Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Mentoring & Money

One of the stunning findings of the NRC report on women scientists and engineers at 'critical transitions' in their careers as faculty at research universities is the effect of mentoring on the funding success rate for women:

Female assistant professors who had a mentor had a higher probability of receiving grants than those who did not have a mentor. Chemistry female assistant professors with mentors had a 95% probability of having grant funding versus 77% for those without mentors. For all six fields surveyed female assistant professors with no mentors had a 68% probability of having grant funding versus 93% of women with mentors.

Contrasts with the pattern for male assistant professors; those with no mentor had an 86% probability of having grant funding versus 83% for those with mentors.

Those are impressive and interesting numbers.

I wonder what exactly about being mentored affects funding success rate for women (but not for men).

As an assistant professor, I didn’t have an official mentor at my first university and must admit I didn’t really want one, especially considering the available options. A conversation with the department chair about mentoring went something like this:

Chair: Do you .. um.. want a .. a .. mentor? [looks at shoes]
Me: No.
Chair: OK.

By the time we had that conversation, I already had my first grant and was soon to get my second. I felt like I was doing fine without a mentor, and I wasn’t really sure what a mentor was for. I just knew that no one else in the department had ever had one and it would have felt weird to be the only one with an official mentor.

I hope that most departments now have a systematic approach to mentoring, assigning mentors to all assistant professors, and not singling anyone out.

At University #2, the topic did not arise, perhaps because I arrived with several years of experience (and funding). I had an unofficial mentor and he certainly helped me a lot, but mostly by being a great colleague. We were coPIs on a grant in my early days at University #2, though I also had other grants as sole PI or with other colleagues.

So, in terms of my experiences being mentored, it’s hard for me to think of examples of how being mentored did or might have affected my funding success rate.

As a senior professor in the capacity of a mentor rather than a mentee, I can think of a number of things I would do to help a junior colleague get funded:
  • encourage them to submit a proposal that they might otherwise not write/submit owing to lack of confidence or to uncertainty about how to divide their time between the many and various responsibilities of an assistant professor;
  • bring to their attention some funding opportunities that might not have occurred to them;
  • facilitate collaborations with senior colleagues (including me) because these might lead to new proposals that lead to grants;
  • read proposals before submission and give advice about content, style, budgets, project plans etc.;
  • introduce junior colleagues to influential people at conferences (potential reviewers of proposals; funding agency program directors) or mention their names in conversations/correspondence to help increase their visibility; and
  • suggest junior colleagues as possible panel members at funding agencies, so they can see how things really work at that end of the funding food chain.
Those are all possibilities (please suggest others), but why doesn’t mentoring increase the funding success rate of male assistant professors as much as it does female assistant professors?

I don’t believe that men are being discriminated against at funding agencies. The data do not support such a conclusion.

So let’s consider the issue from the mentoring end of the process, not from the funding decision end of the process:

(1) Are men mentored in a different way? Do mentors assume that the male assistant professors know more than they actually do, so help them less, so the mentoring is less effective?


(2) Are men less responsive to mentoring attempts? That is, do they get advice but tend to ignore it?

I’m not sure if either of those explains the statistics in the NRC report, but I have seen both of those phenomena in action.

My conclusions:

Female assistant professors: Don’t say no to being mentored (but make sure you get a good mentor – someone you can talk to and who is interested in helping you in a non-patronizing way).

Male assistant professors: Listen to your mentors and/or Don’t let them assume that you already know what you need to know about grant writing and funding opportunities; ask questions.


John Vidale said...

Maybe women who seek mentors also write better proposals?

A variant, maybe mentorship is followed through primarily by more competent women?

Maybe adding mentors as co-PIs or PIs to proposals raised the rate of success?

On the face of it, those numbers are very hard to believe. Mentoring is good, but mentoring applied across the board to everyone is unlikely to cut the rate of women being unfunded by almost a factor of five, and to more than twice as low as the rate for equally mentored men.

