by Benedict J. Kolber, Ph.D., Associate Professor
Department of Biological Sciences, Duquesne University
“Mentoring” has been a buzzword in higher education for years, but its meaning varies by context. Mentoring relationships can be spontaneous and organic or assigned and structured. Mentoring occurs among faculty, staff, and students, and between peers and non-peers, alike. One common mentoring relationship occurs between faculty and students — especially when faculty work individually with undergraduate and graduate students on research or projects.
The level of mentoring proficiency varies widely and does not directly correlate with the number of students mentored nor years experience. This may be due to how mentoring is typically learned. Most people mentor others as they have been mentored. So, your ability to mentor students effectively is a chance coming together of your previous experience as a mentee and your personal reflection on mentoring relationships. Unfortunately, even for those with positive mentoring role models, elements of mentoring, like those related to diversity and inclusion, often need to be developed.
To learn good mentoring practice and reflect on their own experiences, several Duquesne faculty participated in Entering Mentoring in spring 2017. This program, originally developed by the Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching, is a free and customizable curriculum designed to guide both experienced and novice mentors. At Duquesne, the program was supported by deans from Liberal Arts, Natural & Environmental Sciences, Health Sciences, and Pharmacy as well as by the Office of Research and the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE). The workshop was facilitated by Erin Rentschler and Laurel Willingham-McLain from CTE, Philip Palmer from the sciences, and myself.
We met weekly to talk about these topics:
- Mentoring Goals and Expectations
- Assessing Understanding and Fostering Independence
- Mentoring Challenges and Solutions
- Addressing Diversity
- Dealing with Ethics
- Developing a Mentoring Philosophy
At the sessions, we discussed readings and cases, and peer-reviewed documents. For me, one of the more valuable exercises was the development of a mentoring compact. This document, given to a new mentee (e.g. a new student in my biology laboratory), describes my expectations for them and things they can expect of me. It discusses our mentoring relationship, and also includes nuts and bolts of how to be successful in my laboratory.
Throughout the program we reflected on and shared best practices in mentoring. The participants represented diverse research fields, faculty rank, and opinions, which resulted in a robust discussion. Here is some mentoring advice the participants gave for new mentors:
Think about goals and set expectations
- Think about the environment and community that you are trying to develop. Then work backwards towards the expectations and compact. This is backwards design of mentoring.
- Put together a mentoring compact to set clear expectations for mentor and mentee.
Mentor for student growth
- People matter. People change. Relationships are going to change with individual students over time.
- You might be surprised by the ideas that come from undergraduate and graduate students.
- Be patient with students. Give them time to grow and learn.
- Give students second chances. People can respond well with clearly defined expectations.
- Don’t be a helicopter parent.
Grow as a mentor
- It is okay for you and the students to make mistakes.
- Ask for help to learn how to mentor.
- Get perspective on other fields and how they mentor.
- You don’t have to be the perfect mentor in every way. Pick your strengths.
- Suggest other mentors for your students. You don’t have to do everything.
Mentoring – the big picture
- Mentoring is fun.
- You are a representative of academia/institution to the public. The students are watching. You may not even realize that you are mentoring a student.
- Mentoring is a process not a destination.
- There is value in getting together with others to talk about mentoring.
And most importantly…
- Don’t be intimidated by “best practices” lists. Start with small changes in your mentoring, reflect, and then adjust.
Overall, the Entering Mentoring program received strong reviews from the faculty participants. In particular, some very experienced faculty reported receiving much more out of the program than they expected, and some younger faculty were surprised at how much they could contribute to the discussion.
The next round of Entering Mentoring is planned for summer 2018. So watch out Duquesne, the mentors are coming!