This past academic year, I played a key role in implementing a new mentoring program in my School. I had begun the process of developing a new mentoring program for my Department, and when my Dean learned what I was doing, she asked that I work with our Associate Dean for Academic and Faculty Affairs to broaden my efforts to the School. I am excited and proud to be bringing a formal mentoring program to my School. But developing mentoring programs is difficult because each of us is different. We all have different strengths and weaknesses, and we all have different needs. What works for me may not work for someone else (and likely won’t). In fact, even the reception of the faculty across the school was widely varied. Some faculty wanted our program to be even more intense, with more rigid guidelines, while others were skeptical about even being involved in the program at all (this perspective from both junior faculty and senior faculty). So not an easy task.
Mentoring is an important part of the fabric of academics, and much attention has been paid to the process. Academic publications are filled with articles that describe new mentoring programs, new approaches to mentoring, what makes mentoring effective; while a quick google search shows countless mentoring resources for developing, maintaining and sustaining mentoring relationships. Measuring the success of mentoring programs is difficult, as metrics to describe academic success (e.g. grant dollars, publications, citations, teaching evaluations) cannot be attributed to a single factor. Complicating things further, mentoring programs, if they exist, take a variety of formats across institutions. And often the same mentoring program has varying levels of success because of varying commitments by different mentor/mentee pairs.
Not all mentoring relationships are created equally. Some are very formal, while others are rather informal. Some are intentional, while others are accidental. Some folks receive mentoring from those “above” them (think Full Professor mentoring an Assistant Professor), while others receive mentoring from their peers, or from those more junior than they are. There is no single approach to mentoring, and most people have some combination of mentors. In fact, often, you may have a mentor that you don’t even realize is mentoring you! Conversely, you may view someone as a mentor who may not view themselves that way.
When I think back on my own mentoring experiences, I start with my relationship with my Doctoral advisor, who was probably also my first real academic mentor. He mentored me not only in statistical methods research, but also in how to effectively collaborate with clinicians, grant writing, directing clinical trials coordinating centers – I learned an enormous number of academic skills from him! He also took the time to know me as a person, encouraged me to pursue my hobbies outside of school, and supported me when my husband and I decided that Graduate School was the right time to start our family. I learned a lot from him, and not just about how to mentor a doctoral student to successfully defend their dissertation, but also about the human side of mentoring. My Doctoral advisor didn’t exactly have a reputation for being warm and fuzzy, but that’s okay – his gruffness didn’t keep him from showing genuine concern for my success (and for the success of his other students). For me, this was extremely important; however, others may not care so much about the non-academic side of mentoring.
As I was finishing my PhD, I interviewed at several academic institutions. I’ve written about the job search before, there are a lot of opportunities during interviews to meet with a lot of different people. I always tell my mentees not to burn any bridges when they interview, as the folks you meet now will pop up in a variety of ways during your career. In fact, some of the folks I met during my interviews have turned into trusted mentors for me (two are now fellow Chairs, who I can rely on for good advice whenever I ask). I’ll come back to this.
At my first academic institution, there was no formal mentoring program. In fact, those in leadership were somewhat skeptical of formal mentoring, and I was left to my own devices to figure out how to obtain the mentoring I needed. Because of my personality, this was not an issue for me – I was able to seek out mentoring from those who I thought could answer my questions. However, this is not true for all junior faculty, and it is presumptuous to assume that everyone will be successful if left to their own devices. During this time, I was lucky to have some colleagues who were just a few years ahead of me, and who could advise me and help point me down the right path. I had one mentor with whom I had substantial overlap in my research, and he really became my de facto mentor, absent a formal mentoring program. It helped that he understood my goals and my personality, but I was extremely lucky that I was successful despite (or maybe in spite of?) the lack of formal mentoring, and that I had colleagues who were truly concerned with my success. In reality, there was no academic incentive for them to mentor me, nor did they get any “credit” for my success.
Post-tenure, my mentoring needs changed, and I struggled to find mentors. I sought out and found mentoring where I could. People helped me who I’m sure did not consider themselves my mentor. I settled for insightful conversations with a colleague while sharing a cab to the airport, or walking between meetings at a conference. I set up calls with colleagues who I thought might have had similar paths, and from whom I could benefit from their experiences. The attitude of the leaders in my institution (particularly after I was promoted to full professor) was that I was now the mentor, and so why did I need mentoring? I would argue that everyone needs mentorship at every phase of their career, and that mentoring needs change as your roles change, but my argument was met with opposition. It’s hard for me to understand the lack of support for mentoring – seeking out a mentor isn’t a sign of weakness or inability, but rather a recognition that we all need help being successful. We all need folks to help us figure out how to complement our weaknesses, and who can help us emphasize our strengths. I was fortunate that my paths had crossed with people across the country who were happy to give me advice here or there. And while I never had a formal mentor, I again had a lot of resources that I could cobble together to make sure my needs were met.
