Mentoring Matters

Apr 5, 2021

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

By Alison Staudinger, Director of Faculty Development & Career Advancement, and Heather Martin, Faculty Fellow for Mentoring Initiatives

Most academics have a mentoring horror story; the graduate advisor who made you pick up their dry cleaning while ignoring your dissertation drafts; the lack of role models who have encountered the same embodied or identity-based challenges as you; the senior colleague who offers advice that seems designed to sabotage your progress. Graduate school doesn’t often prepare us to be good mentors, or to seek out mentorship that fits our needs. The University of Denver is addressing this issue, thanks to the leadership of our MOARS symposium implementation colleagues as well as efforts in academic units.  At her February 22 workshop on “Creating and Sustaining Your Mentoring Network”, part of the Sustainable Strategies series, Brandy Simula offered some tips for developing a mentoring network. The “Mentoring Across Rank and Series” (MOARS) committees have developed frameworks to help shape mentoring at DU. There are also great resources available through NCFDD, such as the “Cultivating your network virtually”  and “Mentoring Pre-Tenure Faculty.”  To support this work, we’re launching this “Mentoring Matters” mini-series in our newsletter. It will explore best practices for inclusive academic mentoring–with a new topic each month. For April, we’ll focus on the question of fit between mentor and mentee.  

In formal mentoring programs such as those aimed at supporting new faculty members, mentors are sometimes randomly assigned, with the assumption that any experienced person can help socialize and guide a new faculty member. However, research suggests that mentoring is more effective if both people have input on the match (Eby & Allen 2006). 

Here are some ideas for improving the fit between mentors and mentees:

  • If you are a Dean, Chair, Director, or other unit leader, consider developing a formal mentoring program if you don’t already have one. Academia’s “laissez-faire approach to mentoring” can be problematic because “the newcomers least likely to find spontaneous support like mentoring are women and minorities” (Boice & Boyer 1998). Developing mentoring networks and rewarding good mentoring “plays a crucial role in ensuring that no one falls through the cracks, uncertain how to strategize and move their careers forward “ (Misra, Kanelee, & Mickey 2021). At DU, CAHSS & GSSW, led by Associate Deans Ingrid Tague and Jenn Bellamy respectively. have been innovators in this area. If you are interested in hearing more about their models, contact them by email. They are happy to share resources.
  • To match potential mentors and mentees, consider using a worksheet or conversation about goals, values, interests, or availability/style. Or hold a “speed-dating” event where potential mentors and mentees can socialize and identify potential good fits based on structured discussions in small groups (Cook, Bahn, & Menaker 2010).  
  • Recognize informal mentoring relationships in merit and other reviews. Informal mentoring often occurs when a junior faculty member seeks a mentor who has experienced similar challenges, such as women in STEM or first-generation faculty members. These relationships are likely to be durable, but may not always be credited in workload, with deleterious effects for faculty of color or other taxed identity groups.  
  • If you are seeking a mentor or offered a mentor, reflect on and ask for a mentor that meets your needs. Are you looking for guidance to institutional culture? Do you want to grow in a particular area— like research productivity, teaching and learning— or need to think through a particular challenge–like parenting, controversial topics in the classroom, or departmental politics? How often do you want to meet with your mentor and in what context? It is helpful to all parties if mentoring goals and expectations are clarified from the start. 
  • If you are designing a formal program, offer mentors to junior faculty both in their own program and outside it, since, while those in the program can provide an understanding of context, expectations, and history, they are also likely to evaluate the mentee for promotion and merit. Thinking of mentoring as the opportunity to build a network of different sorts of mentors, rather than a static, 1-1 relationship with a single senior colleague, helps alleviate some pressure from existing hierarchies. Mentoring networks will change throughout a faculty member’s career, and should contain a variety of types of supports. See the framework from the MOARS TPF Committee for some ideas for mentoring networks:  
  • Don’t assume mentoring is just for new faculty members. Many in mid-career would benefit from support in determining their next steps. DU senior and even retired faculty are available to serve in this capacity. (Attend our TBD June event on Academic Identity in Retirement to connect with some of them!)  
  • Although commonalities between mentors and mentees can help a relationship work, be wary of the “cloning model” where senior faculty members seek out and support junior ones who reflect their own sense of academic identity. (See Blackburn, Chapman, & Cameron 1981 for the initial development of this idea and Crawford and Smith for a recent exploration of its implications for Black women faculty.) 
  • Build in offramps where it is fine for mentor or mentee to express “this isn’t serving me right now” or otherwise reconfigure the relationship. (More on getting off on the right foot in a mentoring relationship in a future newsletter!)

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