In a nitpicking mode, in my field, the situation is not being funded versus being unfunded. Grants range from $10K to $2M - the issue is what fraction of proposals get funded, and even more, just how much gets funded. Everyone gets some funding. So the metric is odd.

Suresh Venkatasubramanian said...

Could it be that male assistant professors don't have formal mentors (and so don't report having one), but build up a network of people to consult with, getting the benefit of mentoring without the official label ?

Anonymous said...

Actually I tend to see these findings as showing discrimination toward women, not to men! The way I read it is, FSP's need mentors in order to get funded, whereas MSPs don't.

Why would this be? some theories:
1. Maybe the mentor is a co-PI on the young faculty's grant. --> FSPs can't get grants funded without Male Big Cheese's name on it because people don't believe that the FSPs can stand on their own two feet. Whereas MSPs have no problem getting funded without a Male Big Cheese on it because their abilities are not questioned.

2. Maybe FSPs get funded due to the mentor "promoting" them in ways your post gave exmamples of, like suggesting them to review panels to give them greater visibility etc. Whereas MSPs can get funded without such additional visibility --> their abilities are taken more at face value and less 'self promotion' is needed to convince people that they are grant-worthy.

An alternative approach to thinking about this disparity is that MSPs actually DO have mentors that help them get funded, just not "officially-designated" ones and hence they are categorized as being mentor-less even though in reality they do have mentors helping them. For example I always see the young male faculty being invited out to lunch, or they and their wives are invited to social events by the older male faculty. This even leads to the wives of the older male faculty become chummy with the wives of the young male faculty etc. etc. Whereas the new female faculty are usually ignored and no interest is taken in them. I see very obvious signs of older male faculty "taking under their wing" the younger male faculty even though it's not a formally spelled out mentor relationship.

Susan B. Anthony said...

Maybe it's a time management thing? It wouldn't surprise me if young FSP's were more likely than young MSP's to spend large amounts of time on teaching, student advising, committee work, etc. (or even working on publishing data already in hand) at the expense of grant-writing.

Alternatively, there might be an element of self-confidence or self-promotion involved in grant-writing that feels less comfortable for women than for men at this stage. I know it's hard for me to feel like I can write the next proposal when I'm still backed up with work from the last one (and even from my PhD project). It's been shown that search committees tend to evaluate female candidates more on their past performance and male candidates more on their future potential: maybe assistant professors of both genders evaluate themselves the same way.

Anonymous said...

What Suresh said. Also because perhaps more senior male PIs would naturally mentor a young MSP, so he gets the mentoring with or without the official assignment. I'm not implying this is intentional (for a senior male PI to mentor a young MSP more than a FSP), but rather an unintentional bias. People tend to mentor those that they can "see themselves" in, etc...

Shannon said...

I'm a female assistant prof in the social sciences, working on a grant proposal right now. One of the things struggle with is promoting myself - in the ways that you mention, but also in the applications themselves. It seems to me that this is a skill that often comes easier to men but is more difficult for women. Mentors may either do this for women (as you suggest) or push women to do it for themselves. Men, on the other hand, may be more comfortable doing this right off the bat (and data on starting salaries and salary negotiations seems to back this up), such that having a mentor help them with this is less important.

Anonymous said...

I have informally mentored several folks (both male and female). I have three major points I try to make:

1. In your first two years make sure YOU work in the lab, For several years (perhaps many), you will be the most productive person in your lab. You can get a lot done in the first two years, setting the foundation for the first few papers, generating good projects for new grad students and producing preliminary data for grant proposals. Too many folks transition immediately into the office, writing lots of small grants, usually highly competitive boutique grants, not the main bread and butter ones.

