Mentoring Junior Faculty

I know, I know- at least two weeks without a blog post worth reading- and now two in one day- although I am not presuming that you will find these two worth reading. What can I say- when it rains it pours sometimes.

I’ve been thinking about mentoring of junior faculty- this has been in the back of my mind for about a year, and started a slow boil in the last month since my third year review. Perhaps my thinking about this topic has also been crystallized by the fact that a close friend who didn’t get tenure left this institution very recently. Some of the reasons for tenure denial were reasonable, some were gray, and some were just inexplicable. I had a front row seat to this and it was extremely difficult- I’m sure some of you have also had this experience. I can’t help thinking that a department should be 100% behind the faculty that they hire. Signs of weakness shouldn’t be used to identify who can be easily killed off- they should be corrected by effective teaching and mentoring early on. Departments are making big-ass (DrMrA says I should stop cursing) investments in junior faculty- and it is, in my humble opinion, partly a reflection on the department when one of ‘theirs’ doesn’t get tenure. I’m not taking responsibility off the junior faculty members- but I don’t think that they should be considered in isolation.

So, mentoring junior faculty. What does this consist of, what SHOULD this consist of? A couple of days ago there was a post over at Drugmonkey and some of the commenters (notably Odyssey and Whimple) to the post got into it over a couple of cases where faculty didn’t get tenure, the reasons, and the cost for this.

First- this from Whimple (comment #15 )… his thoughts on the two who didn’t get tenure in Odyssey’s dept..:

Also clear cut is that your department was shortsighted and mismanaged. You paid about $2M for those two new faculty members, invested five years of effort with attendant grad students and staff, and then threw up your hands and bailed when it didn’t all just magically work out. Some effective new faculty mentoring could have made a dramatic positive difference for both them, and your department.

Yeah- that’s all very nice and I get it, but WILL SOMEONE PLEASE DEFINE ‘EFFECTIVE’ new faculty mentoring… I’m not sure I know the components of this- and as junior faculty I’m probably not alone. Seems to me that in many places junior faculty mentoring consists of being told to: 1. get grants, and 2. publish, and basically leaving them alone to work this out. Furthermore, giving these instructions kinda seems like telling junior faculty what they ALREADY KNOW. So, I’m asking you- what is real, bona fide ‘effective’ new faculty mentoring??

Odyssey provided quite a thorough description of how junior faculty are mentored in his department. (comment #23):

All junior faculty members in my department are assigned two faculty mentors. This responsibility is taken very seriously and mentors tend to meet with their mentees at the very least quarterly. Usually more often. The chair of the department holds progress meetings with each junior faculty member twice a year. In addition, most of the faculty will voluntarily act as unofficial mentors and offer to read proposals and manuscripts.

Junior faculty are evaluated by the tenured faculty every year. They are given extensive feedback after each evaluation. The evaluations at years 2 and 4 are mandated by the University. We do additional ones in years 1, 3 and 5. The last is just prior to tenure. We do these because we think the extra feedback is valuable.

This seems like a reasonable way to go about things. But again- I say- if the ‘mentoring’ consists of 1. get grants, and 2. publish… then mentoring ‘committees’ are masters at stating the obvious. In places I’m familiar with, formal junior faculty mentoring consists of 1. assigning a mentor (these may or may not be helpful and very much depend on the skills of the mentor), 2. an annual review sometimes by a panel of faculty, sometimes by the chair and usually after the faculty member has turned in some sort of summary of their important events of the last year (grants, papers, teaching,service), 3. then there is a formal third year review. Junior faculty can seek out senior faculty at any time for guidance. Otherwise there is a void unless particular and gifted senior faculty take an active interest in a junior faculty member .

Tell me what you think constitutes effective mentoring of junior faculty- what works, and what doesn’t work. If you have examples from particular places you have been I’d love to hear them…

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27 thoughts on “Mentoring Junior Faculty

  1. DrMrA says I should stop cursing

    Tell him fuck off!

    As far as effective mentoring of junior faculty, let’s put it this way. You know all the highly detailed shit that DoucheMonkey and I post at our blog? There are two ways to figure this shit out, the hard way–by fucking up and learning from mistakes–or by having people tell you.

  2. PP-

    ‘Tell him fuck off!’ Creative idea- but I’m pretty sure that won’t go over well.

    Second- ‘two ways to figure this shit out, the hard way–by fucking up and learning from mistakes–or by having people tell you’

    The operative question is WHY are the people who presumably have the hard knocks experience to share not putting this information to good use on their junior colleagues in their own departments?

