Mentoring Madness

In my recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, on the topic of Mid-Career Mentoring, one of the comments cast aspersions on mentors and mentoring. I wanted to follow up on this point here and probe the opinions of blog-readers.

The specific comment includes this statement:

"Mentoring," I learned, is an intense form of the summer camp buddy-system premised on the bizarre assumption that presumably adult persons who freely choose to go into a profession are under no obligation to find out for themselves how things work."


I must admit that there have been times in my life when I have said the word "mentor" (as a verb or noun) in a somewhat disparaging way. It is one of the words that certain colleagues and I use when we are making fun of some aspects of modern academic jargon, of the type we get in memos from administrators; for example, "We are tasked with mentoring the stake-holders to empower them to create deliverables."

And yet, I think mentoring is overall a good thing. I think certain academic citizens have always been mentored, even if we didn't call it that back in days of yore. In particular, those who were part of the system -- the so-called 'good ol' boys' network -- were mentored, whereas those who were not as plugged into this network were not. In the past, and to some extent even today, the unmentored were typically women and minorities in most of the STEM fields.

Academia can be mysterious, even if you try to find out for yourself how things work, and there's nothing wrong with creating a system that tries to demystify this. It may be fine in the abstract to have a sink-or-swim attitude about tenure-track professors, but, aside from the human issues involved, institutions invest a lot in new faculty, particularly in the STEM fields, and it makes sense for us to help our tenure-track colleagues succeed.

I think even those of us who had to walk 7 miles to school in the snow and cold with only old newspapers for shoes and a raw turnip for lunch can appreciate that there were things about the "good old days" that were unnecessarily harsh. Academic careers are still quite challenging, even with all the mentoring going around.

That said, I can still relate a bit to the sentiment that inspired the anti-mentoring comment, especially if it is rephrased as an anti-whining comment, rather than specifically being against mentoring. I think that mentoring has its limits -- both from the point of view of the mentor, however well meaning and engaged in mentoring they may be, and the mentee, some of whom tend to ignore the wise advise of their mentor -- and I have little patience with those who say "but no one told me that I'd have to spend so much time [insert major time-consuming activity]", whether or not they had an official mentor.

For the sake of discussion, perhaps it would help to give some concrete examples of advice a mentor might give a mentee, and then you can see if this constitutes some form of coddling of presumably adult persons who should figure this stuff out for on their own, or something more constructive. In the comments, you can leave other examples to illustrate the use or disuse of mentoring.

Real example 1: Years ago, a tenure-track colleague asked me if they should submit an NSF CAREER proposal that year or the following year. I gave my opinion, but mostly we discussed the pros and cons of each scenario. Back in the last millennium, no one ever told me when (or if) to submit a CAREER proposal; I just did it. That worked out fine for me, but does that mean my "mentoring" conversation with my younger colleague was a "summer camp buddy-system" kind of thing? I think not.

Real example #2: A common question asked by people putting together their lists of potential letter-writers for the tenure evaluation is whether to include their advisor or other people with whom they have worked closely (explanatory note for those who need it: the candidate typically lists some names, and the chair can pick some of those names, but then also asks for letters from people not on the list; in the end, there may be a few letters from colleagues/advisors, but the majority are from "unrelated" people). This is a good question to ask of a more senior colleague or administrator because the answer may vary considerably from place to place, and even within different units of one institution. In some places, there is always a letter from the former PhD advisor and it would look strange if this were missing; in other places, the former advisor is considered too unobjective and is not asked to write a letter. How do you know which is the case? Does the distinction between being mentored and being a rugged individual lie in whether you know to ask about this or whether you are simply told?

So: it's time to confess your true feelings about mentoring and being mentored -- do the 'm' words indicate weakness and lack of personal responsibility, or do they signify progress in humanizing the academic system?


21 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Weakness, clearly. As is the non turnip lunch the youngsters seem to require these days.

  • Adam says:

    Progress. There are so many demands on a young faculty member's time. I don't mind giving advice and I wish I had gotten more clear advice on my academic journey. Things like how the academy works, how funding agencies work, a helpful eye for proposal reading and teaching advice, that sort of thing. I helped write our departments official mentoring program for new faculty, and I was (I believe) instrumental in getting that policy started at the college. I think it is very important.

    That being said, I do agree that the "mentee" needs to have a clue; they shouldn't be able to blame "but I didn't know that I had to do " on lack of mentoring.

