As academic careers become more competitive, junior scientists need to understand the value that mentorship brings to their success in academia. Previous research has found that, unsurprisingly, successful mentors tend to train successful students. But what characteristics of this relationship predict success, and how? We analyzed an open-access database of 18,856 researchers who have undergone both graduate and postdoctoral training, compiled across several fields of biomedical science with an emphasis on neuroscience. Our results show that postdoctoral mentors were more instrumental to trainees' success compared to graduate mentors. Trainees' success in academia was also predicted by the degree of intellectual synthesis between their graduate and postdoctoral mentors. Researchers were more likely to succeed if they trained under mentors with disparate expertise and integrated that expertise into their own work. This pattern has held up over at least 40 years, despite fluctuations in the number of students and availability of independent research positions.