Junior Faculty Mentoring, Part III

As a junior faculty member I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about what constitutes good mentoring of junior faculty, and why it’s a great idea to invest in the development of junior faculty in ways other than just throwing money. The leadership of my own humble department recently took the admirable step of gathering all the junior faculty together and asking them what they need and desire from mentors- and how they could be better served. I am pleased that this seems an important enough issue to everyone to take such an action. I was also very pleased that this meeting was well attended, and that there was a robust discussion among the junior faculty and departmental leadership about what what constitutes good mentoring.

Earlier today I attended a seminar on junior faculty mentoring given by an external speaker and hosted in the department of Education- I guess I figured that their business being education and all… they should know a little something about mentoring. I did not see any familiar faces at the seminar and it wasn’t very heavily attended, I was a bit disappointed by this.  Why?  Because all senior faculty I know proclaim that mentoring is important- but I didn’t see many of them out acquiring or improving the necessary skill set today.

But I digress.  The speaker was a distinguished professor from another institution- and the seminar was really excellent.  The following are a few points that were made.

1.  Not everyone is equipped to be a good mentor.

2.  Just because you are nice, doesn’t make you a good mentor.

3. 1 mentor may not be able to mentor in all areas that a mentee needs help. (these first three seem pretty straightforward so far)

4.  Being a good scientist, or a good lecturer doesn’t necessarily make you a good mentor.

5.  Teaching is a relationship that works in TWO directions- mentors can teach mentees, but also learn from them.  The speaker made the excellent point that in teaching ability junior faculty can have better performance than senior faculty, know the technology better etc. I loved a suggestion made by the speaker that rather than requiring people to sit in class to learn how to teach- at which most research scientists would immediately scream WASTE OF TIME- another way of approaching improving one’s teaching would be to have faculty attend each other’s lectures once in a while and give feedback.  This would be a two way street for both Jr. and Sr. people.

Also- who mentors senior faculty??? Or do they have it all figured out and not need to adapt to a changing landscape?

6.  Teaching the junior faculty member to focus on those tasks that bring you to tenure is the job of a good mentor.  Some of these things are obvious- but some are not so much.  Like- what kinds of meetings do you speak at… is speaking at the GRC a better idea  for a jr. cell biologist than speaking at the Alabama society of Firefighters (not to denigrate such a group at all, if one exists)… most definitely. Ok, I chose an extreme example, but you get my drift- your time prior to tenure is a scare resource- how do you best allocate it to the goal at hand, and who helps you stay on that track? Another area that was mentioned was journal and book submission- what publishers to choose to send manuscripts and books to etc.

7.  Senior faculty are teaching junior faculty by example.  How the senior person reacts to paper rejection and other frustrations of daily academic life can and does influence jr. faculty perceptions and reactions. Just because senior faculty don’t actively mentor – does not mean that junior faculty don’t become socialized- they still will- socialization will happen regardless- the point is that you senior faculty can steer this how you like, or you can let it go at random- it’s your choice.

8.  Great mentors know how to and actively do connect people- and this means more than drinking in the bar after the session is over- it may mean having junior people in a panel discussion with strategically chosen senior people so they can meet each other etc. Asking jr. people to be session chairs with particular senior people etc.

9. UUUgh.  Much was said about ‘service’ commitments and about how these are decided, what expectations are, and who should be protecting the junior faculty member from service obligations.  Should the senior faculty person be acting as a go-between to higher-ups when Jr. faculty are asked to do things that a.  aren’t useful to their careers- and in fact actually hinder them early on (like being asked to be on the curriculum committee!), or chair a big summer research program for undergraduates when you are just getting your lab started.  Junior faculty may be reluctant to say no to whoever is doing the requesting- and this is tendency is greater the higher the requestor is up the academic food chain.  Should the mentor be the go-between?

10. Also a lot of talk about tenure dossiers.. and how these are handled.  There should be very very careful attention paid to these in their preparation and in sending these out to referees.  Never having seen one of these I have little idea what kinds of things tenure dossier reviewers are asked, or even how they are asked, and what their replies look like- so this was all news to me.  This is a black box area for me where I could use some mentoring.

Any thoughts?


12 thoughts on “Junior Faculty Mentoring, Part III

  1. Definitely food for thought.

    I’m still a month and a bit away from starting my faculty gig and even though I have yet to organize official faculty mentor(s), my dept chair and one of the senior faculty have already taken me under their collective wings. Between them, they guided me through the “where is my lab space” issue, ensured that I would be committee-free for the first year and the chair has already put my name forward as a potential ad hoc reviewer for the NSF (eeeeek).

    On a personal level, they have both been fantastic already and are pulling out all the stops to help me find potential apartments prior to my apartment-hunting visit in a few weeks.

    Just hope things continue to go smoothly once I actually start.

  2. How wonderful for your department to have a seminar like this. Seems like a pertinent yet perhaps taken-for-granted issue. It leaves me jealous that I never had a grad student mentor when I was just starting off, or a post-doc mentor now. That’s where my blog roll comes in, so thanks. 🙂

  3. To be added to the list of questions a tenure-track interviewee should ask:

    “What is your department’s mentoring program for newly hired faculty?”