It was at that stage that I also found the most amazing peer mentoring group. I was invited to be on a School-wide committee charged with evaluating the direction of the school, and my hope was that the free lunch that it provided monthly would at least make the time worth it. However, I was pleasantly surprised to get to know two colleagues of mine from other Departments in my school, who were also miserably enduring this committee (for what it’s worth, the lunches weren’t even that good). Both were at about the same stage as I, and both were struggling with figuring out next steps, like me. We started meeting monthly for breakfast, finding new places to eat around town, and helping each other see the opportunities and HUMOR in our jobs and in our lives. We laughed so much during those breakfasts, even when we shouldn’t have been laughing, and I believe that without these two colleagues, two friends, I wouldn’t have made it to where I am today. Incidentally, each of us went on to become a Department Chair, and I have no doubt that at some point in the future I’ll see these two again – at Dean’s meetings.
As I started to look at Chair positions, and eventually negotiate the terms of my Chairpersonship, I once again cobbled together my resources to help guide me through the process. I was lucky that I had peers who had recently become chairs and others who had been long-serving chairs that I could rely on to help me navigate the process and negotiate my offer. One of these colleagues was someone I had originally met when I was interviewing right after graduate school. I am eternally grateful that so many people have been so generous sharing their time with me.
And that hasn’t ended now that I’m a Department Chair. A colleague of mine, who was once a Chair and is now a Dean (trained as a statistician) recently asked me about my career goals. She mentioned that she has had the opportunity to help mentor others who are considering applying to Dean positions, and that she’d be happy to mentor me similarly. I emailed her and told her that I’d like to take her up on her offer, and she replied asking me to provide her with a statement of my career goals, as well as my CV. While I am struggling to articulate my career goals (I really love my current job, and am not sure that I’m ready to think about what’s next), I am excited to have the opportunity to have a new mentor, and also to start to explore what future possibilities might be available to me.
My own experiences with mentoring have instilled in me a very strong mentoring philosophy. First of all, I’m a firm believer that mentoring is absolutely essential for all faculty at all stages of our careers. While our needs from a mentor may change as we progress through our careers, fundamentally, none of us is ever beyond the need for a mentor. We may call these folks different things at different times: maybe advisor, or confidante, or colleague, but often their roles are the same.
Also, I rarely pass up the opportunity to serve as a mentor when asked. I’ve been extremely successful mentoring doctoral students and post-docs – I was honored to receive an award for my outstanding mentoring. Beyond that, I’ve worked with several junior faculty as part of their mentoring committees for successful K01 award submissions (and some unsuccessful ones). But what I enjoy most is mentoring those who are trying to find the right path for them: students who think that an academic career may not be for them, but who might be convinced otherwise; mid-career faculty who are struggling with finding the right next steps to promotion; full professors who are contemplating the leap to Department Chair, or are looking for other opportunities in research and collaboration. It is my honor and pleasure to listen to them, and to talk with them, in addition to it being my responsibility. I suspect that not all of these folks see me as a mentor per se, and that’s okay – if I can help, I don’t care what we call it.
And as much as I love mentoring, and while I feel responsible for success for all faculty in my Department, I also know that I am not necessarily the best person to mentor everyone. So part of what I negotiated when I started as Chair includes money earmarked for mentoring resources for the faculty in my Department. This money is not restricted to junior faculty, but is available for all faculty should the need arise. Every year when I meet with faculty to discuss their progress, I again offer to help them find mentors (both internal and external), and to provide resources to help foster the mentoring relationship.
I think that there is a perception in academia that as mentors, we are trying to mold the next generation of faculty to be just like us. I’ve never been able to accept that my job as a mentor is to create the next StatGirl (in fact, there can only be one StatGirl!). My job as a mentor is to help my mentee become the best _______ they can be. Fill in the blank. Maybe the best Professor? Maybe the best Department Chair? But just as likely, I’m helping them learn to become the best pharmaceutical statistician they can be. Or the best FDA statistician. My job is to help provide my mentees with the skillset they need to be successful at what they want to do, not what I want them do. And I take this responsibility very seriously – maybe even more so than others because I’ve struggled to find mentors who view the process in this way.
Maybe my mentoring philosophy arises from my strong belief that our goal should be to diversify our field, rather than to continue to perpetuate more of the same. That means mentoring people to do what they enjoy and are good at, and then celebrating their successes. That means creating a culture in which we accept that success is defined in a variety of ways, rather than how it has always been. That means working to ensure that promotion and tenure is not limited only to faculty who do what I did. That means mentoring people to navigate the academic hierarchy successfully, even if their path does not mirror yours. In thinking about this, it seems like a catch-22: if we don’t broaden our definition of success in academics, we’ll never have the motivation to broaden our approach to mentoring. However, if we don’t broaden our approach to mentoring, we will never have the diversity we need to broaden our definitions of success.
As time passes, I hope that we will come to see the need for diverse approaches to mentoring, and that we will work to ensure all faculty receive the mentoring they need. I hope we will come to understand how we all need a team of mentors to support our success, and that we will all learn to make mentoring a priority. If you are mentoring someone, learn what their goals are, and get to know what they need from a mentor. Help them meet their goals, not yours. If you’re looking for a mentor, don’t be afraid to ask! People genuinely want to help others be successful, and if they tell you no, you don’t want them as a mentor anyway. In the meantime, I will keep doing what I can to help others be successful, and feel extremely fortunate that others are willing to continue do the same for me.