In This Issue

Mentoring in the early career and beyond

This article identifies effective mentoring strategies and discusses how to efficiently incorporate mentoring into day-to-day requirements as a professor.

By Sarah Manchak, PhD
One of the responsibilities that will accompany most professorships is student mentoring. The mentorship role can take on a variety of forms that are often contingent upon a department’s organizational structure and requirements.

While there are innate traits that seem to coalesce with good mentorship, such as interpersonal intuition, flexibility and empathy, successful mentoring requires a refinement of a variety of skills over time. As with most professional and personal “life skills” (e.g., teaching, parenting, driving, cooking, etc.), we often learn as we go. We glean insight from observing others and from our own successes and mistakes, developing new skills and strategies as we move forward.

So what skills make a good mentor? First and foremost, an effective mentor is an effective communicator. Clear, consistent, timely and open communication is essential to establishing a good rapport and sense of trust with mentees. Setting unambiguous expectations about deadlines, work allocation and roles removes unnecessary stress and uncertainty, allowing the mentor and mentee to maximize their efficiency and productivity together. Second, effective mentors are organized; they have a clear vision of their own goals and those of their mentees, a well thought-out plan for achieving those goals, and follow through with that plan. Third, effective mentors must be a source of accurate and up-to-date knowledge about the subject matter at hand. Good mentors should be willing to continue to educate themselves, consult colleagues and devote the time and work to ensuring mentees are placed on the correct path to achieve their goals. Fourth, good mentors are also good collaborators; they need to delegate andcontribute, teach new skills and be open to learning from their mentees. Finally, a good mentor guides but does not hand-hold. One must be not only willing to go the extra mile but also know when to “let go” — either because the mentee has established capability for independent work or because the mentee is not measuring up to expectations.

Early in one’s career, it can be challenging to navigate a mentoring role. Many of the growing pains that come with adopting the mentor role concern boundaries. First, mentors must set interpersonal boundaries; they can — and should — be friendly with their mentees but remember that the mentee-mentor relationship must remain a professional one. Second, mentors must be careful to set temporal boundaries. It is important that mentors devote time to their mentees on a reliable and regular basis (e.g., weekly meetings) but not allow themselves to be consumed with assisting their students. In a way, mentors must simultaneously be both selfless and selfish with their time and resources. Finally, good mentors must be willing not only to setboundaries but to also pushthem. Effective mentors can astutely size up the current capabilities and future potential of their mentees and push them to be better — to work harder, to think more deeply, to refine basic skills and learn new ones, and to grow personally and professionally. Effective mentors must also be willing to push their own boundaries, step outside their comfort zone and think outside the box to best meet each mentee’s unique needs.

At its core, the mentor-mentee relationship will thrive on the mentee’s and mentor’s ability to be authentic with one another and to be genuinely committed to the professional success and growth of the other person. As with any relationship, it will have its ups and downs, but it can be an incredibly rewarding and impactful relationship for both parties for many years to come.