Keeping Faculty Mentoring Meaningful

study just released by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at Harvard University highlights various attitudes, preferences, and professional desires of young (Generation X) faculty. Among the findings:

  • Most Gen X faculty desire more mentoring and feel that they were inadequately mentored upon first entering their current position
  • Nearly all Gen X faculty desire to participate as mentors

Mary Coussons-Read, professor of psychology and acting chair of the department of physics at the University of Colorado Denver, suggests these best practices for structuring faculty mentoring to be effective and meaningful.

Be Deliberate

"Develop your mentoring program up front, and keep it pro-active and preventive rather than reactive. There is a difference between mentoring and remediation."
Mary Coussons-Read, UC Denver

Coussons-Read suggests,

  • Ensure that the goals of the mentoring are clear
  • Identify where vertical mentoring is most useful, and where peer mentoring is, and encourage each accordingly
  • Set a clear framework for mentor and mentee accountability

First, the goals of mentoring at your department or institution need to be specific and explicit. Will mentorships be focused on the tenure and promotion process? On assisting faculty in achieving specific goals in getting their research progressing? On how to serve as a good faculty citizen or university citizen?

Second, define the structure of the program. While in many cases having a senior faculty member mentoring a junior faculty member will make a lot of sense, don't neglect the added value of peer mentoring (not as a replacement but as a supplement to the more traditional mentorship). Peer mentoring can prove beneficial for encouraging research progress and accountability for associate professors, or for offering junior faculty a forum for sharing experiences and solutions on the road to tenure.

Establish a Mentoring Contract

Third, for mentoring to be effective, there must be accountability. "If I volunteer to be a mentor for Professor X," Coussons-Read remarks, "to get credit for that toward my 'service,' I need to document how I have been working with her." Coussons-Read recommends setting up a mutual evaluation process. This may be as informal as an end-of-year conversation between the mentor and the mentee, an opportunity for mutual feedback.

However, a better approach that some colleges (particularly medical schools) have adopted is to have both parties agree to a mentoring contract. This document would outline the expectations for a mentor and the expectations for a mentee.

"In fact, just having that agreement promotes a greater sense of responsibility."
Mary Coussons-Read, UC Denver

Mentoring With Tenure and Promotion in Mind

Coussons-Read identifies two best practices for mentorships that are focused on tenure and promotion.

First, keep them tightly structured. For example, a peer mentor group of 3-4 young faculty can have monthly meetings focused on addressing specific issues on the road to tenure (e.g., securing grants, or getting papers and monographs published in a timely manner).

"It is not effective to just have conversations with no specific goals. This will build rapport, but it won't help your faculty reach tenure."
Mary Coussons-Read, UC Denver

Second, keep the mentorship focused on constructive conversation that encourages the mentee to develop self-awareness. What does not work is prescriptive mentoring. Rather than sterile direction, the mentee needs a co-creative process, and needs to feel that he or she has a partner and an advocate who will help with staying on track and addressing critical decisions.

Scenario A: The Young Faculty

Coussons-Read offers this example of co-creative mentoring. Suppose you have a junior faculty on the tenure track, Professor R, whose research is on track but whose teaching evaluations are terrible. Professor R is disorganized, and the students in his class have complained to the department chair. In this case, the mentor could attend Professor R's class, record a session, and then view the recording with him afterward. During the viewing, the mentor can prompt Professor R to identify what is -- and isn't -- going well. This is a constructive conversation, in which the mentor and the mentee review specific examples together as the basis for problem-solving.

"The mentor effectively operates as a coach, offering accountability and encouragement. The mentor's role is to ask the right questions."
Mary Coussons-Read, UC Denver

Scenario B: The Stagnant Associate Professor

Another example. Suppose you have an associate professor who has been stuck in that rank for a while and is just barely passing post-tenure review. Professor Q needs to revitalize her research program. Her senior faculty mentor can ask her, "What is it you want to do? What is your goal for your research?" In the absence of a clear goal, they can work together to create a vision of what this revitalized research project will look like. Rather than give direction, the mentor needs to ask questions that prompt self-reflection: "What is interesting to you right now? What are the obstacles, what are the opportunities?" Then the mentor can help set specific operational goals (such as publishing an article within the next semester) to help Professor Q get back into the habit of publishing.

Mentoring with Faculty Citizenship in Mind

To help faculty become better citizens of their institution, a peer mentor group can help entering faculty with structured conversations addressing issues such as:

  • What is our university about?
  • What makes our university function?
  • The evolution of our academy and implications for access
  • Integration of research, teaching, and service
  • Where this university is going and what role the faculty member has in that

A senior faculty mentor can also help by encouraging a new faculty member to shift attention from just tenure and promotion to developing a sense of themselves as a member of a larger organization. A mentor can help a new faculty member reflect on what appeals to her about this institution, which opportunities for "plugging in" as a citizen of the university may prove most rewarding, and how to invest in the institution in a way that she may not have been able to at the institutions where she has served previously.

"There are two types of faculty: the one who is moving from institution to institution seeking the best package, and the permanent locals, those who at some point in their career find the place that they really like, and decide to bloom where they're planted. Mentoring helps to develop the second kind."
Mary Coussons-Read, UC Denver