Mentor Yourself

You don't have someone to advise you? Mary Jane Hurst offers five strategies.

July 29, 2009

Having served as a mentor, coordinated mentoring programs, and led mentoring discussions at conferences over many years, I can attest to this simple truth: Professionals who are provided with helpful guidance avoid unnecessary mistakes and distracting anxieties and thereby do their best work.

Unfortunately, many individuals do not have access to personal mentoring. Therefore, in the interest of helping people help themselves, I offer the following five core strategies for developing a more satisfying and successful academic career. You can be your own mentor.

Strategy #1

Get a Life: Conceptualize Your Career in the Context of Your Whole Life

First and foremost, this strategy entails accepting responsibility for one’s life choices and for the consequences of those choices. The cumulative effects of our large and small decisions have brought us to whatever point at which we find ourselves. Each person has made choices to pursue or not pursue particular graduate studies, to accept or not to accept employment in a particular location, to live or not to live as a single person, to have or not to have children. Certainly there are circumstances beyond our control, but, even then, we have choices in our attitude and choices in how we respond.

Consider that again: we have choices. This is not a restrictive truth but a liberating one. No one forces us without our own consent to pursue a specific research topic, to teach at a certain university or at any university, to live in a particular location, or to continue in any course of action. If we have gotten off track, we can take steps to get ourselves back on track. If we wish to make changes, we can consider the consequences, assess the likely risks and benefits, and then move forward.

Second, this strategy also entails thinking carefully and intentionally about what is important to us as individuals and then prioritizing our plans for the future. The personal and professional choices and balances that are right for one person may not be right for someone else. Setting professional goals can only be done in the context of one’s own values as to which life elements are immutable and which ones are negotiable. For good or for ill, unforeseen events can disrupt our plans or intervene in our lives, but rather than drift aimlessly and then blame others for our lack of satisfaction and accomplishment, it is much better to envision what we want to do or where we want to be in the short term (in the next year or less), in the long term (10 years or more from now), and in the mid-range (on average, in the next five or so years).

Then, when we conceptualize our general dreams and ambitions within the actual context of our lives, we can articulate our own specific goals, take steps to achieve those goals, and make rational decisions about inevitable trade-offs. When we have balanced and integrated the various aspects of our lives (family responsibilities, friendships, community commitments, teaching duties, research plans, and loyalties to our disciplines and employers, for example), then when bad things happen or when unexpected opportunities arise, we have some basic internal principles that enable us to make constructive choices and to adapt as needed. People with different priorities and different life contexts will make different choices, and that is as it should be. Of course, there are consequences to whatever choices we make, and we have to be prepared to accept those consequences.

Third, this strategy means accepting that there are stages in our personal lives and in our careers and that various stages may require various allocations of time and energy. Differing personal and professional circumstances are not excuses for slacking off or shirking responsibilities but are facts that will, realistically, result in different choices and different kinds of engagement at different times. A person with children in elementary school, for example, may fairly say that he or she cannot serve on a committee that meets every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the exact time in the afternoon when elementary schools are dismissed, but that same person must instead be willing to take on another service responsibility that can be done on another time schedule. A person who is dealing with a terminally ill family member might need to ask colleagues to help cover classes but then must also be willing to do the same for others as a genuine need arises.

By the way, anyone inclined to resent someone else’s choices in caring for a family member, grieving over a death, or simply taking sick leave legitimately needed to restore health should pause to recognize that just about everyone at some point in time will need the grace and good will of one’s colleagues to get through life’s challenges.

Strategy #2

Secure Your Own Mask Before Attempting to Assist Other Passengers

As flight attendants explain at the beginning of every airplane trip, we have to take care of ourselves before we can be in a position to take care of anyone else. Failure to observe this fundamental principle has doomed or derailed many academic careers. We cannot help others until we are reasonably well situated with respect to our own goals.

For example, if a person’s goal is to earn tenure and promotion at a research university, he or she has no business accepting a significant teaching overload, excessive service responsibility, or any but the most minor administrative post until after tenure and promotion. Senior colleagues generally do not respect or reward someone who served as graduate director, regularly agreed to teach extra classes with or without extra pay, or led a dozen committees with or without distinction – even if the colleagues explicitly or implicitly encouraged such behaviors. To the contrary, they will, in private if not in public, scorn bad choices and criticize the junior faculty member for failing to put time and energy into the activities that not only bring about optimum results for tenure and promotion but that also, more importantly, build a sturdy foundation for a scholarly career.

