Making a Mentorship Work

Determining your needs, choosing the right person and setting realistic goals are the keys to success, according to Susan L. Phillips and Susan T. Dennison.

October 9, 2015
 

Many new faculty members wonder if getting a mentor to help them get started and advance in academe is a good idea. If you are one of them, and you are considering a mentoring relationship, you may be asking yourself if it will be worth the time and effort. Perhaps you are concerned that if you ask for mentoring, you will be seen as needy or incompetent.

In our experience, the new faculty members who pursue mentoring are very successful people who never miss an opportunity to improve their careers. If you search online for “tips for new faculty,” every article or list will include mentoring. You will find that a good mentoring relationship can support you in clarifying your needs and help you strategize ways to meet your goals.

Regardless of how successful you have been through your doctoral program, postdoctorate or other interim employment, you will find that university life is very different. The academic life often puts us alone in our classrooms, offices and labs, so many new faculty members feel a sense of isolation on campus. New faculty typically feel swamped with teaching responsibilities and find themselves facing the constant new deadlines of classes and exams, leaving little time for writing up their research.

The other stressor many new faculty members experience is the impostor syndrome, the sneaking dread that you aren’t really ready for this and that someone will find out. This feeling is common to most people starting something new and momentous. Don’t worry; it will go away.

It might be helpful here to list the characteristics of quick starters:

  • They get connected across campus.
  • Their work habits reflect goals.
  • They write three or more times per week.
  • They strategically plan service commitments.
  • They seek multiple mentors.

As a new faculty member, you will have some typical needs during your first year or two that reflect the issues that we've raised here. You need to make connections both within and outside your department. Although you can think of several work-related reasons for this, a sense of collegiality and community is essential to a successful and happy career. You will have so many new responsibilities that it will be helpful to have someone who has been where you are to help you prioritize them and develop the time-management skills to keep you productive rather than panicked. A mentor can help you determine the right balance of time spent on teaching and research for your department and institution. Last, but by no means least, a mentor can give you permission to take care of yourself and maintain the work-life balance that prevents burnout.

Selecting a Mentor

In choosing a mentor, you need to consider your personality and communication style. We find that both mentors and mentees come in two varieties: either they want their meetings to be all business and strictly focused on the path to tenure, or they appreciate spending some of the time on relaxed conversation and life balance issues. Do you want someone who is the same as or the opposite of who you are? If you tend to let things slide, you may want someone who will keep the pressure on. If you work until you drop, you might benefit from someone who will tell you to take care of yourself.

There are benefits to having different mentors as you progress toward tenure. A five- to six-year relationship can get stale, and it is a large commitment to ask of someone. If your department is large enough, having one mentor for your first year, then another to take you up to reappointment and a third to take you the rest of the way to tenure allows you to discuss your research with at least three senior faculty members in your department.

It will be helpful to have people on your tenure committee who have had the time to talk with you and understand your research. If it is a large department, you might want to have a different person each year (although that may make a good fit with each person less likely). You might find it helpful to get different points of view on your work, and it is good to know what expectations each senior faculty member has for your tenure dossier.

You will also benefit from having a mentor outside your department. If your university has a campuswide mentoring program, you can find an outside mentor through that program. If not, ask your department head to help you find someone. It is important that you have someone outside the department with whom to talk. There is no way around the fact that the mentor in your department will be voting on your tenure someday, and you may not wish to share all of your concerns with that person.

In each case, it would be helpful to have the opportunity to talk briefly with a potential mentor to see if he or she is a good fit for you. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation; for our universitywide mentoring program, we use a five-minute speed-meet event. So, prepare an elevator talk about yourself that includes questions about potential mentors and use it when you meet colleagues in or outside your department. Then file away potentially good matches for future consideration. Another possibility is to ask a potential next mentor for advice on a particular matter and see how it goes.

What to Expect

Initially you will want to get to know your mentor. What are his or her areas of expertise in teaching? In research? What are your mentor’s outside interests? If you are young and juggling the responsibilities of work and a family, has your mentor been through that experience?

At your first meeting with your mentor, you will also want to set expectations on both sides. It is important to establish the boundaries of the relationship within which you will both feel comfortable. Here are some questions you will want to ask:

  • How often will you meet?
  • How long will the meetings be?
  • Will you have email contact between meetings?
  • Can you ask advice for a spur-of-the-moment concern?
  • Can you attend university events together?

The second order of business will be a needs assessment. It is a good idea to do this with each new mentor because your needs will change, and each mentor may be able to help you address different needs. You will be the driving force behind what you and your mentor choose to talk about, but ask your mentor to question you as well; he or she may be aware of issues that are not on your radar.

One good use you can make of each mentor is to have him or her hold you accountable to accomplish something between meetings and ask you about it. That will be particularly useful regarding your writing, since teaching and departmental responsibilities have regular deadlines, and it is easy to put off writing time. Writing is part of your job description and should be scheduled just like class time.

We recommend coffee meetings for 90 minutes. Lunch and dinner meetings require too much time spent eating and ordering food. If this is your first year as a professor, and you have a mentor in your department, you might want to meet every couple of weeks for the first month or so. After that, monthly meetings should be adequate for the first year. You might also attend university events together; this will be helpful as you will not feel so isolated and your mentor can introduce you to people.

It is also good to observe your mentor teaching and have your mentor provide a formative assessment of your teaching (rather than a summative assessment, which involves judging the quality of your teaching for your department head). If such summative assessments are part of your departmental mentor’s duties, then ask for several formative assessments, so your mentor can write a summative assessment that includes growth during the year.

You will probably find that, as the year goes on, you need to meet with your mentor less. In our experience, that is a natural progression and serves as an indicator that soon you will move on to a new mentor.

Ask your current mentor for advice on this; discuss the possibilities in terms of your current and expected needs. As your formal relationship ends, ask whether you can contact him or her in the future or meet for coffee once a year. Regular meetings can keep a former mentor who will vote on your tenure up-to-date with developments in your work.

Assessing Your Mentoring Experience

You should take the time to assess how your mentoring experience went at the end of each formalized relationship. The person who set up the program, whether it is universitywide or departmental, will need to know what worked and what did not. Providing feedback to him or her helps to improve the program in the future. If it is within your department, then it will also improve your continuing program.

You probably will want to do some kind of informal assessment at least midway through your year in a mentoring relationship. What is going well that you want to continue? What is proving to be less than helpful that you’d like to stop? What is missing that you need to start addressing? Take a look at the goals you set for yourself. Is the experience meeting your expectations? Were your expectations realistic? Taking careful stock of the experience at the end of each year will help you choose your next mentor and plan what you want to get out of your next mentoring experience.

Finally, show gratitude to your mentor. If your mentor gives you some advice that turns out to be just what you needed, then tell him or her so and say thank you. You will probably find that you can help your mentor in ways as well, so that the relationship is reciprocal. That is the ideal mentoring relationship.

Bio

Susan L. Phillips is an associate professor of audiology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and developed the university's new faculty mentoring program. Susan T. Dennison is an associate professor in the department of social work at UNCG and a trainer in the mentoring program.

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