Enduring Qualities in Mentoring


In Greek mythology, a boy named Telemachus was the first to be mentored when his father Odysseus set off to war, leaving his development and education in the trusted care of Mentor. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, sometimes appeared disguised as Mentor to attend to the boy as well. What was Odysseus seeking for his son from these mythical figures? Nurturing and commitment. What did Mentor and Athena themselves need in order to take on the task of "mentoring" Telemachus? An understanding of expectations, knowledge to impart, and the willingness to mentor.

Nurturing, understanding, and commitment are as relevant in modern academia as they were in tales of mythology. However, they may be difficult to realize in the case of Sarah, who appears to be as poorly positioned to select a mentor as she may be to transition to career independence.

Let's Dissect This Case ...

The young academic, Sarah, has reached her postdoctoral years and has become focused on the need to think about her future. It is reasonable to assume that she has spent at least 6 years in the graduate and postgraduate research environment, in which she has been to exposed to many scientific presentations, some in the context of "job talks"; has witnessed the preparation of her contemporaries for the move out of training; and has used the library or Internet to research topics of interest. Thus, the first question that must be asked about the case is: Why is Sarah exploring possibilities for mentoring only now?

One may argue that is it better to seek advice "later than never," but Sarah's timing is very late indeed. Mentoring should be a process, not a single event or even series of discrete events. Theoretically, much of the mentoring time from which Sarah could have benefited has been lost. For example, Bland et al. 1 have described three areas of professional skills in which academics need to be educated: adopting academic values, managing an academic career, and establishing and maintaining a productive network of colleagues. These are skills that invariably take time to learn and implement, even for the most willing and talented.

Practically, we also learn about Sarah's concerns as to the need for grant funding to be competitive for a position. However, given the lag time between conceptualizing a grant proposal 2 and getting it funded, Sarah's wait until now to think about extramural funding virtually guarantees, at a minimum, the absence of that kind of funding, or a delayed transition to a position that may require it. No good mentoring at this point will easily fix that, although it is probably safe to say that a major grant is a greater factor in advancement within the professoriate than in the transition to an entry-level academic position. Nevertheless, Sarah's approach appears to be reactive to time running out on the postdoctoral clock; a proactive approach, capitalizing on experience and foresight, would have served her far better.

Some simple advice to those who seek mentoring:

* Be proactive: Seek out a mentor, or pair of mentors, whom you trust and who have the knowledge and willingness to teach you and advocate for you.

* Ask tough questions: Does the prospective mentor have the time and the right environment in which to mentor you? Find out about the experiences and success of others mentored by this individual.

* Create a framework for the relationship: Set clear expectations in terms of time and goals for yourself and from your mentor.

* Reevaluate the relationship frequently, taking into consideration all the variables: Bad mentoring relationships can be painful. Good ones can channel success and bring a lifetime of friendship and mutual fulfillment.

Complementing the receptiveness that a mentored person must bring to the relationship, mentors must bring a personal element that encourages confidence and creativity, a functional element that deals with pragmatic aspects of professional activity, and a development element that focuses on interpersonal skills and networking. 1. Professor Carol Jones may have these qualities and intentions, but does she reasonably have the time to utilize them for the benefit of yet another individual, particularly one who is not her scientific protégé? Her current load of students and her young family would suggest not. The match of gender may be enough to encourage informal dialogue about the experience and expectations of women in the workplace, but accessibility is a significantly more desirable attribute in a mentor than is a match of either gender or cultural background. 3

We also must ask: Where has Professor Michael Smith, Sarah's scientific mentor, been all this time? Why did he not pay attention to the progress, preparation, and prospects for Sarah's advancement? Perhaps there is no culture of mentoring at the university; perhaps he himself was inadequately mentored and doesn't fully understand the process.

There is no doubt that institutions should also bear responsibility for ensuring that the students they sponsor and the faculty they hire have easy and adequate access to mentoring, and that good mentors are rewarded for their dedication. At Stanford, for example, we implemented a mentoring program for clinical and basic science radiology faculty and tracked it for several years. 4 (see also 5). Our observations were that:

  • Formal mentoring can be instrumental in promoting the careers of individuals as well as maintaining the health and evolution of an organization overall.

  • Mentoring programs must be customized to meet the specific needs of both mentors and the mentored, and they must be established cooperatively so that participation is a mutually rewarding opportunity for all involved.

  • For mentors to be truly effective, resources with appropriate and up-to-date information must be readily available.

  • The environment should foster access to others with expertise outside the formal mentoring relationship-- for cross-fertilization of experience and ideas.

The mentor-mentored relationship is clearly a multidimensional variable in one's professional experience. It is only one variable, but it is a vital one that has taken on new importance as science increasingly moves in cross-disciplinary directions. Nonetheless, even in the most ideal academic environment, in which ample mentors are available with ample time, the onus of finding and maintaining a quality mentoring relationship ultimately lies with the individual on the mentored side of the equation.

References1. C. J. Bland et al., Successful Faculty in Academic Medicine: Essential Skills and How to Acquire Them (New York: Springer, 1990).

2. J. Illes, The Strategic Grant-Seeker: Conceptualizing Fundable Research in the Brain and Behavioral Sciences (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Press, 1999).

3. A. Palepu et al., Academic Medicine 73, 318 (1998).

4. J. Illes et al., Academic Radiology 7, 717 (2000).

5. L. P. Fried et al., JAMA 276, 898 (1996).

Want to send an email to the author?

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers