Friday, September 24, 2010

How to be an effective mentor

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with my colleague, Mary, who is in her third year of a tenure track position. As we were waiting for our food to arrive, I asked Mary about her progress on her book project. In our conversation, I pointed out two things: 1) You can submit your book prospectus to multiple publishers and 2) It is advisable to try and publish at least one article out of your book manuscript to draw attention to your work and to gain credibility in the field. Mary lowered her voice and said to me “Tanya, I can’t believe no one has ever told me this before.”

I couldn’t believe it either. I asked Mary who her assigned mentor was. She told me about Jane, a gregarious associate professor who often invited Mary over to dinner and told her how fantastic and brilliant her scholarship was. Jane was providing one kind of mentoring – support and encouragement – but was not giving Jane all she needed to succeed. Jane was depending on this one mentor for all of her needs when, in fact, she requires a variety of mentors to help her on her path towards tenure. In this post, I will explain some of the kinds of help mentors can provide. This information is intended to help both new faculty see what kinds of mentoring to seek out and senior faculty to think of kinds of mentoring they can provide.

1. Support and encouragement. Tenure track faculty need to feel valued, included, and supported. It is crucial for mentors to let new faculty know what their strengths are and to help them build those strengths. This kind of mentoring is particularly important for under-represented faculty who may feel excluded in their departments.

2. Feedback on work in progress. It is essential for academics to have people in their field to whom they can send work for feedback before sending it out for review. Mentors can offer and provide valuable feedback on articles and manuscripts in progress.

3. Advice on professional development. It is often unclear to new faculty just what they need to do in order to be successful in the areas of research, teaching and service. More senior colleagues can explain how to achieve and demonstrate excellence in these areas.

4. Clear expectations for research productivity. Very few junior faculty are clear on just what they will need to achieve tenure. Mentors can help junior faculty to understand what the expectations are in their department, at the university, and at the national level.

5. How and where to publish. It is not always obvious to junior faculty which outlets are most suitable for their research. In some departments, book chapters in edited volumes count for very little, for example. It is important to help junior faculty figure out how and where they need to publish as soon as possible in their career.

6. Strategies for success. Successful new faculty write every day, limit their teaching preparation, and seek out advice from their colleagues. These are strategies that can be learned, and mentors can help new faculty to implement these and other strategies for success.

7. Role models. New faculty need to see successful people similar to them to envision their own success. Faculty of color will do better when they have successful role models who are also people of color. Women faculty can benefit from seeing successful women in their department. Parents with children can learn how faculty with children balance life and work by learning from successful role models.

These are just some of the ways that mentors can be helpful to new faculty. No mentor can or should be expected to take on all of these roles. For this reason, new faculty must also seek out several mentors to ensure that all of their needs are being met. And, senior faculty should provide mentorship in their own areas of strength.

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