2. Write your first RO1 essentially immediately and put all your best eggs in that basket. In my biomedical field junior people often arrive with a large start-up package. This is good for obvious reasons but also bad for less obvious ones. I think it slows, for many the process of applying for their first NIH RO1. People are MOST competitive for these when they just arrive with a fresh set of pubs and preliminary data, before their is an expectation that they have accomplished more in their own lab (often a slower process). In my area, this is the grant that will keep you going forever (my first, written before I arrived, is now in year 18). Instead many people spend time writing other things (honorary grants like Searle or Pew, extra grants like ACS or others that split your grant pie too finely, or highly competitive NIH new Innovator or other wards, that almost no one gets). Make sure doing your own research with your two hands and writing the RO1 come first. if you have time for other things, then do them afterward.

3. As FSP said, have as many colleagues as possible read proposals before submission and give advice about content, style, budgets, project plans etc.

I sounds like a broken record on these three topics and I am sure some of my junior colleagues (who get more junior every day, somehow) think I sounds like their mom but....

Mark P

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The most useful form of grantsmanship mentoring *by far* that I ever benefited from was being given copies of successfully funded grant applications. I return this favor by freely distributing copies of my successful applications to junior faculty at my institution.

Anonymous said...

Wow, FSP. I love your list of things you would do as a mentor. However, except for the first one, they all depend on a fair amount of overlap in research area.

My first official mentor was a little...off balance. Actually, I would say our relationship was toxic. It's possible that my success in getting funding was due to their mentoring, but it was more along the lines of "I've got to get a grant and get out of this nuthouse asap" than because of good, concrete advice.

Anonymous said...

BTW, about your blog header - infinitesimal? That does not make much sense... Unless you believe the number of science female faculty tends to zero as n (the number of people in the world?) tends to infinity...

another junior FSP said...

My university (or at least department) assigns mentors to all assistant profs, so I can't really comment. Of course, being assigned a mentor is meaningless - it's not like my assigned mentors have ever come to me to ask how things are going!

The biggest difference I've noticed between the AsFSPs and AsMSPs in our department is in networking. I've found myself telling more senior AsMSPs about funding opportunities, training opportunities, campus resources, etc - because I reach out and find mentors in each of the areas I need, who then give me information that I can use, while the AsMSPs are more likely to sit in their office and focus on what is immediately in front of them. Just having a mentor doesn't work any magic - seeking out your mentor and then listening to what he/she tells you does.

So I'd probably go along with the people who say that women with mentors may be more willing to listen to the advice those mentors give, and therefore reap more of the benefits.

Alex said...

First, for male science professors, the difference between the 83% vs. 86% success rates for mentored vs. unmentored faculty could simply be statistical noise. Even so, it would mean that at the very least mentoring makes no significant difference. There's no great mystery as to why mentoring might be helpful for women, but it is something of a mystery as to why mentoring might make no noticeable difference for men. One thing I do wonder about is whether the informal nature of mentoring for many men poses methodological problems for a study like this. As others have noted, men get a lot of informal mentoring. Asking whether a man was mentored may elicit a "no" response from somebody who got a lot of informal advice but no formally designated mentor, and a "yes" response from somebody who had one lunch with a formally designated mentor but otherwise mostly just said hello in the halls.

For women, I've noticed that when there's a formal program to mentor women, the mentors may or may not be effective (not being the recipient of such mentoring I can't judge) but it's at least somewhat organized. Maybe because it's a response to a widely recognized problem, maybe because the people involved care about it, maybe because there's funding for these sorts of things. But whatever it is, it's somewhat easier to determine whether somebody did or didn't get mentored.

In my own department, the formal component of new faculty mentoring was something of a joke, and it illustrates the problems with answering such a survey. They hired 3 of us that year (2 females, 1 male). Two people were formally designated as mentors for us because they needed light service assignments. (One had his teaching load bought out to do service work for a professional society and he was working from home most days, the other was on maternity leave but the school still required that she have a service task.) Needless to say, there was little in the way of formal mentoring. (For the record, I don't fault them, especially the one on maternity leave. The chair should have given the task to somebody else.)

OTOH, due to space problems I had to share an office with a senior colleague for a few weeks. I was lucky enough to share with the nicest person in the department, and he patiently answered each and every n00b question. Meanwhile, for my first grant proposal another senior colleague gave me a copy of his first successful proposal, and some tips from his experience reviewing for that program. My proposal was funded on the first try.

