Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mentor Bully

Not long ago, I attended a workshop that included a presentation on mentoring. The presentation was given by someone who had a lot of experience with mentoring students, postdocs, and other faculty, in training faculty to be mentors, and in training faculty to train other faculty to be mentors (etc.). You get the picture: this person was immersed in the theory and practice of mentoring and had been asked to share their experience with 'best practices' and advice about mentoring.

In particular, I was curious to learn whether and how peer institutions organize mentoring systems for assistant professors, and to share ideas with colleagues about postdoc mentoring plans (such as we submit with NSF proposals that include requests for postdoc salary). In fact, I got a lot out of talking to the other workshop participants about mentoring issues, even though we were not the "experts" on mentoring. It turns out many of us had similar questions and concerns.

What did we get from the "mentoring expert"? We got abrupt and patronizing comments, including responses like "no kidding", "that's obvious", and "that's wrong" (with no explanation for why it was wrong, just that it was not what the Mentor Expert does).

I wondered: perhaps this is yet another cautionary tale about what can happen when you become too expert in a topic, even a supposedly warm-and-fuzzy topic like mentoring. And this is what can happen when you try to convey your knowledge and experience in a text-laden Powerpoint presentation, and are not happy when questions and comments from the audience attempt to make you veer from your prepared (bullet) points.

Memo to me: try not to be like that if at all possible

Did I learn anything new about mentoring at this workshop? Not exactly, but it was still good to see what the range of possibilities are, for example, for mentoring systems for assistant professors:
  • Should mentors be assigned or should they volunteer? There were surprisingly strong feelings about this.
  • How many should each person have (1? 2? the entire department? different mentors for research and teaching?) 
  • Should mentor and mentee meet a certain minimum number of times per term or per year or just leave it open and hope that conversations happen naturally? 
  • What are the most essential roles of mentors? To answer questions or to be proactive about asking questions and giving advice? To read grant proposals and manuscripts before they are submitted?
  • Should anything 'extra' be done for members of underrepresented groups, or would that be 'singling them out' in an unfair and possibly humiliating way?
If I had to guess in an unscientific way, I would say that most of the participants I talked to and whose departments have some sort of mentoring system would answer:

assigned, 1, once/term, all of the above, no on doing 'extra' mentoring for underrepresented groups

... and the mentoring expert would answer:

volunteer, entire department, conversations should happen naturally, whatever everyone has time for, yes on doing 'extra' mentoring for underrepresented groups


MathTT said...

As an assistant prof, I got assigned a mentor inside my department who met with me precisely never. Never asked how I was doing. Never read anything I wrote. Never checked in. (Luckily, an unassigned mentor was a little more on the ball.)

I later got assigned a mentor outside of my department who was supposed to talk about departmental issues that maybe I didn't want to bring to someone inside the department, or think about the tenure & promotion process, or help me figure out the bigger workings of the university. We had a great lunch meeting once. She then stood me up. Twice in a row on consecutive Fridays. We haven't met in years.

I really do wish I had some honest-to-goodness mentoring. I wonder what it looks like?

studyzone said...

I'm a new tenure-track faculty member at a PUI. I've already identified several colleagues in my dept. who I see as being good mentors (I've been blessed with a supportive department as a whole). My university has a formal mentoring system, where the mentoring coordinator matches the mentors to the mentee. First-year faculty get a "social mentor", who shows us the ropes, treats us to meals and outings on a regular basis, and serves as a sounding board. Next year, I'll have a formal mentor, who is supposed to guide me through the 3rd-year review/tenure process. I like that there is a strong emphasis on helping new faculty grow in their position (and not feed us to the wolves).

none said...

I so agree. I keep signing up for these type of workshops and not getting anything out of it. I have adopted a "it is worth it if I learn one thing" mentality. I even joined organizations to help run workshops so I could help pick better speakers. What would you recommend to organizers to help them pick speakers who would be more helpful to the audience?

Anonymous said...

Here's how our Department does this--we started this procedure about five years ago. It's mandatory for Asst. Professors, and recently we set up a voluntary system for Assoc. Professors. I think its worked well for the folks whose committees I sit on, though they may feel differently.

Should mentors be assigned or should they volunteer?

Assigned, and chosen after a discussion between the mentee and the Dept. Chair. Of course, someone could certainly decline. I'd also emphasize this does not replace informal mentoring by the same or other people, but ensures everyone has someone to talk to.

