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Dear Kerry Ann,

I just read your article on mentoring, as I have been feverishly searching the Internet for help. I am in my first year of a two-year postdoc, and I have been assigned two mentors. One is internal to my department, and the other is an external mentor. The internal one will help when I ask but otherwise leaves me alone. However, the external mentor is doing too much in an uncomfortable way.

All the postdocs have to meet as a group at her house once a month, and I have to meet individually with her once a month. The problem is that there is no chemistry between us as mentor/mentee, and she keeps trying to mentor me in areas where I’m not looking for help. It’s uncomfortably awkward and there are so many scheduled interactions. I already have tried-and-true mentors in other states whom I have chosen, and they are helping me. What can I do with forced mentoring that is more awkward than helpful? Is there a graceful way to opt out?


Stuck With an Awkward Mentor

Dear Stuck,

I appreciate your bringing up the delicate issue of mentor matches gone wrong. It seems that every campus I visit, the answer to a lack of mentoring for pretenure faculty is to start a mentor-matching program and then hope there’s chemistry. This sounds like a great idea, but when left to their own devices, faculty members tend to go one of two ways: 1) they do nothing and wait until their mentee asks for help, or 2) they set up an overly structured mentoring schedule. In your case, it sounds like you have mentors at the two ends of the spectrum.

I’m not a fan of mentor matches for a number of reasons:

That said, I think these matches can be valuable if you know how to make the best use of them. Allow me to offer three questions that can help you to shift the dynamic of your current awkward mentoring relationship and maximize such relationships in the future.

What Do You Need?

I believe in having a broad network of mentors that meet different needs. As a postdoc you are likely to have a wide range of needs, including (but not limited to) professional development, emotional support, intellectual community, safe space, role models, accountability, access to opportunities, sponsorship and substantive feedback on your manuscripts. You’re in a delicate transitional moment, and your goal needs to be getting as much work done as possible so you can strengthen your position on the job market this time next year.

Given that it’s perfectly normal for someone at your current stage to have a wide range of needs, the bigger question is who is currently meeting them for you? If you have trouble visualizing your own mentoring network, I recommend you spend a few minutes filling out a Mentor Map to get a picture of your network’s current state, identify where you have holes and clarify where you may need to build capacity during your two-year postdoc fellowship.

Where Do Your Needs Meet Your Mentor’s Strengths?

Once you’ve mapped out your mentoring needs, you should then step back and try to determine any overlap between your needs and the strengths of your awkward mentor. It sounds like she is trying to offer you emotional support and a safe space. What’s awkward is that, for a wide range of reasons, you don’t want her to fulfill those particular needs in your mentoring network.

However, you may have other unmet needs. For example, you may want some substantive feedback on a manuscript in progress. Or maybe you have to figure out how to access opportunities on your new campus. Or maybe you want to pursue some specific professional development (like how to teach an effective upper-level seminar for undergraduate majors). Does your awkward mentor have particular expertise in any of these areas?

Personally, I consider it a gift whenever someone is willing to mentor me, no matter how odd, awkward or uncomfortable the interaction. I recognize that all senior faculty members have enormous pressures on their time, so if they want to give some of their time to you, that’s an incredible gift. That said, you can (and should) shape the interactions by being prepared, knowing what area you want to focus time on and driving the interactions to meet your needs.

What Can You Do to Target Your Conversations?

In all fairness to your awkward mentor, I appreciate her effort to be highly efficient in her mentoring by bringing together a group of mentees for a collective conversation. But it’s time for you to start exerting some agency in those interactions. Once you know where your areas of need overlap with your mentor’s strengths, then you can start shaping what happens in these group mentoring sessions.

For example, you could:

  • Suggest a theme for the conversation each month that overlaps with an area in which you genuinely need help.
  • Send four or five highly specific questions to the group before your next meeting for discussion.
  • Send a quick, three- to five-page article (such as an advice column or essay) on a topic you want to discuss to the group beforehand.
  • Kick off the meeting with a specific topic and charge the group directly by asking for brainstorming, advice, resources, contacts or information. Just say, “I have a specific question about ____________ and I’m wondering if we could spend 10 minutes _______________.”

Similarly, you can have an open and honest conversation with your awkward mentor about how to shift your one-on-one time in a way that would be most useful to you. Why not ask her to evaluate one of your manuscripts, review your Mentor Map together or brainstorm with you about how to fill the holes in your mentoring network?

These examples are intended to illustrate the point that the more specific you can be in setting up the conversation, the more likely your needs will be met. And if you select things that your mentor specializes in, then she will also feel like her time is being well spent.

Ultimately, I recommend not opting out of structured mentoring relationships but rather directly pursuing the help you need through them. Why not ask yourself, “What do I need, and how can my matched mentor best support me?” If you are clear, you can shift this mentoring relationship from awkward to awesome. Anyone who is willing to spend this much time with you is heavily invested in your success. So why not focus and maximize your time together in a way that is mutually beneficial?

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

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