  3. The operative question is WHY are the people who presumably have the hard knocks experience to share not putting this information to good use on their junior colleagues in their own departments?

    Some of them actually only got to where they are because things were much easier and less competitive than they are now, and wouldn’t be able to effectively mentor if they tried. Some of them are socially inept weirdos who are too anxious to share their experience with younger people. Some of them are very inefficient with their time, and are so constantly harried that they never have time to mentor. And some of them are lazy selfish shits who don’t give a flying fuck about anything other than their own research programs.

  4. Some of them actually only got to where they are because things were much easier and less competitive than they are now, and wouldn’t be able to effectively mentor if they tried.

    To make this ever so slightly nicer, in their defense people who came up under very different conditions really do not have any insight into anything. In a very natural human response they come to believe that they succeeded exclusively because of their own merits and that the way they came up is the best or only way.

    What boggles the mind is that when they look what is going on with their junior colleagues they are unable to consider that things just maaaaaay have changed. So they really do think that they get lower triage rates and better scores on grants because they write better grants. It is very hard to disabuse them of the notion that the huge downhill slope running their way makes their crap-ass grants sail into fundable scores.

    It would be one thing if they recognized the fact that it is their reputation and track record and all that that is making the difference and argued that they “deserved” these bennies. But they never seem to. they focus on how the junior person needs to write better grants.

    and oooh boy, if one of the more-experienced gets a triage? MORTAL INSULT!! It MUST be all those STUPID and WORTHLESS ASSISTANT PROFESSORS who are screwing them!!!!!ELEVENTY!!!1111

    (and yes, I have that conversation with some regularity)

  5. How about turning the question around into what provides good mentoring? I thought Odyssey’s description was far more extensive than I’ve seen elsewhere (giving actual requirements for grant funding & numbers of pubs, even orally, for example), and yearly meetings, and a formal mentor assignment. Ideally of course, every junior faculty member should have a “true” mentor, who believes in them and wants to help them succeed. But, it’s the struggling folk who are least likely to get that.

    So, what would effective mentoring of junior faculty look like from a chair’s point of view? Not one that relies on magical relationships being built, but one that can be put into place administratively? This same concern applies to graduate students and post-docs, too. I think there has to be more clarity about expectations for all (and yes, we know that people are vague basically because they don’t want to have real standards) and more feedback (and here people are vague because it is significantly unpleasant to give people negative feedback. It’s easier to let them drift along). I don’t know what to do about the first, but i think one way to deal with the second is to have more administrative/evaluation hoops for junior faculty with regular meetings and feedback, from a representative sample of mentors from the entire department.

  6. neurolover-

    Yes, Odyssey’s description is far more extensive – I didn’t quote the whole thing- and I urge everyone to go over to Drugmonkey and read the whole exchange. And actually, I was quite stunned by Odyssey’s description because I am not familiar with any departments that have such an extensive mentoring structure for junior faculty….but maybe I just haven’t been around much. I would also like to emphasize as have several commenters that it matters who is doing the mentoring- not all senior faculty were created equal in this ability – and many do not have the ability or see the need to extrapolate beyond their own experience.

    As for what constitutes a good junior faculty mentoring program- I’m collecting ideas. Why? A. because I care about this topic, and B. because I have the sense that faculty in my institution care very much about this and are looking for ways to improve!

  7. I was quite stunned by Odyssey’s description because I am not familiar with any departments that have such an extensive mentoring structure for junior faculty…

    And yet two faculty still failed. There are two sides to mentoring of course. You need an effective mentor, but just as importantly, the mentee really needs to listen and act appropriately.

  8. Frankly, I was shocked at the outlandish conclusion that junior faculty failure always reflects a failure of mentoring. Some people who get hired as junior faculty because they were successful post-docs simply don’t have what it takes to be successful PIs.

  9. “Some people who get hired as junior faculty because they were successful post-docs simply don’t have what it takes to be successful PIs.”

    true of course, but it’s also a loss and failure of the department (bar the few who create the tournament model once again for their tenure-track faculty, and who have the resources to throw a million or so away more than half the time).

    I think whimple assumed that odyssey’s department had engaged in the half-hearted efforts most of us are more familiar with to guide their junior faculty. The surprise was that Odyssey’s department seemed to have a far more formal structure in place to guide faculty than most universities appear to.