Likewise, we must pick our battles carefully. Some things are worth fighting for, but if a faculty or staff member feels overwhelming and continuous pressure to put key personal and professional goals at risk because of strife, dysfunction, or hostility at work, then it is necessary to calculate whether the consequences of staying outweigh the consequences of leaving. In such a case, unless grievous moral issues are at stake that truly require action, or unless the situation is likely to be of short duration, in which case it might be best to wait out the storm, then a person, especially a junior faculty member, might be well-advised to focus his or her energies into doing what is necessary to secure a better job. This may not be fair, but, honestly, it is the truth.

If at all possible, junior faculty in particular and everyone in general should stay out of turf battles, proxy wars, cliques, and any other efforts designed to draw people into unhealthy dynamics that detract time and energy from one’s essential goals. By our very natures as human beings, we enjoy narrative and drama, but media obsessions with celebrities and high-profile legal cases notwithstanding, we need to mind our own business.

Strategy #3

Do Unto Others as You Would Have Others Do Unto You: Be for Others the Kind of Professor or Colleague You’d Want to Have

Strategies one and two emphasize taking care of ourselves, but that in no way implies that we shouldn’t be good to each other. In following the first two principles, we set our own goals, make our own choices, and refuse to let other people take advantage of us or mistreat us. In following the third strategy, we actually further our own goals by helping to create the kind of work environment and appropriate relationships that will enable us and everyone around us to thrive.

In large and small matters, we need to treat our colleagues and our students with respect and kindness, just as we want to be respected and treated kindly. We shouldn’t say anything to our students or our coworkers that we or our parents would be embarrassed to see attributed to us on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper, and we shouldn’t do anything at work that we or our parents would be embarrassed to see replayed on the local news channel. This is just common sense, but somehow academics (and people in general) can lose sight of the most basic principles of interpersonal behavior that should have been learned in childhood.

Here are some characteristics of faculty who are tending to their own priorities while being a good professor and a good colleague. Their syllabus is clear. Their assignments and exams challenge students intellectually. They teach their classes, hold their office hours, assign their grades, and perform other expected tasks with integrity, competence, and joy without having to be reminded, cajoled, or threatened. They speak, behave, and – alas, it must be said – attend to hygiene and dress in ways that are appropriate for their particular environments and respectful of those around them. They do not say or e-mail anything about a colleague that they wouldn’t say to that colleague’s face. They eschew malicious gossip. They observe the requisite social boundaries between themselves and their colleagues and, especially, their students. They do their share of committee work. In meetings, they express themselves without sarcasm or disdain, and they self-monitor the quantity and quality of their public remarks. They set goals for themselves, and they have the self-discipline to allocate their time accordingly. Busy managing their own professional and personal lives, they politely but firmly decline invitations to hang out with any whining, plotting, bitter, distracting, ill-intended malcontents that may lurk in some corner of campus.

In dealing with colleagues, we might fruitfully apply lessons learned from child-rearing and animal-training. That is, rewarding positive behavior is generally more effective than punishing negative behavior. Craving attention, some people will behave badly just to elicit a response, apparently operating on the belief that bad publicity is preferable to no publicity. Block this impulse by giving at least minimal positive attention to everyone: maintain a pleasant and professional demeanor; smile and greet or at least acknowledge other people passing by on the campus sidewalk or department hallway; congratulate others on their accomplishments; and be generous in interpreting other people’s actions.

Strategy #4

Prepare for the Inevitable

Sometime in life, we’ll probably all get sick, so we carry health insurance. In the event that we live long enough to retire, we save money for the future.

If we stay in a career long enough, there’s bound to be some success and some failure, some happiness and some misery. Along the way, everyone will have a manuscript returned, a grant application rejected, a grade appealed, or some other unhappiness. So, be ready for the inevitable: build a reputation for ethical behavior from day one, have multiple projects in the pipeline, demonstrate essential competence in matters great and small, accept criticism without becoming defensive, make necessary corrections and adaptations, but, above all, keep moving forward.

We can learn from our mistakes at all stages of our careers, and we are all going to make mistakes. Continual self-doubt is nonsense, but people who think they couldn’t possibly be wrong are headed for trouble. While it might be preferable to receive only glowing remarks on our annual reviews and peer evaluations and to have every article accepted and every proposal funded, it is better to hear criticism early on while there is time to make the adjustments that will be needed to earn tenure, improve skills, or get a project moving toward conclusion. The important lesson is not to get stuck when something bad happens.

