What Do the Best Mentors Do?

Joya Misra and Jennifer Lundquist asked faculty members from different disciplines whom colleagues and students had identified as excellent mentors to share their lessons with others in academe.

August 24, 2017
 
iStock/Monkeybusinessimages
 

Mentoring matters. As we have written in previous columns, students and faculty members are much more likely to succeed in academic contexts when they receive good mentoring. Yet, because mentoring is rarely taught or recognized, it can be difficult to learn how to mentor effectively.

For this column, we interviewed faculty members from different disciplines whom colleagues and students identified as excellent mentors. The practices of these highly regarded mentors shed some light on the qualities of effective mentoring.

Intergenerational Transmission of Mentoring

When we asked faculty mentors to reflect on how they themselves had been mentored, only some pointed to the influence of their own undergraduate or graduate mentors. But in those cases, these mentors often have remained important in the faculty members’ lives.

One senior faculty member revered his undergraduate and graduate mentors, saying, “A lot of the things I’m describing to you are echoes of my own life as a student. I wouldn’t be who I am without that.” A less senior faculty member noted with surprise that her dissertation committee has been “even more attentive” as she publishes her first book than they were when she was completing the dissertation.

Many faculty mentors did not necessarily have good mentors themselves. In fact, one described their high-prestige advisers as giving “15 minutes, once a year,” while another said they were “raised by wolves.” Many developed peer mentoring networks instead, some of which continue to operate. Checking in regularly with peers navigating similar career tracks can be large source of support.

Thus, excellent mentors develop their mentoring strategies both in imitation of their own positive mentoring models and in reaction to more negative experiences.

Recognition of the Whole Person

Although the guru model of mentoring implies that mentors must be fountains of wise advice, one of the most important characteristics of good mentors is listening. While none of the mentors subscribe to a one-size-fits-all prescription to mentoring, all agree that listening to mentees allows them to develop strategies specific to the person’s current needs.

Many of the faculty mentors also reflect on the importance of recognizing students as whole people with personal lives that impact their academic work. One mentor recounts, “You attend to their intellectual development, but also be aware of their emotional and personal and family stresses that impact that intellectual job that we're supposed to do. The idea that students just bring in a big brain, surrounded by nothing -- it doesn't work that way.”

Another similarly argues, “People die, people get pregnant, you get married, go through divorces. It’s OK to say, ‘I’m not juggling it well’ and … let people know so we can figure out how to best help you. I think that’s half the battle, because a lot of people think that you can handle everything.”

Rather than merely addressing mentees’ intellectual work, the most effective mentors, then, recognize the whole person and help students navigate challenging times. Some further note that this broader connection creates a relationship that is valuable and meaningful to both the mentor and mentee.

Recognizing the whole person also reflects on shared backgrounds between the mentor and mentee, which may include racial and ethnic heritage, first-generation status, gender, nationality, or other factors. Some faculty mentors from underrepresented groups note that they felt “kind of lost” when they entered academe, and when faculty members or senior students reached out, it had enormous impact. Yet, for underrepresented faculty members, this can also lead to a heavy mentoring load, because they know how difficult it may be for mentees to find other mentors who understand their experiences.

Part of recognizing mentees as whole people may also mean portraying themselves as a whole person to mentees, for example: “I share a lot of my own personal experience and I feel like that’s one of the places that I often begin, is sort of sharing a little bit about how I did it and what I experienced and what worked for me.”

Another person who engages in substantial informal mentoring notes that he tries to model the enjoyment he gets out of being an academic: “I think it’s important to communicate and get people to become involved in the joy of being an academic, the joy of being an intellectual … It’s just understanding we’re somehow getting them to participate in that, the intellectual life, which I find really very rewarding.”

In summary, great mentors listen first and foremost. In so doing, they come to see their mentees as whole people, rather than as “a big brain,” tending both to their mentees’ personal and professional well-being, and sharing their own experiences.

Regular Contact

Strong mentors are often in consistent contact with the mentees, although frequency differs as “people need different things at different times.” As one describes, “I’m not going to let them just go away for months at a time and not have any contact with me. Some people work better with frequent interchanges, while some people work better if they can get a whole chapter together and really don’t want to show it to me until they’ve done that. If I see that’s working for them, that’s fine.”