How many should each person have?

Our committees have 3 members and deal with both issues.

Should mentor and mentee meet a certain minimum number of times per term or per year or just leave it open and hope that conversations happen naturally?

We have mandated meetings once a year--preferably in the semester other than the one when they have their yearly meeting with the Dept. Chair

What are the most essential roles of mentors? To answer questions or to be proactive about asking questions and giving advice? To read grant proposals and manuscripts before they are submitted?

All of the above. In the ones I am on, the mentee came to the meeting well prepared with a written list of questions/issues. I also think we need to be proactive, and to provide help with manuscripts and grants.

Should anything 'extra' be done for members of underrepresented groups, or would that be 'singling them out' in an unfair and possibly humiliating way?

Everyone can benefit from good mentoring and I see no need to single people out.

Mark P

Alex said...

It is disturbing to me how often workshops are useless. They tend to be given by people who want their audience to drink the kool aid. If you drink it, you come out awed, gushing about the profound insights you got. If you don't, you come out annoyed at the jerk on stage.

The best ones are the teaching workshops, where they lecture you on not lecturing. When they get to the inevitable slide on "We need to adopt better teaching methods because China is kicking our ass" slide I ask "So, should we adopt the traditional, exam-driven system of China?"I. They don't like that question.

OMDG said...

Maybe an assigned mentor is an ok place to start, but in my experience my best mentors have been people that I have found on my own. Maybe that's because I took more initiative in those cases as a mentee, and maybe it was because I picked them because I connected with them better.

In any case, having a bully as a mentor is never any good. I wonder whether your speaker had much experience with actual mentorship beyond his ppt presentation.

Anonymous said...

Should anything 'extra' be done for members of underrepresented groups?

Absolutely not if these groups are { women, african american, ... }.

This would be bigotry: doing something extra for a someone just because of their race or gender.

Funny Researcher said...

It is interesting to see that people do have "official" mentors assigned to new TT profs.

I was in a on-campus interview, and had a meeting with a senior (lets leave it at that) member of the faculty. I happen to ask if there is an official or even unofficial mentoring program for new TT's and I got the following answer:

"If a new TT needs a mentor, then the person is not ready yet to be a professor"

Needless to say the meeting ended after that...probably because of my face expression :D

Anonymous said...

Please -- let's lose the word "mentee" and use the more proper "protege."

Anonymous said...

The technical term for a "mentoring expert" is a dementor.

Re extra mentoring for members of underrepresented groups: Haven't we suffered enough?

Sorry for the jokes, FSP, but in my highly dysfunctional department, mentoring is...problematic.

Alex said...

FSP, I'm curious on what basis you say that this person is any more of an expert than any other faculty member. You mention that this person had a lot of experience mentoring students and postdocs, but don't you and most of your colleagues have a lot of experience with that? You also mention that this person has mentored a lot of faculty, and I'd be curious to know what that means exactly. So far, I'm not seeing the case for this person being any more expert than you.

You do mention that this person has given a lot of workshops. On the surface, that does seem like a qualification: There are subjects that don't have much of a direct connection to my research experience, but I've been assigned to teach them on a regular basis because somebody had to, so (IMHO) I've developed some expertise in these topics.

However, one key factor is that when I teach these subjects I have to immerse myself in the readings, set up and solve a lot of problems and explain the process, prepare homework solutions, grade homework (ugh), and spend a lot of time working with students on how to solve these problems. I get all sorts of checkpoints to see if I really understand the subject, and all sorts of opportunities to ponder new questions and deepen my understanding.

When I go to a workshop on subjects like teaching or mentoring, unless the person cites a lot of literature, it isn't necessarily obvious to me that the person has immersed themselves in teaching any more than I have* or compared their understanding of the subject with some outside metric or body of knowledge. And the workshop is over that afternoon, so there's (usually) little or no chance for the presenter to go through a feedback loop where I (the student, in this setting) show them my attempts to resolve issues in teaching or mentoring and compare my experience with their understanding. So they don't get the same checkpoints and learning opportunities that a regular course instructor would get.

So, I'm curious why you identify this presenter as an "expert" on mentoring, or at least as a person who is more expert than you.

*Since experts on teaching and mentoring tend to have an easier time getting release time to pursue projects in those areas, it is arguable that I actually have immersed myself in teaching more than some of the teaching experts have, even though I identify my expertise as being in a disciplinary subfield distinct from teaching. Moreover, I run a large (by local standards) research group, so it is arguable that I have more in-depth experience with mentoring than some of the experts who do not supervise many research students.