    Now, no one seems to be suggesting best practices, though. At the very least, in this case, unlike, say the post-docs and graduate students we train and then abandon, most universities would seem to have a real incentive in having their junior faculty succeed. So, what should a department who would *like* their junior faculty to meet the relevant bar for tenure do to assist?

  10. it’s also a loss and failure of the department

    Absolutely, and not just in terms of the money. My point was simply that I don’t believe we failed in terms of the mentoring provided. Any time a faculty member fails to earn tenure it is viewed in part as a failure of the department. Somewhere we seemed to have screwed up. If these two did not have what it takes, perhaps we should have picked up on that from their application and references, or during their interviews. But we didn’t. There were no indications in plain enough view. Early this year I happened to run into the former postdoc mentor of one of the two faculty who didn’t make tenure. He was absolutely shocked that this had happened, and this was almost two years after the fact. He couldn’t fathom that his former postdoc who had been so very productive, driven, and laser-focused on a TT position could turn into someone who wouldn’t publish despite significant extramural funding.

    And yes, the mentoring structure we have in our department does seem extraordinary. including within our own university. It is mainly due to our chair. It took several years of effort on his part to get this up and running, but I think the entire faculty have bought into it as the right thing to do. It’s not perfect of course, much rides on the mentoring skills of those assigned that job. Which brings us back to the original topic. What is the nature of effective mentoring?

  11. DM-

    Almost everyone who is on P&T is in this position right- they ALL started in the game in easier times- how do junior faculty hired in the last two years get past these people now with the funding line so so low?

    PP- I sure didn’t suggest that the senior faculty are solely responsible for junior faculty failure- and that the junior faculty member has no responsibility in this. But I don’t want to get distracted by blame- I want to know what constitutes an ‘effective’ junior faculty mentoring program?

    Odyssey- I appreciated your extensive description of the junior faculty mentoring program in your own department very much. I want to keep the focus on what makes an effective junior faculty mentoring program. The fact that I haven’t heard any comments yet (from anyone but you- and you and your department seem to have gone through some soul searching about this recently) about how to set up this kind of program- makes me wonder if senior faculty are really, honestly and truly worrying about this and invested in it-other than in the lip-service sense.

  12. “makes me wonder if senior faculty are really, honestly and truly worrying about this and invested in it-other than in the lip-service sense.”

    I think there’s a lot of lip service. But, I think that’s because mentoring (as a duty, rather than out of love) junior faculty is another job and responsibility for which they get little reinforcement or reward.

    So, what’s the nature of effective mentoring: First, I think the mentor has to be trusted so that they can tell the hard truths. There’s a lot of conflict in this field, and in some subfields more than others. So, what one needs is feedback that’s rigorous, but comes from someone who would like you to succeed. Then, you know to take it seriously. Second, it requires time, to really read/understand grants/publications (which seem to be what’s tripped up both of our case studies). Third, it requires offering the help in more than just words “if you need anything just ask” is not at all helpful. Offers of help need to be specific: “If you get me your grant on the first, I’ll read it for you by the 10th.” “I hear you got negative reviews on your latest submission. Do you have time on thursday to go over them so I can give you some feedback.”

    (and Odyssey, I’d be interested in knowing if the faculty knew they were failing, or if their failures were crouched in bureaucratic enough terms that they deluded themselves)

  13. Third, it requires offering the help in more than just words “if you need anything just ask” is not at all helpful.
    In fact, this is flat out harmful, because it gives the help-offering person the illusion that they have actually been helpful.

    Odyssey’s departmental mentoring is vastly more extensive than anything around here. That makes the two tenure-denials more mystifying. It’s also a nasty little habit of departments to, rather than put the person up for tenure and have them be formally turned down by the T&P committee(s) and Dean(s), simply pocket-veto their application by not putting them up. This truly is the “dirty little secret” of departments, to quietly sweep these people under the rug and out the back door. This practice is often defended as “saving the applicant needless pain”, but that’s bullshit; it’s all about the department trying to cover up the department’s failure(s). (Department: “Hey Dean, thanks for the $2M for those two new people. We screwed up and hired bozos that couldn’t be saved. Can we have $2M more so we can try to fill those slots again?” Dean: “No.”)