    If they don’t have a ready answer, particularly in today’s gruesomely awful funding climate, go elsewhere. You are going to need this mentoring.

  4. I asked that question at every place. Such a wide range of answers. Most common was the informal ‘we look out for you’ method. A few reference that they had senior people who were excellent grant writers who help out with the junior folks. A few places I know of (but didn’t interview at) had programs where they linked you with a senior member who helped ‘guide’ you. I think the jury is out how well that worked.

  5. Whimple and Pinus-

    I don’t think I specifically asked about this- but there was always some insight offered into this question. and Pinus- the range of answers that I got was mostly centered around when jr. faculty performance would be reviewed- and less around how sr. faculty would or could advocate for junior faculty.

    In attending this seminar on friday I realized that I myself could have used an advocate a few times recently- when Sr. faculty have asked me to do committee service that just plainly isn’t appropriate for junior faculty to be doing. In one case I was asked (by phone) to be on a biosafety committee that would have been very time intensive. I said I would rather not- and how big was the time committment bla bla bla… but in the end- I was forced to say to Sr. faculty- hey- please understand that I’m trying to write two grants and three papers in the next 2 months… so I’d rather NOT. I think that sometimes it just doesn’t dawn on them how much I already have on my plate until I spell it out.

  6. I’ve never had a formal mentor, and throughout my nearly-eleven-years as faculty I’ve wanted one, asked for one, tried to engage with the process… it’s been frustrating! Actually that’s not true – I was assigned a mentor who has totally, utterly, demoralisingly useless. He had a definite negative effect on me so I avoided him where possible, and continue to do so (sadly we team-teach…). The nearest to a useful departmental mentoring experience I had was when the next-most-junior person briefly took me under his wing and showed me how to work the copier and printer, get stationary supplies, and fix an OHP.

    And yes, I’d still love one now post-tenure – could really have done with an outside perspective during my post-promotion now-what-the-hell-am-I-meant-to-do stage. Being told ‘provide leadership’ without a leadership role ,and being told you lack leadership skills and being sent on a leadership course which is aimed for Head of Departments (which is a role I’ve never wanted and am most unlikely ever to be asked to consider), all by the same person, did not help! Good to hear that other places are doing a little better…

  7. DRDRA,

    Mentoring at most places seemed to center around meeting with the chair and reviewing progress and making sure that priorities were in the right spot.

    Color me naive, but I think that there is a bit of luck involved in this mentoring thing…you have to be lucky enough to go somewhere where somebody is interested enough to invest a bit of energy in your success. It is not essential, but I think it helps.

    A few places had no sort of mentoring or review of progress. It seemed strange to me, because they are shelling out big bucks, you want that investment to succeed…no?

  8. Pinus and Jane-

    I do think you are right pinus- there is a bit of luck involved in finding a great mentor. But, from what I see- there isn’t a whole lot of active effort expended on senior people figuring out what to do, where skills are needed, and who might work best for junior faculty- beyond resarch interest areas. It is that which frustrates me. I suppose it is kind of like how most people run their labs- by trial and error rather than by actively picking up management skills by reading or picking the brains of really good managers!!

    When I don’t know something important- necessary, that could improve things- I pick up a book and read about it, I talk to everyone under the sun to collect different viewpoints, hell- I blog about it. It just seems, as you say Pinus, not a good idea to treat your $$ investment in jr people this carelessly and casually.

  9. “Review of progress” in my experience is code for “no mentoring”, especially if the chair is the one doing the reviewing. This busy person will tell you to “publish more papers” and “get more grants” but won’t actually have any means of helping you accomplish these things.

  10. Yeah Whimple-

    You are just more blunt than I am…. I believe I have said this in a prior post as well- the fact that ‘write more papers, submit more grants’ is perfectly useless advice, and accomplishes nothing more than stating the obvious.

    As I was leaving the seminar I said to someone in the elevator that I thought it was pretty sad that the jr. faculty have to go to the ‘how to mentor jr. faculty’ seminar in order to go back and teach the senior faculty what actual mentoring of the jr. faculty is.

  11. As I was leaving the seminar I said to someone in the elevator that I thought it was pretty sad that the jr. faculty have to go to the ‘how to mentor jr. faculty’ seminar in order to go back and teach the senior faculty what actual mentoring of the jr. faculty is.

    To be fair to the senior faculty though, I don’t think effective mentoring was necessary prior to about 2004 or so (end of the NIH doubling). The ability of departments to successfully transition to an effective mentoring junior-faculty-incubator type of model is going to be a significant factor in determining which departments continue to thrive and which departments crash and burn under current conditions. In a sense, the senior faculty are maybe too busy trying to stay alive individually to worry about their junior colleagues, or their departments in general.

  12. Yeah ok, Whimple-

    Add to that that some departments have a different flow of hiring- some may not have hired a junior person in a while, and the climate has changed drastically as you point out… during this gap in hiring..

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