  • Anony says:

    I wouldn't have minded having an official mentor, except that these were offered only to female assistant professors and not male assistant professors in my department. I felt that if I said that I wanted a mentor, it would have been a sign of weakness so I declined. My male colleagues were proud that they "didn't need mentoring", but of course they were being mentored all the time, as our senior male colleagues would invite them to coffee or the pub to chat. I bet there was also a lot of mentoring in the men's restroom! (said only partially in jest).

  • Anonymous says:

    My department initiated a very aggressive and elaborate mentoring system to overcome its dysfunctional history of bullying and not tenuring its junior faculty. Unfortunately, many of the potential mentors are not exactly the sort of people you would want as mentors. So, yes, it is a lot like a summer camp buddy system, the kind that results in tearful letters home, eating disorders, and STDs.

    Am I the only one who has seen mentoring go bad?

    • Dr Moose says:

      I don't think I would call it that mentoring; maybe dementoring, dismentoring, antimentoring, unmentoring?

  • AR says:

    I think mentoring is progress. A goal of any organization (including academia) is for its workforce to do better. The quicker people learn, the less time they can waste on figuring out how the system works, or hitting their head against a wall in frustration. That being said, mentoring is not meant to (and cannot, for the most part,) prevent people from making any mistakes. Some mistakes are bound to happen, and mentoring is to help figure out what went wrong.

  • SLAC prof says:

    There are so many models for mentoring and the one on one junior/senior colleague pair seems the most likely to go wrong as indicated by the comments above. Mentoring is important for uncovering "secret knowledge" or the hidden rules of the game-let's please not lie to each other that such things done exist and all of academia works on merit alone. FSP gives one great example of this "secret knowledge" in her description of choosing external evaluators for tenure but there are lots of other examples such as which committees are good choices for service, attitudes about particularly teaching choices etc. Men have always been mentored "unofficially" now the academy is trying to find a fair and open way to make sure that everyone gets access to the same knowledge. Perhaps we just need to investigate better models for how this mentoring might happen.

    • Bashir says:

      "Mentoring is important for uncovering "secret knowledge" or the hidden rules of the game-let's please not lie to each other that such things done exist and all of academia works on merit alone."

      This x 1000.

      Though I agree that having one specific formal mentor is not always the best model. The best way to find out how things work, is to talk to people with more experience than you.

  • Anna says:

    Having a specific mentor is great if it works out, but I think more important is to figure out what you need to do your best. If figuring it out on your own works, that is great, but that does not mean somebody who seeks out advice before acting is weaker. They just know what they need. Now if they need significant hand holding even after that, that could be a problem.

  • Comrade PhysioProf says:

    The reason mentoring is important is because there are lots of things that more junior people don't even know they don't know, and thus can't ask about or find out for themselves. When I was training in a non-science client-service profession, one of the most important things I learned about serving clients is that your job--if you want to be a leader in this profession, and not just mediocre--is not to answer your clients questions or do what they ask you to do, but rather to see the big picture and answer the questions they *should* be asking you and do what they *should* be asking you to do.

    That is what good mentoring is all about, and why mentoring is not just of value to those who are "too lazy" or "too incurious" to "figure things out for themselves".

  • Junior FSP says:

    I wonder how much of this attitude comes from top-down mentoring initiatives that I have yet to see be particularly successful. I understand that these come from the need to make things fair and above board but rarely are the matches professionally or personality appopriate when they are made from on high and forced. I had both a formal mentor and several informal ones. The formal mentor had to fill out paperwork and check boxes and it was all very useless. My unofficial/untitled mentors have been priceless. Have others had better success with formalized mentoring systems?

    • Midcareer FSP says:

      Do you have advice on how to find unofficial/untitled mentors? Many folks who are far from the R1's find themselves very isolated. Unless we make "having mentors" part of the required qualifications for the job, we must somehow address a lack of mentoring once it becomes clear that mentoring is needed.

  • userj says:

    I don't understand the distinction between "finding out how things work" and "asking your mentor how things work" - I mean presumable finding out how things work nearly always entails asking someone else how they work - and asking someone how things work kind of makes them your mentor, no?? Conversations about these topics are the most effective and efficient way to pass on information. The only difference to me seems to be whether you call the person you are asking your mentor or your colleague. I dont' understand this commenter's complaint at all.