    From my vantage point the most valuable contributions to effective mentoring are:

    1) keeping the new PI very narrowly focused New PI’s often come in trying to do too much right away. The new PI almost always came from a huge lab with multiple post-docs, and solid technical support and doesn’t really viscerally understand that they are starting over with nothing (and also that now they have to do research, and write grants, and teach, and deal with administrative crap). For this reason, I recommend they start off working on exactly the same thing they were doing as a post-doc.

    2) telling the PI when to refocus It’s science. Sometimes your hypothesis turns out to be false. Sometimes critical experimental techniques turn out to be a “can’t get there from here” situation. Senior faculty that are seriously engaged in the research of the new faculty member can help the new PI know when to bail on a project that isn’t going to produce so they can retool and refocus before times becomes short.

    The main problem is that senior faculty are not seriously engaged in the research of new faculty. There is this attitude of “everyone gets tenure” (because that used to be true) and “my door is always open” (except that actually I’m really, really busy).

    For Odyssey’s well-intentioned department chair: 1st rule of leadership: EVERYTHING is your fault.

  14. neurolover wrote:
    and Odyssey, I’d be interested in knowing if the faculty knew they were failing, or if their failures were crouched in bureaucratic enough terms that they deluded themselves

    We all knew they were failing. Most of us tried to tell them. In explicit terms along with offers of help such as reading proposals and manuscripts. You can only do so much if the people you’re trying to help won’t listen.

    Whimple wrote:
    This truly is the “dirty little secret” of departments, to quietly sweep these people under the rug and out the back door. This practice is often defended as “saving the applicant needless pain”, but that’s bullshit; it’s all about the department trying to cover up the department’s failure(s).

    Life is simply never this black and white. There is no covering up a department’s failure. The Dean (and higher administrators) know full well when someone is not put up. It is no secret, let alone a “dirty little secret. There was a little discussion of the “saving the applicant needless pain”, but mostly it was a matter of not wasting everyone’s time. The whole process, from putting together the tenure packet, collecting letters from faculty both within and without the institution, review of the packet by the various committees etc. is A LOT OF WORK for everyone involved. Why put everyone through this when it is clearly a lost cause?

    By the way, many institutions allow applicants to put themselves up if their department decides not to. One of the two (the one without funding) did this. It wasted a lot of time (including time he could have spent working on proposals and looking for another position). It didn’t do any good.

    For Odyssey’s well-intentioned department chair: 1st rule of leadership: EVERYTHING is your fault.

    Perhaps you should ask questions before leaping to conclusions?

  15. Odyssey, simply put, your description of new faculty mentoring is inconsistent with two tenure denials in a row. When you say (on DrugMonkey): “Furthermore we have increased our NIH funding every year in the last ten.” I don’t believe you. Do you know this for a fact, or is that what your administrators are telling you?

  16. Odyssey, simply put, your description of new faculty mentoring is inconsistent with two tenure denials in a row. When you say (on DrugMonkey): “Furthermore we have increased our NIH funding every year in the last ten.” I don’t believe you. Do you know this for a fact, or is that what your administrators are telling you?

    It is a fact.

  17. “In explicit terms along with offers of help such as reading proposals and manuscripts. You can only do so much if the people you’re trying to help won’t listen.”

    Of course it’s totally possible that they just didn’t listen (or that they lacked the skill to do what was necessary), but it’s also possible that communication failed, and a failure of communication is a two-way street. As I said earlier, offering to “read proposals and manuscripts” isn’t really very specific.

    Are you confident that there’s nothing different the department could have done? Your description of mentoring in your department is great — but it’s really an evaluation/performance review. Hugely important, because i think that our failures in giving this feedback contribute to a lot of the failures at every stage. But, it still doesn’t get at how one might have helped. It’s not really how one might have helped these two — it’s what can we learn from a failure to change things in the future. If the two were here, we should ask them what they think they could have done differently, too.

    If the judge of whether someone “listened” is whether they succeeded, saying that they didn’t listen is no different than saying that they didn’t succeed (it doesn’t tell you something more about what they did or didn’t do), hence drdr’s comment that telling people that they need to “publish” and “get grants” is not mentoring (though, of course, it’s better than not telling them that).

    Also, I think these mentoring questions apply just as strongly to post-docs & graduate students. The main difference is that in many departments, we (if not the students) know that not everyone is going to make it to the bar (if the bar is a tenured position). But, in many departments (though not all), the goal really is to tenure everyone one hires.

    Again, Odyssey — I’m not trying to put you on the spot — I just want to see what we can learn from the information you’ve offered.

