Building Strong Mentoring Relationships
In a good mentoring relationship, both individuals play their parts. There are no passive roles. Both the person being mentored and the mentor have a responsibility to sustain the interaction; to guide the relationship along the right course; and to maintain, modify, or end the relationship as needed. Below we summarize advice on ways for individuals being mentored to assist in building a strong mentoring relationship. Much of the advice comes from experienced UNC-CH faculty mentors and junior faculty members who are currently in successful mentoring relationships.
Be Active in the Relationship
Stay in contact with your mentor. Follow up with your mentor and do what you commit to doing in conversations with your mentor. Regular communication is good; keep your mentor posted and give him or her regular updates. Celebrate successes with your mentor. Let your mentor know when you experience success, such as an article accepted for publication, appointment to a key committee, or an invitation to present your research. Keep your mentor informed about your successes not only so your mentor knows that the information and advice being provided are helping but also so he or she can spread the word about your successes to colleagues.
Ask for and act on feedback
If your program does not already have a provision for annual feedback, ask your mentor for an annual comprehensive assessment of how you are progressing toward your goals. After an appropriate amount of time for reflection, indicate how you will address any areas that are identified for improvement. Also solicit feedback about how specific classes, papers, or presentations could be improved. Treat your failures as opportunities to learn. The earlier you confront deficits, the quicker you can turn them into strengths. Find people who can help you overcome problems in teaching or research methods. In one case, a new faculty member who came from a very formal graduate program did not know how to connect with her students and was receiving poor evaluations. The department chair asked one of the department’s best teachers to work with her as a mentor. The mentor provided the new faculty member with a few simple techniques to use in her classes (e.g., requiring students to meet with her early in the semester). That advice, coupled with the mentor’s support, helped the new faculty member improve her interactions with students and, consequently, the evaluations she received.
Ask your mentor for help in defining your service role. Sometimes junior faculty can use the mentoring relationship to protect themselves from taking on jobs that distract from long-range plans such as completing a book or obtaining a grant. Some junior faculty, particularly women, may feel a special obligation to help out in the department. This can, at times, be detrimental to their careers. Saying “I’d like to speak to my mentor about this before I commit” can buy you time to seek advice about whether taking on a particular service task is really helpful for your career at this point. Ask your mentor how to say “no” and when to say “yes.” Discuss the mentoring relationship. Set up periodic meetings specifically designed to ask one another how the mentoring relationship is going. If the relationship is not working for one or both of the individuals involved, it is OK to acknowledge it and to find another relationship.
Set Appropriate Boundaries
Discuss the limits of confidentiality and your mentor’s reporting requirements. Mentoring relationships can be tricky at times, depending on the organizational relationship between a faculty member and his or her mentor. For example, will your mentor be your advocate in an evaluation process or perhaps be expected to provide a neutral evaluative report? Understand what role your mentor will play in your tenure review process. Whenever there is a potential future role conflict or role confusion, discuss well in advance with your mentor the best way to work together.
Be respectful of your mentor’s time. When you meet with your mentor, have an agenda in mind for the meeting. If you want your mentor to read and provide feedback on an article or paper you have written, give it to him or her well in advance of the time you need the feedback. Work out some ground rules early in the mentoring relationship (e.g., when you are going to meet, how often you will communicate, who will initiate contact, and the times when one or both of you are busy). Make it clear to your mentor that you want to know if he or she has other pressing obligations at the time you are requesting assistance. Don’t use your mentor as a personal counselor or tutor. There are many aspects of your life for which your mentor will be extremely beneficial. That said, it is typically a poor idea to ask your mentor to solve your personal or professional problems. Everyone has a personal life, and personal problems can affect the quality and timeliness of one’s work. You can share some personal challenges with your mentor, but perhaps only to provide context. Don’t ask your mentor to help you directly with those issues; however, he or she may be able to refer you to a counselor or other resource.
The same is true for work-related problems. Ask for guidance, not solutions. For example, although it is not a good idea to ask your mentor to be your writing coach, he or she may be able to direct you to a resource on campus where you can get the more intensive coaching you may need. Don’t turn the mentoring relationship into a social relationship. Mentoring is a special and crucially important role that is different from friendship. A friendly tone is a good thing, and meeting the mentor for coffee or lunch is a fine way to build the relationship or conduct business, but the mentor should not be a close friend. The primary issue is that once two individuals are close friends, the advice requested and received can change dramatically. If the friendship or social aspect of the relationship begins to predominate, you probably need another mentor. Beware of intra-departmental tensions playing out in the mentoring relationship. Sometimes mentoring relationships can be a venue for expressing the drama or even pathology existing in the departmental culture. For example, some departments have competing factions. If you are mentored by a person in one “camp,” those in the opposing camp may view you as an enemy. Mentors should not put new faculty member in this position. If you find yourself getting drawn into departmental conflicts, find neutral advisers inside or outside the department and take corrective action. You might also try to have a frank, friendly discussion with your unit head and/or mentor about the situation.
Maintain your Intellectual Autonomy and Integrity
Be willing to accept constructive criticism. If you bristle when criticized, then the mentor may be discouraged from giving you honest feedback. Getting honest feedback is one of the main reasons to have a mentor. You can then evaluate how, and in what ways, to respond to the criticism. Take responsibility for your own work and opinions. If you have questions about something your mentor says, express your thoughts, but do not argue with the mentor. If you have doubts about your mentor’s advice or feedback, then get a second opinion.
Retain your independence of judgment. Don’t surrender your own capacity for critical thinking to your mentor. Also, do not be overawed by your mentor. The main difference between mentor and mentee is age and experience, not some other mysterious quality. Always take time to reflect on the advice your mentors give you. Even if you have a high degree of confidence in your mentor, it is generally a good idea to make your own assessment of the advice given. For example, you can be overly influenced by your mentor’s evaluation of colleagues. All faculty members have their own baggage, no matter how good they are in other ways. To get a balanced perspective and to increase the diversity of advice, you might consider picking one mentor who is like you and one who is different from you on some dimension.