How on earth do you mentor someone?

Research fellows and junior faculty staff benefit from the direction provided by academic mentors, and this in turn enhances the faculty, the department and institution. Mentors can help build the future success of mentees through their support and guidance. But how do you start, and is there structure to use? Here are some suggested approaches for your mentoring relationship:

Do your own research on your potential mentee
Your time is precious and investing in another person’s career will need to have meaning for you. It is very rewarding to know that you have made a difference to someone’s career and further contributed to the research community. With this in mind look for mentees with a sense of mission and recognise that some mentees can be flakes. So do your own research on your potential mentee: look at their on-line profiles; speak to their colleagues. If you decide to speak to their supervisor or head of department do not disclose that you are considering becoming their mentor. Confidentiality is helpful and as the relationship develops and you begin to make introductions for them, it may become appropriate, with the mentee’s agreement, to make it known that you are their mentor.

Set clear expectations
In the initial, probably informal, meeting over coffee a prospective mentee may explain their expectations and what they hope to achieve through the relationship. Equally part of the relationship is establishing together what both of you expect from your meetings. You should also be clear about what time you can offer them and why you are willing to support them professionally. Spend a little time getting to know them before committing to a formal mentee relationship to help you make the decision about whether or not you are a good fit for each other. As your relationship develops your expectations of each other are likely to grow and change, so there does need to be flexibility in both of your expectations.

Find out how they like to spend their time
Explore with the mentee how they like to spend their time. Not what they want to be such as head of a research team, but what types of things make them bounce out of bed in the morning rather than haul themselves out. The type of things that really interest them and help them to design their future position around those activities.

You do not need to be the fount of all knowledge
Active listening is the most helpful approach to being a mentor. You do not need to have all the answers, your role is to help them make their personal discovery and simply guide them in that journey. Sharing your own experiences and ways that you have solved similar problems or how you have made difficult choices, will be of great value. Active listening is a skill that can be learned, click here for a super post that gives useful set of pointers on how to do this. The more you practice active listening the more habitual it will be come. Essentially ask more than you answer and be honest in your own answers. As you get to know your mentee you will very likely see more potential in them than they see in themselves, and of course the reverse may well be true. Some mentees may have an inflated sense of their abilities.

Be open to being reverse mentored
You are likely to also learn from much from your mentee, it may be their experiences of new research techniques or technologies, or it could be your mentee’s research which you find interesting. The term reverse mentoring was coined by Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric. He recognised that those who are at the start of their careers do in fact have much to offer those who are well established in their careers. He went as far as to set up a formal reverse mentoring scheme.

Follow through
Do not over commit. If you say you are going to do something for a mentee, sending a paper through to them, making an introduction, ensure that you follow through and you are true to your word. It is important that you don’t get burned out by the relationship, and that you are a reliable source of advice and guidance.

In the end
To summarise, you should explore your own motivations for mentoring and set realistic expectations for yourself and your mentee. Be open to learning from them and remember that you do not need to have all the answers. As your mentee grows in their own career your relationship may become more of a peer relationship. In the end, how well the relationship works is usually based on how well the two of you get on and connect, so don’t be afraid to end a relationship that isn’t working for either of you. Though this may be more pertinent for a formal mentoring scheme rather than informal relationships that develop naturally.

Twitter Thread (February 2021)

Soap Box Science Blog

UCLA Mentoring PDF

Mentor Group Blog

Occam’s Typewriter Blog

Reverse Mentoring

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