    I do admit another motivation, though: As DM mentions, there’s a real tendency for people to believe that their success (making tenure, getting a grant, publishing a paper, even beating cancer) is the result of actions and choices they made for themselves (and subsequently, a very strong desire to attribute the same cause to people who fail in obtaining all of those things. This logic, though, is just obviously false. To use the example of grant funding. Some funding agencies have seen their success rates for grants fluctuate by 50% over the past decade. So, if getting an RO1 grant is required for tenure, the luck of when your application went in (in 2000 or 2006) could have made all the difference in the world, and it could have been largely outside of your control.

  18. neurolover wrote:
    Of course it’s totally possible that they just didn’t listen (or that they lacked the skill to do what was necessary), but it’s also possible that communication failed, and a failure of communication is a two-way street. As I said earlier, offering to “read proposals and manuscripts” isn’t really very specific.

    Clearly there was a communication failure and it probably happened on both ends. Their proposals were read by others. They received feedback. The one who did not publish was advised repeatedly to get rid of her toxic postdoc so things would actually get done in her lab.

    Could we have done anything else? I don’t know.

    And yes, it’s fair to describe what we do as being more evaluation than mentoring.

    Again, Odyssey — I’m not trying to put you on the spot — I just want to see what we can learn from the information you’ve offered.

    No problem. I’m hanging around here because I want to learn what we can do better.

  19. “Their proposals were read by others. They received feedback. ”

    And, did they not incorporate the feedback? If they did, they listened. I just hate it when people say they “didn’t listen” when they really mean “they didn’t succeed.”

    (Firing the toxic post-doc is a different issue, since it is specific advice, that apparently wasn’t followed: that’s like saying this homework set is due on Tuesday, and the person just not doing it. “Didn’t listen” is accurate, absent mitigating circumstances.)

    PS: what happened to them? did they leave science? if so, it’s quite possible that the one who “fought” the decision was being quite rational. I think departments always hope people will smoothly go away, but in fact, the person they’ve fired might have nothing to loose in fighting.

  20. Oops — could you delete that last comment for me? It’s published with someone else’s username.

  21. Neurolover wrote:
    And, did they not incorporate the feedback? If they did, they listened. I just hate it when people say they “didn’t listen” when they really mean “they didn’t succeed.”

    I don’t know about the one who was funded, but I do know the one who could not get funding did not incorporate some of the more important feedback. Specifically, explaining why what he wanted to do was important.

    PS: what happened to them? did they leave science? if so, it’s quite possible that the one who “fought” the decision was being quite rational. I think departments always hope people will smoothly go away, but in fact, the person they’ve fired might have nothing to loose in fighting.

    The unfunded individual is now on the faculty at a SLAC. The other has been interviewing for other faculty positions but, as far as I know, has not yet landed one. If you’re wondering how she’s managing to get interviews, it’s because she did publish at last. After being denied tenure.

  22. “Specifically, explaining why what he wanted to do was important.”

    Maybe, ’cause it actually wasn’t important? Interesting, really. Perhaps that’s the real feedback he was getting that he really had no way of incorporating. I think these language questions are intriguing because I think they’re often a source of this disconnect between what people say and what people hear. It’s much harsher to tell someone that their research program is really just un-interesting, and frankly, perhaps something they can do nothing about, so people say things like “you need to explain the importance,” because that seems fixable. If the real solution is a major change in research direction, that’s vital to tell, no?

    (interesting, actually, ’cause Odyssey’s discussion at his blog with RST (“Your research program is going nowhere and you’re in danger of becoming irrelevant.” ) is precisely the kind of feedback junior scientists need as they are venturing out on their own. (and, unlike, say paper writing and grant writing, is something that isn’t just “making up” for lack of training in a post-doc). That’s true mentoring — and, it requires a relationship, so that the feedback can’t be easily dismissed.

    Glad to hear that one has found a job and the other did manage to publish the work she’d been funded for.

  23. PP- I sure didn’t suggest that the senior faculty are solely responsible for junior faculty failure- and that the junior faculty member has no responsibility in this.

    I know that. I was referring to whimple’s assertion that it was, by definition, a mentoring failure that these two didn’t make tenure.

  24. It’s much harsher to tell someone that their research program is really just un-interesting, and frankly, perhaps something they can do nothing about, so people say things like “you need to explain the importance,” because that seems fixable. If the real solution is a major change in research direction, that’s vital to tell, no?

    That would suggest a *hiring* failure, not a mentoring one.

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