy discussions and report presentations to help guide them on available opportunities for career advancement. This is one simple way to greatly shorten the learning period for the mentee and improve the process of acquiring important skills for career development. Creating opportunities where young statisticians attend presentation sessions by senior statisticians (researchers) will greatly improve their skills of communicating statistical results.

From my experience supervising young statisticians, mentoring fosters career development in a way that includes preparing the young statisticians on how to overcome challenges in the process of career development which includes working with fellow colleagues from different disciplines.  My biggest advice for those young statisticians who struggle to find mentors is not to be limited by thinking that their mentor must be a statistician.

Thabene, a biostatistician with experience in mentoring young statisticians provides great advice and recommendations on identifying a mentor based on his personal experience mentoring students. He says that you must identify your career goals. If this is difficult then a good mentor will help guide you in setting your goals. Second, identify a potential mentor who is interested and willing to be a mentor. Finally, set up a schedule of regular meetings with the mentor and always document discussions in every meeting. The relationship should be evaluated regularly to make sure that what is expected is achieved.

In the process of mentorship, mentors have a major responsibility to open doors and create room for productive discussions. However, it is important for the mentee to note that it is their responsibility to update and expand their knowledge base through reading resources related to their work and being ready to ask for help whenever they feel there is something they need to know.

Furthermore, young statisticians should lookout for research institutions that are already invested in the capacity building of young scientists. For example at APHRC, there are excellent opportunities for guidance and mentorship through APHRC’s research capacity strengthening program (RCS) and also through gaining additional research experience through working alongside senior researchers.

There is an African proverb that says “if we stand tall, it’s because we are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us” with this proverb in mind then it is a moral obligation for senior statisticians to reach out for possible mentees so as to produce future great statisticians. I particularly encourage young statisticians to look out for possible mentors so as to benefit from their experience.

Reference

Lehana Thabane, Oliver Chinganya, and Chenglin Ye. Training Young Statistician for the development of Statistics in Africa. The African Statistical Journal 2007; 7: 125-148.

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