Yet most successful mentors suggest that contact makes an enormous difference to seeing mentees meet goals in a timely way. As one mentor explains, “Some people I meet with every week, some people I meet with every other week, but my minimum is that you have to check in with me once a month.” Another described that, although meetings vary in frequency and timing, “when people are really in the thick of preparing for comps or they’re in the final stage of producing their thesis, it wouldn’t be unusual to meet once a week.”

In such meetings, faculty mentors check in to help mentees set timelines and schedules that are sensitive to the reality of the mentee’s life. Meeting with students regularly also allows mentors to convey “very, very clear expectations,” which helps ensure mentees make consistent progress.

A number of mentors hold weekly or biweekly meetings with groups of students as a way to mentor multiple students efficiently, while also facilitating peer mentoring networks. As one notes, “I encourage people to talk to their seniors, their peers … I learned [my skills] in the lab from other students … If you’re using a particular software [and] you’re running into problems, somebody maybe is using it and has solved the problem you have. There’s no point in going and banging your head against the wall and trying to do it by yourself.”

One mentor describes using technology to keep on track with students. For example, YouCanBookMe allows students to set up appointments, Trello allows the mentor to track conversations with mentees and Harvest Time Tracking allows her to track how much time she gives to mentoring activities each week.

In summary, while the best mentors use a range of approaches to maintaining contact with students, almost all emphasize the importance of being in regular touch.

Feedback

Best-practice mentors also give students regular and constructive feedback. Most of the mentors attempt to provide feedback within a week or two of receiving a mentee’s draft. Other career pressures mean that they cannot always provide immediate feedback, but they strive to respond promptly. Some suggest scheduling meetings to ensure that they read material by a certain date and can then give feedback at the meeting. One explains “I’m happy for them to send me stuff, but if they really actually want to get feedback, they probably have to make an appointment, because deadlines are all of our friends, right?”

In fact, many identified slow feedback to mentees as one of the worst things mentors can do, for example: “It’s not as if it’s big news to people if you don’t respond to written work for six months … it’s going to take longer for them, and they’re not going to do so well.” Most best-practices mentors note that they are frustrated by their colleagues’ lack of accountability around mentoring.

Type of feedback also matters. Research projects often change, but it is important to maintain connections so that mentees do not drift. Rather than written materials, feedback may relate to the ideas that are beginning to come together or shifts in the way the student is thinking.

Another issue is in how faculty mentors provide feedback. Some note the importance of encouraging mentees, making constructive comments and not being so frank that the student gives up. As one said, vicious critiques can lead to “crippling fear,” but good, probing comments make work better.

In summary, the best mentors respond in a timely, useful way, even as they find it challenging to find the time to provide quality feedback.

Challenges

Many mentors note that having a reputation for good mentorship can lead to having too many mentees and feeling “eaten alive” by their mentoring commitments, including from students and colleagues outside their own university. These mentors emphasize the importance of setting limits on the number of mentees, and time devoted to mentoring. As one argues, “I think we have to be realistic about how many students we can really attend to. If we’re going to do a good job for them, it’s not as many as the administration thinks we can attend to.”

Most of the mentors we spoke with wish they had fewer mentees so that they could give each more time. They describe the challenge of wanting to offload mentees but needing to ensure that they receive caring, consistent mentorship. When mentees need a skill set that the mentors themselves do not have, good mentors describe encouraging mentees to find other mentors or build broader mentoring networks.

Mentors also note that, at times, it can be frustrating to provide uncredited informal mentoring. As one woman of color says, “Unfortunately, [students] also gravitate towards white men, and they feel that’s going to be their ticket to success.” She later notes, “I’m asked to read stuff, but I don’t get credit.” Mentors, therefore, sometimes provide feedback necessary for intellectual growth but find their mentorship unrecognized.

Despite such challenges, the best mentors recognize that they learn a great deal from their mentees and that these relationships matter. Rather than only feeling like mentorship is a drain on their energy and time, effective mentors also see it as “nourishing,” “meaningful” and, for some, the best part of their job.

Over all, the interviews show that good mentors see mentees as whole people with lives outside of work, they maintain regular contact and they provide mentees with useful feedback at different career stages. At the same time, mentoring well can be time-consuming and challenging.

Individual mentoring approaches should be buttressed by institutional supports -- such as recognition and resources, clear guidelines, training programs, and professional development -- as we previously described. When these structural mechanisms are in place, mentoring relationships can become empowering and enriching for both mentee and mentor.

Bio

Joya Misra is professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Jennifer Lundquist is associate dean of research and faculty development and a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top