Using Motivational Interviewing Techniques To Help Your Second-career Scientists Thrive


In the dank and mysterious air of a new planet, a tiny creature with wizened face and elf-like ears appears in front of our hero. We know it is our hero because we have seen him commit acts of bravery before crashing his spaceship into this new place. And we know that this creature confronting him is about to become his master teacher. Yoda looks into Luke Skywalker’s eyes and asks the question that will define their relationship: “I am wondering, why are you here?”

Why are you here? It is a compelling question for all of us.

I am a child of the 1970’s and 1980’s, and this one line of dialogue from The Empire Strikes Back has stayed with me for decades. As someone who came to science as a second career, the question has special resonance for me. In your lab, I want to be a hero: Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen, and Princess Shuri all at the same time. And you, principal investigator, are my Yoda. You are the head samurai, the Zen master, the potential future Nobel Prize winner—all wrapped into one fallible too-busy human with multiple claims to your time, pulling at you every moment. How will you find time to help guide a career path for a person who does not have a traditional career path to follow? Who may be cleaving the tall weeds in front of them to create that path for themselves for the first time?

I’ve written in other publications, including Sky & Telescope (August 2020 issue) and Immunology and Cell Biology, about my nontraditional path to a science career. Here I want to focus on the techniques you can use when mentoring new scientists who have not only a career path in front of them, but a good amount of adult life experience in the rear-view mirror as well. In brief: consider using motivational interviewing techniques to help second-career scientists define their career paths so that you can help them reach their professional goals while contributing to the life of your lab.

In medical school curricula, motivational interviewing is introduced as a skill set during preclinical training. It is a mode of conversation designed to help health care providers elicit from their patients their intrinsic motivations for making health-related behavioral changes. But when applied to a mentoring relationship between a PI and their direct reports, it can provide a fruitful structure for meaningful conversations that lead to deliberate, well-researched career decisions, and ultimately happier and more productive members of the scientific community.

Every person in your lab is a trainee, but not everyone who enters your lab is a future principal investigator. You may be mentoring a future high school science teacher, a science journalist, a biotech patent attorney, and a curator for the local science museum at your bench. What inspires me to bring the idea of motivational interviewing to the mentoring conversation, especially for people who have prior professional experience before coming to science, is how this type of conversation honors the innate wisdom of the person reflecting on the questions.

In health coaching, an area I trained in during the COVID-19 pandemic, we use motivational interviewing and a related technique known as appreciative inquiry to help our clients verbalize the ideas they already know they have so that they can discover their own self-efficacy and motivation to change. Here’s a description of appreciative inquiry from one of my textbooks: it allows clients to “acknowledge strengths and imagine possibilities in order to rise above and outgrown their problems…[It] is a valuable coaching tool for uncovering and celebrating the best of what is and what could be.” (Wellcoaches Coaching Psychology Manual, 2nd ed.)

What this means for your lab is twofold. On the one hand, you can open the door wider to engage nontraditional applicants for your lab’s open positions, because you’re able to look at the potential and possibility that a candidate with prior work experience in other areas could bring to the life of your lab. (You will never appreciate the negotiation skills of a seasoned professional more than when it’s time to wheel and deal with your account reps for good pricing on flow cytometry antibodies.) On the other hand, you can have meaningful mentoring conversations with your direct reports that will help them to refine their career goals.

What does this look like in practice? How can you structure conversations with your mentees to help them gain insight into their eventual career paths? Consider questions such as the following to help elicit their thoughts on their goals and professional dreams.

  1. What fascinates you the most about what you’re doing right now?
  2. What do you want to learn next?
  3. What contribution do you dream of making to the field?
  4. What will your life look like if you accomplish that goal?
  5. What will your life look like if you don’t?

In other words, truly: Why are you here?

It was more than one conversation with my PI, and more than one moment at the bench, that led me from potential medical student to potential career research technician to where I am now: stepping closer to the path of science writer and filmmaker, marrying the work I did before science with the academic background I’ve acquired in the last several years. It was patience and listening skills that my PI brought to the table that helped me to figure out what was most important to me professionally and personally. As I write these words, I’m back in school, completing a goal I thought I had abandoned thirty years ago: earning a B.S. degree in biochemistry from a Tier 1 research university. And I’m back at the page, writing, and holding the camera I learned to use in journalism grad school, jumping back into the world of fascinating storytelling. The difference now is that I want to tell great science stories, and after my time at the bench, I feel uniquely qualified to do the work I’m meant to do. (And I saved my PI a bunch of grant money on those flow antibodies.) That’s a win-win all around.            

In short: motivational interviewing can help you create deeper and more meaningful mentoring conversations with your trainees. Tapping into your lab members’ intrinsic motivation using open-ended questions designed for thoughtful reflection is sure to lead to conversations that help both of you uncover a pathway for supporting your mentees’ career goals.


  • Moore, Margaret et al. Wellcoaches Coaching Psychology Manual, 2nd edition. Wolters Kluwer, 2016.

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