academic mentoring – a super(wo)man ask?

These days, I’m sure, all early–career researchers are advised to get themselves an academic mentor, someone who they can turn to for some support and guidance. Today’s assumption is that being a scholar is not sink-or-swim.

Many universities manage an academic mentoring process. They are reluctant to leave the provision of support to chance. The allocation of mentors has become a key institutional strategy for ensuring that some kind of personal-professional support is available to everyone. So, when new staff arrive in the institution, the appropriate adminstrator in their home school/faculty/centre is charged with allocating a mentor to them as part of their induction process. However, many institutions seem to forget temporary contracted staff in these arrangements – not OK!! But others are more inclusive, and their mentoring schemes are all encompassing – everyone who’s new gets a mentor.

The process of institutional matching – mentor and one-to-be-mentored – varies. I’ve seen different scenarios ranging from speed-dating to arbitrary match-making to schemes where new people make their own choices and simply report who their mentor will be. Not surprisingly, the success of highly engineered relationships varies. That’s generally not because the two parties are unwilling to engage in ongoing conversations, but because simply putting two people together doesn’t always make a relationship work.

Mentoring is just like any other relationship. It’s good if there’s something in common in mentoring partnerships, some overlapping interests, some kind of shared experiences. The mentoring relationships that I’ve seen that seem to work best are where there is something more than a generic ‘experienced’ and ‘new’ partnership as the raison d’etre. (Of course in some cases people in engineered relationships do find something shared and common between them. But I’ve seen many mentoring relationships that don’t, even with the best will in the world.) Many of the ‘women in (add discipline)’ mentoring schemes seem to work pretty well – and maybe this is because both the more and less experienced academics have the (add discipline) and the commitment to equity in common right at the start. They both have a/the same reason to make the mentoring relationship work.

It’s possible – and I’d say highly likely – that any lack of success in academic mentoring comes from the fact that the role of the academic mentor is a pretty hard one to fill. It’s no great revelation to say that none of us are actually good at everything. But institutional academic mentoring schemes generally proceed as if we are. The reality is that some senior academics might be very good at helping people get research bids together, while others might have real strengths in supporting writing and publication. Some might be very good at coaching and be incredibly helpful as a long-term support for managing life in the institution. Some senior academics can’t get past an I-did-it-my-way solution for younger academic’s challenges while others are seriously skilled and begin by recognising the current difficult employment and career contexts in which newer academic colleagues work.

Another difficulty is that there is often an institutional assumption that we all know how to mentor. Why would that be the case? Why the assumption that mentoring is something that just comes naturally? There is probably something worth knowing from the research into mentoring practices, and perhaps something to learn from people who coach full-time for a living. While academic mentoring is not the same as football coaching, there might be something in some of that life-coaching and counselling practice that could be quite useful to academic mentors too. I also suspect that there is something pedagogical about the academic mentoring relationship that, just like supervision, could benefit from more dedicated active inquiry and theorisation. Institutions could well build more informed and inquiry-based processes into their mentoring schemes.

Given the vagaries that surround academic mentoring, I reckon it’s probably a good idea for doctoral and early-career researchers to reject the notion that having one academic mentor will do the lot. If I was starting again, knowing what I know now, I’d think pretty seriously about searching out not one, but a few helpful people who I could turn to for conversation about different aspects of academic work. Some fortunate early-career researchers will be in research centres or teaching teams where a range of experienced people are readily available, but others will have to DIY, actively try to find people who can provide support with the range of scholarly issues, questions and difficulties that they wonder about. And of course there are a range of externally run programmes and social media support that can fill in some of the gaps that institutions leave.

However, it does seem to me that there is much more that many institutions could do for early–career researchers besides mentoring schemes. Relying on a single person as the point of all support and advice for newcomers to the insitutional family isn’t really good enough. An academic mentor is not a kind of all encompassing go-to person, an all-singing, all-dancing, one-stop-shop for everything from encyclopaedic answers to the provision of ongoing support and guidance on everything. (Just watch me strip down to my cape and tights in the telephone box before I come into a mentoring meeting.)

Institutions have a responsibility to provide more general support on top of mentoring schemes. Institutional structures are needed. Universities might – and of course some do – provide regular seminars, workshops and designated pools of people who are willing to provide publication and research development advice to early-career academics. (The Athena Swan scheme might be an existing model that UK universities could look at for a few spread-able ideas.) But they might go much further and also support – with money and time – academic development processes that cohorts of new staff design for themselves.

And of course there is also a responsibility for institutions to think about how to create cultures which are collectively and collaboratively supportive of new staff. Such supportive cultures would have an overall emphasis on everyone doing well rather than on the competitive production of a few research stars. But of course now I’m getting really Pollyanna-ish. So I might as well finish off by saying that more jobs and postdoctoral opportunities would be a pretty good idea too… despite my issues with academic mentoring, having more people to be mentored would be a fine problem to have!

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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5 Responses to academic mentoring – a super(wo)man ask?

  1. Tseen Khoo says:

    Agreed with so much in this post, Pat! Thanks for sharing your perspective on this issue. I’ve often encountered those formal programs in not so good ways, and find that they’re used as a catch-all. As you so rightly say – and I appreciate the Pollyanna-ism more than I probably should – the harder task of cultivating supportive research cultures is where the sustainable answer lies. But this is something to which many orgs are paying lip-service, but few are really putting $ where mouth is!


  2. tamsyndent says:

    Reblogged this on Tamsyn Dent and commented:
    Interesting blogpost that I just came upon….


  3. We need mentoring for mentors – or at least, some kind of advice and support about how to do it well.


  4. Helen Colley says:

    One of the issues here is that excellent and highly effective mentoring has always gone on in academia – it’s a.k.a. “the boys’ club”. It operates informally under the radar whether there are formal mentoring schemes or not. There’s quite a bit of research revealing how (the all too few) senior women in institutions tend to get inundated with people to mentor (just like we end up doing most of the pastoral work with students), but the boys’ club still tend to get the prestige, the publications, and the promotions.

    I think there is a groove emerging in the floor of the corridor leading to my office, worn down by all the members of staff and postgraduate researchers who will approach me rather than any other senior researcher in our department. I don’t begrudge them at all – I believe my open door policy is one that professors *should* have, to contribute to that research supportive culture for everyone. But it takes many hours which never show up on my workload allocation sheet. And it *is* work. It often involves some quite heartbreaking conversations as colleagues struggle with heavy workloads, raising a family, caring for elders and trying to do research. So that work involves a good deal of emotional labour (my own research on mentoring has shown that emotional labour is at the heart of mentoring, and can be very damaging), which is also not acknowledged or supported in any way.

    So mentoring is a very gendered process in all kinds of ways. And let’s watch out too – most academic institutions are bringing in mentoring schemes, so how long before they start doing what so many youth mentoring schemes do (ridiculously!) – limit the length of the mentoring period and set targets for mentoring outcomes such as number of publications and/or bids submitted. Watch this space…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for this!

    I think that programmes can so often neglect the development of the mentor, or fail to engage the mentors in their own professional development. There are tested models for coach/mentor development, and there really are ways to engage and recognise the work of the essential people who are doing mentoring out of goodwill, and good work citizenship, in addition to their busy and full jobs. I think the first step is to recognise mentoring as a practice as we would with any other professional skill, teaching, supervision. And just make sure we say a well done and thank you here and there.

    A second point that generates angst is how we enable mentors and mentees to contract and manage that relationship (as any other professional relationship), agreeing the limits and boundaries of the partnership, the roles and responsibilities. if we can get expectations for mentoring and reality to match we’re on to a winner!

    Kay Guccione


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