Why Be a Mentor?*
Being a mentor is a major commitment and often involves considerable time and work. Faculty members have many competing demands on their time. Why be a mentor?
To continue a long tradition that is critical to human progress
Think of “Socrates and Plato, Haydn and Beethoven, Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead.” In each pairing, a respected senior person with “prestige and power” in his or her field “took a junior person under the wing to teach, encourage, and provide an extra push to ensure the junior individual’s success.” (Virginia Commonwealth University, Faculty Mentoring Guide) Each of us could provide other, less dramatic but still important examples in every field of academic, cultural, technical, and social endeavor. In fact, one could argue that no field of human endeavor advances very far or very fast without mentoring. Thus, by serving as a mentor, you can advance to a new stage of career maturity and assure an enduring impact on your field.
To promote your own personal and professional development and the continuity of your professional values
Mentoring can be viewed as “a developmental stage in one’s professional life.” To the extent that “each developmental stage is crucial for growth, failure to serve as a mentor can lead to stagnation and internal conflict.” (Virginia Commonwealth University, Faculty Mentoring Guide) By becoming a mentor, you have the opportunity to affect the future by imparting your ideals, ethics, and professionalism to everyone you mentor. In this way, your work lives on in those you mentor.
To contribute to your department or school and the university
The largest investment a university makes is in its faculty. Therefore, it is extremely important to both hire outstanding colleagues and keep those colleagues moving forward in their careers. Ample studies show that positive early-career experiences presage productive and satisfying scholarly careers. The opposite is also true. Whatever you can do in the early stages to help a young scholar become better informed about the academic environment, more knowledgeable, more skilled, and more efficient is of great value to your department or school and the university.
To promote diversity and equity
The U.S. system of higher education was built largely for and by white males born into middle- and upper-class families. In the past few decades, the academy has become ethnically and socioeconomically more diverse. New faculty members who differ from the majority of the campus community with respect to factors such as gender, age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation often face additional challenges. Under these circumstances, effective mentoring is needed to help faculty members succeed and to help the department or school develop into a more effective and diverse community of scholars.
To add to your own knowledge
Mentoring is not a one-way street. Early-career faculty members likely know literature and research with which you are unfamiliar. They certainly have perspectives that are different from yours. New faculty members are chosen because they bring certain interests and new knowledge to the unit. They likely have studied with experts at other universities who have developed cutting-edge concepts and techniques. By working with these new faculty members, you not only impart what you know but also have the opportunity to learn what they know. In this way, helping early career faculty get off to a good start can revitalize your own work and thinking as well.
You can define your own contribution to a mentoring initiative. More contemporary conceptions of mentoring include a variety of mentoring arrangements beyond the traditional master-apprentice model. For example, mentoring can take the form of a very targeted contribution (e.g., teaching guidance). It can occur in groups and through teams rather than in a one-on-one setting. Mentoring can occur across departments and even across universities, and it can take place online. It can be an informal relationship or a formal one.
In sum, mentoring is best understood as a critical social process that helps faculty develop cultural competence, build skills, and develop the networks they need to succeed and to contribute to the academic enterprise. Each unit within the university needs to take responsibility for how that process unfolds, and each faculty member needs to take responsibility for how to relate to the mentoring process. Your contribution may come in a variety of forms and at different times. How and when to be a mentor is your decision. Therefore, consider carefully the role you want to play and how you can best contribute as a mentor.