Female Science Professor said...

Alex, you're right that everyone in that room had a lot of experience mentoring, but the Expert had spent a lot of time running mentoring workshops and had devoted a lot more time and thought to 'best practices' in the organization of mentoring systems in departments. This expert had also read books/articles and attended conferences and other workshops.

Comrade Physioprof said...

My experience is that the people who lead these fucken workshops on grantsmanship, mentoring, lab management, etc, are virtually all pretty much the last people whose advice anyone would or should ever trust, in light of the actual accomplishments of these leaders in the areas they are supposedly experts at.

EliRabett said...

OK what a mentor SHOULD do is let you know where the cheese is hidden and who hides it. In every system there are key elves in the boiler rooms who basically control if you survive. You need to be introduced to these people by someone who has a good relationship with them. You need to be taught how to care and feed them. You need an early warning system before things go administratively blooey.

You, as a newbee have nothing to trade. The mentor should be willing to share some trade bait on your behalf.

There are also Orcs who put on a good show. You need to be told to avoid these people and why.

Someone has to introduce you to the right lunch/gym crowd.

As to "extra" mentoring, someone from an under-represented group needs entre to those in their category on campus. If you think this is wrong, wrong, wrong, why are you reading this blog?

EliRabett said...

Oh yeah, these meetings are often worth it for the information you get from other attendees

Anonymous said...

@EliRabett: Your comments are the best. I am going to be laughing about elves in the boiler rooms all day. :)

Anonymous said...

I was assigned a mentor who is very nice but infamous as the department's worst shirker - as in skips office hours, meetings, and occasionally classes - great thanks for that. I think mentoring is critical but generally I've used less formal methods more effectively but that's probably a function of who my formal mentor is. As for the 'mentoring expert' leading your session - well I think I'd prefer the mentor I have. What a jerk!

Anonymous said...

I've been acting as a volunteer mentor for junior faculty in our department, because no one else was available. I meet with people informally, when they have questions or when I see them in the hall. I don't read grant proposals or manuscripts unless I'm a co-author, which is fairly rare, given the huge diversity of research in our department.

One aspect you left out is how often "hallway meetings" can occur. With 9 faculty in 4 different buildings, we almost never see each other, which makes mentoring very difficult.

Anonymous said...

Mentoring: do what FSP said (and definitely not what the "expert" suggested...)

And: it is crucial to urge new faculty to reach out to more senior colleagues who are not their official mentors. Everyone has something to contribute (even if it's only a bad example), and it is extremely unlikely that a single colleague will be equipped to provide high-quality advice/assistance on all of the many facets of this job.

Female Computer Scientist said...

Ugh, this person sounds like a real winner.

I think it's hard to generalize, and varies by the individual.

In my first year, I didn't need vague general advice from once-a-semester formal mentor lunches, I needed day-to-day, informal advice on decision making ("How many office hours should I hold per week?" "How do I phrase this email to my program manager?" "Do I accept this PC invitation, or will it be a time suck that won't pay off?"). For the day-to-day stuff, I tend to ask other junior faculty, because it's much less embarrassing.

I guess informal vs. formal mentors play a role here. My informal mentors have been much more helpful on the day-to-day, but my formal mentors have been helpful on the Big Decisions ("Do I fire this graduate student?")

As for underrepresented groups, I definitely wish someone would set up a cross-university mentoring system for junior faculty in STEM. There are so very few senior women/people of color around; when someone says/does something horrible to you it's not always clear what the right path is. There's also some pretty strong exclusion in some fields, so that opportunity for getting the inside scoop over a beer is lost. Maybe a virtual community could help with that.

Anonymous said...

I find academia 's reliance on mentoring harmful to young scientist's careers and disengenuous. Almost every line of work will lead to younger people being mentored by older more experienced ones. But they don't go around making a big show of it. And more importantly it should not be a career breaker if you did not have the "right " mentor yet in academia it often is. There are also too many conflicts of interest and small worlds and scarce resources, to really make many faculty truly interested in mentoring in the real sense.

Strung out cyclist said...

Agreed. The whole idea of mentoring is stupid. If you're any good as a scientist, you should be overflowing with good ideas and require very little input from "superiors." The current system of constant supervision, constant jumping through hoops to get the next "credential" almost guarantees unoriginal, lacklustre science.