Likewise, it is inevitable that not everyone else is going to like us. This is a hard lesson, especially for those who have been doted on by their parents or proudly touted by their graduate school professors and who have been conditioned to feel entitled to all kinds of tangible and intangible benefits in life. In fact, people may like or dislike someone else for all kinds of logical or illogical, relevant or irrelevant reasons. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another. And, if someone is truly successful, others may dislike him or her out of jealousy. Still, those who are minding their own business, going about their own work, and treating others as they want to be treated usually discover that the things within their control work out reasonably well.

If someone feels ignored or neglected, then polite, respectful, and low-key inquiries are warranted, sooner rather than later, in order to understand how to calibrate self-adjustments and seek integration into the life of the department. It should go without saying that anyone being subjected to illegal discrimination has the right and perhaps even the moral obligation to seek redress, and each campus will have a handbook or policy manual outlining the processes and procedures for handling such cases.

From day one, it is wise to establish a pattern of professional and polite communication with one’s supervisors and coworkers, especially the department chair but also colleagues across the broadest possible spectrum of campus. Then, if something goes awry, a natural basis exists from which to communicate about and resolve the situation. It is vital to keep everything in perspective and not create mountains out of molehills, but it is also important, especially early in one’s career, to be sensitive to signals other people may be trying to provide.

Strategy # 5

Florida, Florida, Florida: Document, Document, Document

During the 2000 presidential campaign, political analyst Tim Russert famously and accurately predicted that the key factor in the election would be “Florida, Florida, Florida.” Anyone who is talented enough to earn advanced degrees and secure a faculty position should surely have the necessary qualities to do well, but often a key factor in academic success, particularly with regard to tenure and promotion, comes down to one discreet and identifiable factor: documentation. The “Florida, Florida, Florida” mantra of academic mentoring should be “Document, Document, Document.”

Each institution, and, indeed, each department or unit within an institution, may differ in its expectations and emphases. It is important to understand the institution’s mission and to know the rules and procedures within the department, college, and institution. Read the faculty handbook and be familiar with the official policies and procedures. Know the written and unwritten rules. Keep your ears open to discussions about tenure or promotion cases in the years ahead of your own review. Ask to see examples of successful teaching portfolios or tenure dossiers. Take advantage of whatever information sessions or workshops are offered to help newcomers learn the ropes.

Once a person knows what he or she needs to do, then the next step is to document everything related to completing the expectations and requirements of the job. Maintain a folder for every class taught, keeping the syllabus, course information handouts, assignment sheets, tests, and other materials. Preserve clear grade records for every class and be ready to explain and defend, if necessary, every grade assigned. Keep numerical records of and examples of teaching evaluations done by students. For every manuscript, grant application, or work project, keep copies of drafts at each stage, maintain meticulous bibliographic records, and save every letter from an editor, publisher, or agency. Keep conference programs and travel records proving that you attended a particular conference and gave a particular presentation. Keep copies of offprints. Keep letters of appointment and letters of thanks for committee work. Keep copies of the annual report, of a chair’s or review committee’s annual evaluation, and of any peer teaching evaluations. Keep everything, and, ideally, keep it well organized.

At some institutions, a faculty member may be expected to present all such materials for an annual review, probationary review, or tenure review. At other institutions, a person may be expected only to provide a summary of one’s work, but, even in such cases, it is important to have the documentation available should it be requested.

While it is necessary to keep paper records in good order, it is also critical to keep electronic materials well maintained. One’s vita, syllabi, or other professional material should be stored electronically as it exists at a particular point in time, labeled clearly with a date in the title (as in MentorEssay20May09). Then, when the document is updated, it can be stored as a new version with a new date (as in MentorEssay15July09). Especially for long-range projects such as book manuscripts that may take years to complete, keep multiple copies of clearly labeled drafts. Store an extra disk, CD, flash drive, or other portable device with the latest copies of one’s most important materials in a safe deposit box or other secure location. This may sound overly obsessive, but no one wants a flood, fire, hurricane, tornado, computer crash, theft, or other unexpected loss to wipe out months or even years of work.

When it comes to maintaining professional records, it is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Even award-winning teachers have students complain about them. Even eminent scholars may be wrongly accused of misrepresentation. So, build a reputation for competence and integrity while building a record of success – and have the documents to prove everything.

Of course, these five strategies do not cover everything, but they do provide a core set of principles to aid in the pursuit of academic happiness. Colleges that wish to help faculty or staff improve their professional skills and increase their effectiveness would do well to formalize mentoring arrangements so that legends, myths, and misinformation are replaced by facts, information, and honesty, but, with or without such programs, individuals would do well to help themselves with prudent self-mentoring. It is fully possible to have an academic career that is both successful and satisfying.


Mary Jane Hurst is a fellow of the American Council on Education and professor of English at Texas Tech University.


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