Sunday, February 24, 2013

Who have you mentored today?

Last week, I attended a panel discussion on "Mentoring Tips and Strategies" hosted by the Association for Faculty Women (AFW) at WSU.  One theme that recurred in the experiences and advice shared by the panelists was that important mentoring moments often occur outside of the formal meetings in which a 'mentor' attempts to impart wisdom and guidance to a 'mentee'.  Informal mentoring can even occur without the mentor, the mentee, or either recognizing its significance at the time.  Below, I have attempted to distill some of the ideas that emerged from the discussion on how to be more proactive as both a mentor and a mentee.

From the point of view of potential mentors:

  • As we focus on our own research and our own careers, we may be unaware of who is watching us and seeing us as role-models.  Therefore, it is worthwhile to step back every so often in order to consider what kinds of examples we have been setting.  
  • Seemingly small amounts of attention or encouragement can have an immense impact.  For example, asking a student whether he or she has considered doing independent research or applying to graduate school might open up a career path that had never occurred to the student before or might help overcome insecurities that were standing in the way
  • It is critical to keep an open mind about what the mentee needs from us, i.e., to listen, as well as to give advice.  Furthermore, in order to be a good listener, it may be necessary to first create the opportunity for the mentee to broach a difficult subject.  Simply asking "How are you?" -- and meaning it -- can make all the difference in being able to help.

From the point of view of potential mentees:

  • As we advance in our careers, we may no longer be assigned formal mentors; however, we don't outgrow the need for mentors.  Thus, we should actively identify individuals we trust and respect and reach out to them for advice, even if they belong to different departments or institutions.  Encouragingly, the experiences of the panel members suggested that many people are more generous with their time and attention than we might expect.
  • When searching for mentors, we should look beyond just our own superiors.  We all vary in our experiences and strengths; thus, there may be much to be learned from our colleagues and juniors.
  • Finally, we should not attempt to model oursevles on a single person, but instead should seek a variety of mentors.  That way, we can balance our mentors' different viewpoints and make informed choices that are right for ourselves.  

Thanks to my many mentors, and a special thanks to Carol Anelli for inviting me to the AFW meeting!

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