  • GMP says:

    Many people, men and women, think that asking questions and voicing doubts or insecurities are signs that you are a weakling and not up to the challenge. As a result, with many such people, asking questions is a good way to forever position yourself as inferior in their eyes. That was my experience with one of my two formally assigned mentors; I did ask a lot of questions of this person and they were helpful, but I see that this person is now unable or unwilling to view me as a peer even though when I am tenured (has a pretty condescending attitude). With the other formally assigned mentor, I never ever asked them anything, as they were a a bit shot who did not seem like they would give a rat's ass about what I did or didn't do, and certainly didn't seem like a person who would forgive someone else's self-doubts.

    I also had a senior woman outside the department assigned to me as a mentor through a women mentoring program. We met a couple of times, but it became pretty clear pretty early on that she had no interest in hearing about the things that were really bothering me at work and I don't think she minded that I stopped seeking her out.

    The best mentoring I have received during my tenure track from my senior collaborators and to a lesser extent from my former PhD advisor. I suppose people have to have a vested interest in your success to invest the time and energy in mentoring you. As Junior FSP said above, when mentoring is forced it's genrally useless. On the other hand, I understand why a formal mechanism is in place -- to ensure everyone gets some chance at mentoring, even those (women, minorities) who would traditionally have a harder time penetrating the old boys circles.

  • KB says:

    I agree with the "summer camp buddies" comment. I have not seen success from formal mentoring programs. I think they are too "forced". A trend I see at my institution is to put more responsibility on the midlevel and senior faculty for helping the junior faculty get tenure. A formal mentoring program is part of this. I hear comments like this from fellow senior faculty, "As department chair, my main job is help junior faculty get tenure" and "It's not his fault that he is not making good progress toward tenure. He has not been mentored well." And I hear comments like this from junior faculty member "But my mentor never told me that I should do this.......".

    On the other hand, I am a huge fan of informal mentoring. I tell my undergrads (but don't need to tell my post-docs) this, "Look around to see who is successful in the field. Note what they are doing to be successful." I think it is important for junior faculty to find their own informal mentors.

    Some things should be left organic. Mentoring seems to be one of them.

  • Alex says:

    The best mentoring I got in my TT job was from having lunch with some of the other junior and mid-career faculty in the department every day. The worst mentoring was from 2 formally-assigned mentors. They were assigned the job as Just Another Service Task, and they were supposed to check a box that they met with me at some point, and they did just that. I've heard similar stories from other people, of both genders, at my school and others.

    Ironically, one of the formally-assigned mentors became a good mentor after the duration of the assigned mentoring period, when he had more spare time and we had more chances to interact informally.

    I'm sure that some place somewhere has a formal mentoring network that actually works out. Such cases are like short-lived excited states of exotic nuclei: Rare and beautiful to observe, but not something that you should base your plans on. Find some people whom you'll enjoy working with and also enjoy having lunch with, and work with them and socialize with them.

  • Anonanon says:

    I agree that the formal one-mentor / one-mentee arrangement rarely works if it is forced. I find it better to have several informal mentors who I can go to with different kinds of question.

  • Extraterrestrial says:

    I have formal mentors that spend the formal mentoring meetings bragging about how they did not need any mentoring. Then they proceed to answer "it is up to you" for any question I have. Finally the meeting is over with the only result that I am pretty depressed and feel that they are only interested in the final outcome of the sink or swim experiment.
    (I am a new FSP in a research-1 institution).

  • hydropsyche says:

    At my institution, all new faculty are assigned a mentor. I'm still in my first year, and the advice of my mentor has been invaluable, even when it is just "I don't think there's an official rule on that" or "nobody seems to know how that works." My mentor and I are exceptionally well matched in terms of background and research interests, and undoubtedly that helps. Based in the stories here, I guess I'm incredibly lucky. I just wanted to add a data pont that sometimes formal mentoring programs do exactly what they are supposed to do.

  • iGrrrl says:

    Some of the best research on mentoring is in the business literature, and the little that I've read agrees with the anecdotal reports here--assigned one-on-one mentoring is rarely effective. In fact, a network of mentors works better, especially for women and minorities. As a new faculty member, a network might consist of a senior person in your department (where you show no weakness), a senior person in a different department (who has no say in your tenure decision), and someone a few years ahead of you (who is willing to tell you what they've really experienced). But these relationships need to be organic, if at all possible, and ideally you might bring something to the relationship. It might be a small or substantive collaboration, either on research or service work. That way you have reasons to talk with each other beyond "must check box that I met with mentee/mentor this semester", and the more 'mentoring' conversations can happen more naturally.

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