Throughout history, mentors have helped to shape the development of their protegés. Socrates, for example, mentored Plato, who mentored Aristotle, who mentored Alexander the Great. Undoubtedly, you too had a mentor – or probably several mentors – who guided you along your path to becoming a faculty member. The tremendous impact of a mentor on one’s career (and life) is therefore not in question. Rather, the question is how to initiate, maintain, and nurture effective mentoring relationships for everyone involved.
According to Hollywood, mentoring relationships are always vertical binaries in which an older sage prepares a brash protégé for an inevitable showdown or quest (think of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke in Star Wars). However, in real life such intense pairings are probably neither feasible nor desirable. In an academic context especially, protégés who expect a single mentor to answer or inform all of their career-related questions are likely to be disappointed. When juggling the roles of teacher, researcher, and committee member (as well as, perhaps, spouse and parent), it makes more sense to establish a cluster of mentors, each of whom can speak to a different aspect of your professional life (de Janasz and Sullivan, 2004; van Emmerik, 2004; Higgins and Kram, 2001). Moreover, research has also affirmed the benefits of “mutual mentoring” – that is, peer or near-peer relationships (Sorcinelli, 2007; Yun, 2008). Accordingly, your ideal mentoring network might eventually look something like the one to the right:
Best practices shared by protégés and mentors
- Respect confidentiality. Information shared within the relationship must remain private.
- Seek occasional feedback on how the relationship is working, and propose ways that it can be enhanced.
- Establish as soon as possible the parameters and expectations of the relationship: How often will you meet? Will you meet over coffee or in an office? Is your partner open to communicating by email or messenger? Is the length of the relationship open-ended, or will it come to an end after, say, two years?
- If a third-party inquires about how the relationship is working, always focus on the positive elements.
- Read the “Mutual Mentoring Guide (PDF)” developed by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Best practices for protégés
- Find out if your department has a formal mentoring program in place, but don’t rely on just this one “assigned” mentor.
- Identify in advance what specific types of knowledge and guidance you need, and determine which mentor you will approach for each need or cluster of needs.
- Before approaching someone to act as your mentor, undertake informal and tactful inquiries to ascertain who would best match each of your identified needs. Consider not only their areas of expertise, but also whether they will “click” with you in terms of temperament.
- Tell your mentors clearly and specifically the areas of development you would like to enhance with them, and the areas that you are working on with other mentors.
- Be inquisitive. When you meet with your mentor, come with questions prepared in advance, and supplement them with other queries that occur on the spot.
- Respect the amount of time your mentors can devote to working with you, and be accommodating of their schedules.
- Act promptly when a mentor offers to introduce you to another potential mentor, or suggests that you make contact with someone.
- Be ready to accept frank feedback with grace and good humour. If need be, ponder such feedback for a few days before responding to it.
- Express your gratitude: a verbal thank you, a card at the end of every term, an occasional note, sharing your appreciation of your mentors with their colleagues, and so on.
Best practices for mentors
Reflect on why you are willing to be a mentor. Do you see it as a collegial duty, that is, as “paying back” what you received from your mentors? Do you see it as a means of passing on the knowledge, lore, and wisdom you have acquired? Do you see it as a means of staying fresh, by sharing in the excitement of someone about to begin their journey? Do you see it as a necessary (or service-driven) evil? All of these (except the last one), and others, may be good reasons for taking on a mentor role. The important thing is to be clear on your own motivation.
Advocate for your protégé by putting him or her in touch with other potential mentoring partners.
Estimate how much time you can actually devote to your protégé, communicate that estimate to him or her, and then follow through on it.
- Listen carefully and without judgement when meeting with your protégé.
- Give concrete and specific advice, as appropriate. For example, if you think your protégé would benefit from attending a certain conference, say so. But don't overdo it. For example, if your protégé is wondering what committee work to undertake, try to ask open questions that will provoke reflection on where his or her abilities and interests are best suited.
- Give candid, tactful, and constructive feedback on those aspects of your protégé’s development that fall within the parameters that you initially agreed upon. If your protégé asks you for feedback on an area in which you lack expertise, refer him or her to someone who can better help.
- Provide emotional support (“morale boosting”), as appropriate. You should not take on the role of therapist for your protégé, but encouragement, reassurance, and empathy will sometimes be as useful as practical career advice.
- Help foster your protégé’s mentoring network by introducing him or her to colleagues beyond your department or university.
- de Janasz, S. C., & Sullivan, S. E. (2004). Multiple mentoring in academe: Developing the professional network. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 64(2), 263-283.
- Higgins, M. C. & Kram, K. E. (2001). Reconceptualizing mentoring at work: A developmental network perspective. Academy of Management Review, 26, 264-288.
- van Emmerik, I. J. H. (2004). The more you can get the better: Mentoring constellations and intrinsic career success. Career Development International, I(6/7), 578.
- Sorcinelli, M. D. & Yun, J. H. (2007). From mentors to mentoring networks: Mentoring in the new academy. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 39(6), 58-61.
- Yun, J. H. & Sorcinelli, M. D. (2009). When mentoring is the medium: Lessons learned from a faculty development initiative. To Improve the Academy: Resources for Faculty, Instructional and Organizational Development, 27, 365-384.
- Fant, G. (2000). How first-year faculty members can help their chairmen. The Chronicle of Higher Education. September 8, 2000.
- Jacelon, C.S. Zucker, D. M., Staccarini, J., Henneman, E.A. (2003). Peer mentoring for tenure-track faculty. Journal of Professional Nursing 19, (6), 335-338.
- Perlmutter, D. (2008). Are you a good protégé? The Chronicle of Higher Education. April 18, 2008.
- Stanley, C., & Lincoln, Y. S. (2005). Cross-race faculty mentoring. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 37(2), 44-46.
- Tenner, E. (2004). The pitfalls of academic mentorship. The Chronicle of Higher Education. August 13, 2004.
- Tracey, Melissa Dittman. (January, 2006) Faculty mentoring faculty. Monitor on Psychology. Vol. 37, No. 1, p. 38.
- Wagner. R. (2001). Why you'll want a mentor outside the ivory tower, too. The Chronicle of Higher Education. December 7. 2001.
- Williams, A. (2008). A helping hand for young faculty members. The Chronicle of Higher Education. September 12, 2008.
- Johnson, W. B. (2007). On being a mentor: A guide for higher education faculty. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers
Online guides from other institutions
- Ryerson University
- Medical College of Virginia
- Washington State University
- University of Alberta
- University of Guelph (PDF)
- University of Toronto
- Carnegie Mellon (Mentors and colleagues) (PDF)
- Carnegie Mellon (Fostering a mentoring culture) (PDF)
- The Society for the Teaching of Psychology offers a web-based mentoring service.
- Articles about mentoring in Waterloo's Centre for Teaching Excellence Diigo Group
If you have questions about this teaching tip document, or suggestions for enhancing it, please contact Mark Morton. The Centre for Teaching Excellence has a list of a hundred other teaching tip documents.