Why Mentor Matches Fail

Most mentor matches don't work, argues Kerry Ann Rockquemore, because they are based on a fundamentally flawed and outdated model.

February 3, 2016

Dear Kerry Ann,

I’m in my second year of a tenure-track job in a great department. When I started my position, I was assigned a departmental mentor, and I signed up for a campuswide mentoring program where I was matched with an additional mentor from another department. I’m also a scholar of color, and because there are few senior underrepresented faculty members on my campus, I signed up for a mentoring program with my professional organization, and that resulted in my being matched with an additional mentor at another university.

The end result of these matches is that I’ve had some lovely coffee dates, but that’s about it. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong, but when I look around, I see that my colleagues who started at the same time are receiving opportunities and collaborating with senior faculty in ways that I’m not. I still don’t understand the unwritten rules of how my department works, and I’m not sure how to figure them out. How can I get some real mentoring? Should I ask for another match?


Miss Matched

Dear Miss Matched,

I understand how frustrating it is to know that you need mentoring, sign up for existing mentoring programs, participate in mentor matches and still feel that something is missing. In my experience, mentoring is one of the most misunderstood concepts in faculty development. If you ask 10 different faculty members what mentoring is, how it works, what it looks like and how to tell if it’s effective, you will get 10 different responses ranging from a once-a-year coffee date to a quasi-parental, lifelong relationship.

First and foremost, a failed mentor match doesn’t mean that you are doing something wrong. We work with thousands of faculty members every year, and we hear the same story over and over again. Mentor matches don’t work for most faculty members most of the time (and are even less successful for underrepresented faculty). That is because they are based on a fundamentally flawed and outdated model. Specifically, the idea of mentor matching rests upon the following:

Magical thinking. In the typical mentor match, an organizer hopes that the mentor-mentee pair will set up a structure for their meetings. It’s assumed that the mentee will ask the correct questions to elicit the secret knowledge for success from their designated mentor. If the two people have chemistry, then their match will blossom into a long-term relationship where the guru mentor will meet all of a mentee’s needs.

I call this magical thinking because it imagines mentoring as some indescribably fuzzy experience that cannot be measured, structured or understood. And because the magic ingredient -- chemistry -- relies heavily on subjective factors (whether the mentee displays proper deference, reminds the mentor of his or her younger self, looks like him or her, and/or is likable), the results vary widely, with some new faculty members getting their needs met and others getting a cup of coffee and generic advice.

Unlimited time and energy. Let’s face it: mentoring is time-intensive, invisible and unrewarded labor. And while senior faculty members who agree to serve as mentors are well intentioned, they are also human beings who already have enormous pressures on their time, both personally and professionally. If they had unlimited time and energy, they could be highly invested in the success of their mentees. But when people are faced with finite time and limited energy, tasks that involve invisible and unrewarded labor have a way of falling to the bottom of priority lists. The result is that, over time, coffee dates get rescheduled, conversations get rushed, needs go unmet and matched relationships dissolve into disengagement.

Anecdotes do not equal professional development. While I appreciate the individual stories that mentors and mentees share, such stories are not a sufficient substitute for high-quality professional-development training. No matter how freely a senior mentor shares their personal experience, most new faculty members need a wide-ranging support system to make a rapid and successful transition from graduate student to independent scholar.

I’m not pointing out these flaws in the typical mentor match process to be discouraging. Instead, I want you to know that if your needs aren’t being met by your mentor matches, that’s perfectly normal, and you aren’t alone. They don’t work most of the time, so rather than continuing to try and make this old model work, why not fundamentally rethink it by asking yourself a few important questions? They include:

Who is responsible for your success?

While it may seem counterintuitive, one of the most important and difficult shifts in thinking about mentoring is moving from the guru-mentor model that predominates in graduate education to a network-mentor model that will serve you well as a professor. I know it can be hard to hear, but you are responsible for your success. So instead of being dependent on a mentor (or two) to meet all of your needs, why not get in the driver’s seat and create a broad and diverse network of mentors, regularly identify your needs, and ask for what you need when you need it? It’s a big shift, but if you have a large number of people whom you can call on for specific requests, you’ll find yourself getting the same types of information, resources and opportunities that you’ve seen your colleagues receive.

What do you need?

The typical new faculty member has a wide and predictable set of needs, including: 1) professional development (how to do things), 2) emotional support, 3) intellectual community, 4) role models, 5) a safe space, 6) accountability, 7) sponsorship, 8) access to opportunities and 9) substantive feedback on the areas of your work where you will be evaluated for tenure and promotion. That’s a long list, and that means that one person (or even three people) will not be able to meet this wide range of needs.

Again, I recommend that you let go of the individual mentor model and embrace the idea of building a network of support (we call this a Mentor Map). I want to challenge you this week to ask yourself: What do I require to be successful? Where am I stuck? And what information, resources or connections will help me get what I want and achieve the success I deserve?

Who is the best person to meet your specific needs?

Once you know what you need, find someone who already has it. For example, if you want to apply for a National Science Foundation grant and don’t know where to start, look around your department to see who has recently won such a grant and ask him for a short conversation. If you want to publish your first book with a specific publisher, seek out someone who has published with that press recently and ask that person for a targeted conversation. And if you need help with a relational matter like how to respond to microaggressions on your campus, identify someone who has experienced them and is excellent with conflict and ask her where she learned her skills.

No matter what you need, there are people who already have it who can get you started along the path to getting it. And it doesn’t matter one bit if they are formally designated as a mentor -- it only matters that they have what you need.

Ultimately, mentor matches are a great start for creating a mentoring network, but they will inevitably fail if you imagine them as an end when it comes to the fulfilling your needs, particularly as an underrepresented faculty member. I encourage you to put yourself at the center of your mentoring network, to develop a weekly habit of thinking about your specific needs and to start asking a strategically larger group of people for the help that you require to move forward.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity


Back to Top