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.