Mentoring Matters

May 27, 2021

By Alison Staudinger, Director of Faculty Development & Career Advancement, Office of the Vice Provost of Faculty Affairs

While mentoring is often thought of as a one-on-one relationship between a senior and junior partner, contemporary research on mentoring suggests that successful academics and writers cultivate a network of mentors who fulfill different roles. (For more on mentoring networks, check out Brandy Simula’s workshop, “Creating and Sustaining a Mentoring Network,” Kerry Ann Rockquomore’s “A New Model of Mentoring” in Inside Higher Ed, or NCFDD’s “Cultivating Your Network of Mentors, Sponsors, & Collaborators.”) Recognizing that different mentors, including peers, can fulfill different roles can help you receive the best support, and also helps moderate the workload for your mentors. But it can still be difficult to ask someone to serve as a mentor, or to shape that mentoring relationship once it commences.

  • Many faculty have anxieties that prevent them from asking for mentorship, such as the fear of rejection, self-doubt about their work or worth, and concerns about “taking up other’s time.” Take some of your own time to work through the limiting beliefs that are preventing you from reaching out to potential mentors. How would you counsel a colleague who expressed them to you? What would the actual harm or cost of rejection be? How would you respond to a request for mentorship from a colleague? What is the role of networks and conversation in your vision of the academy, and how does mentoring fit into it? This library ebook, Global Co-Mentoring Networks in Higher Education: Politics, Policies, and Practices, edited by B. Gloria Guzmán Johannessen, offers chapters with practical suggestions for building inclusive and supportive mentoring networks.
  • Another way to manage concerns about requesting emotional labor from others is to make the “ask” very specific. Do you need a monthly check-in on your self-care? Quarterly conversation about career goals? Do you need someone to read your work? If so, how much? And when? Do you need an on-call person to help you navigate or understand departmental politics? Asking for a specific type of mentorship with specific goals can help potential mentors weigh their availability. You might also ask them to recommend other resources that would help you meet the same needs. Many mentors are eager to share what their current selves might share with their past selves, as in this article from Michelle Salazar Perez and Penny A. Pasque: “Challenging the Neoliberal Climate in Academia from Mentoring Perspectives: Critical Reflections From Our Future Selves.”
  • Even if you have a mentoring match made by the University or your College, start with clear mutual expectations. How and when do you want to meet or communicate? At what point do you want to reassess the relationship to make sure it is still working for both parties? How confidential is the mentoring conversation? How will you deal with conflict if it arises?
  • Commit to the mentoring relationship, both by showing up for planned meetings and resisting additional requests for time or support unless they initiate. Thank your mentor, both in person, and perhaps by including them in your written acknowledgments or public remarks. Offer to contribute, if applicable, to their tenure, promotion, or merit file to acknowledge their work as a mentor. Advocate for support for mentors more broadly at your institution, unit, or college. (See this 2019 Report from the National Academies on The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM for more ideas on supporting diverse faculty.)
  • We know that at predominantly white institutions, like DU, faculty of color, especially women faculty of color, are more likely to have heavier mentoring burdens. If you are seeking a mentor who is minoritized in their field, perhaps because they understand your embodied experience, pay particular attention to workload issues. Consider whether you could join an affinity group, connect with peers, or lean on the rest of your mentoring network for some types of questions. It is also essential for members of dominant groups who fulfill mentoring functions to learn more about the experiences of non-white and other minoritized faculty, so that they can understand how intersectional identities shape the experience of faculty members in the academy. While they cannot speak to the lived experiences of particular groups, cross-identity mentoring that is inclusive and justice-oriented is essential for transforming the Academy. (Please see the library ebook Modeling Mentoring Across Race/Ethnicity and Gender: Practices to Cultivate the Next Generation of Diverse Faculty for more ideas.)