So, the formal mentoring didn't really work. The informal mentoring was very successful. I don't know what I'd say on a survey if it only had a few yes/no questions with little room to explain the details.

Alex said...

BTW, regarding sharing an office: I later learned that when they were deciding who should get the short end of the space allocation stick, they decided it would be politically safer to make me share than to make a new female professor share. So I wound up getting a few weeks of intensive mentoring from the nicest person in the department. I wonder what decision they would have made if they had realized that it was an awesome mentoring experience rather than a burden.

Anonymous said...

As a younger male scientist who has been reasonably successful mentor-free, I can give my personal view on this. For me personally, having a mentor would have caused more problems than it would have solved. I'm pretty opinionated and I think I would have ended out getting into disagreements with any mentor. This isn't to say I'm always right, but I think if you're opinionated, competitive, etc sometimes it's better not to have a mentor. At the risk of sounding sexist.. is it possible women are more cooperative or otherwise receptive to mentoring than men, on average? I remember even in grad school I was aching to be in charge of my own research. Whether or not this was a good idea is debatable. :)I actually got along with my advisor mind you, I just wanted to be on my own.

Sally said...

I have a non-academic mentor: my best friend is a project manager at a big corporation and a freelance writer on the side. When I was a grad student leading a major proposal and shaking in my boots because I was in charge of some very senior scientists, my friend/mentor helped me write a job description for everyone on the team. The senior scientists were quite happy with the jobs I assigned them, and what started out as a scary process turned into a great experience once I got organized.

Another time, I was fed up with a flaky co-author who kept wanting to make substantial changes to a manuscript, even after it got a good referee report. For my next paper, my mentor told me to get the co-authors to approve my outline before I wrote a word. Then if they kept wanting rewrites, I could say "all the authors approved this outline; I'm following the plan we agreed upon." It worked great.

I'm quite sure following my non-academic mentor's advice saved me a year in grad school. My thesis advisor used to say I had a talent for running projects, but there's no talent involved--I learned (and still learn) from someone who knows what she's doing!

Anonymous said...

I think some of the % could be misleading.

In my dept, mentors are assigned - so you don't really have a say. My assigned mentor is rather useless. However, I have a lot of unofficial mentors. Therefore, while I would technically fall into the category of an Asst. Prof with a mentor, my "grant-getting" rate really has little to nothing to do with my mentor.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what Suresh said. In my experience (as a FSP), men get mentoring without the label much more frequently than women, so they are likely to answer that they have not been mentored. I have a few MSP colleagues that would die rather than accept the fact that they were successful thanks to a more senior professor helping with grants. In contrast, I have no problem acknowledging the same help in public.

Anonymous said...

@anon 4:11

HA! I know boys club dudes too who would rather die than admit they were "helped", and I ask them if they examined their unearned male and white privilege recently and if they pay club membership dues.

EliRabett said...

One of the principle things a mentor can do is tell you what not to do, whom not to trust and where not to go.

Anonymous said...

One of the comments really touched a nerve with me. My first R01 application, written in 1985 or thereabouts, was turned down. One of the reviewers told my dept chairman that he thought I had taken credit for work that my (male) superiors must have conceived. In fact, I had only reported in the preliminary data section work that I had both conceived and accomplished. Would he have thought to make that criticism if I were male? I suspect not.

Anonymous said...


This is the first time I've noted you identifying as a *senior* professor within your department's weird internal "upper" and "lower" full professor definition.

Hooray! It was already apparent from your reviews of your blog, but I'm glad you voiced it explicitly!

Also, so far, your blog has been brilliant, and I'm glad Science types are the same as Humanities and Social Science types in the basic nature of work. (Though if you figure out how to convince national funding bodies to fund H&SS in the same manner, with similar respect for experimental equipment, and with the similar research team attitude when it comes to data collection, analysis and research let me know!) Big hoorays on your (self) promotion to a (n unoffical) grade!