Mentoring is much on my mind lately. This past summer I agreed to participate in a college initiative that initially appeared to be focused on teaching, but seems to have drifted into the more amorphous category of "mentoring." I'm struggling to figure out what to make of that. And I'm always thinking about the ways I mentor undergrads, grad students, advisees current and former, and colleagues.
Last week I was on a wonderful NCA panel on women and mentoring, which was useful for helping me clarify some of my ideas about mentoring. Here are a few things that emerged from the collective conversation:
1. Mentors and advisors are not the same thing. The consensus seemed to be that the advisor is more squarely focused on academic and professional development, in a sometimes narrow but useful sense. That is, the advisor's job is to train you professionally, help you finish, and help you get a job. Mentors, on the other hand, may also be advisors but don't have to be. Mentors are those who can guide you at those moments when the personal and the professional (inevitably) overlap. They can help you navigate the institution, make sense of the frequently insensible, answer the questions you might not want to ask of those who hold your professional future in their hands.
2. We all need more than one mentor. No one person can give you this kind of guidance. Were I asked to identify my mentors, I would name senior and peer colleagues in the field, colleagues in my department and on my campus, friends, and family members.
3. Formality and confidentiality. Folks with experience in formal mentoring programs emphasized the importance of laying down ground rules for the relationship. One of those ground rules was confidentiality: knowing that what is said between mentor and mentee stays between them and isn't in danger of being shared with anyone else.
4. Don't forget your secret mentors. One panelist mentioned that she has "secret mentors," people who don't even know they are mentoring her. I love this idea. We all have these folks, whether we're conscious of them or not. These are people that you might study from afar, whose ways of being you admire: What choices do they make in their careers? How do they allocate their time? How do they conduct themselves in public? How do they treat others? Watch, observe, and learn.
5. Associate professors need mentoring, too. While there are very good reasons why institutional mentoring and/or career development programs will want to privilege junior faculty, the reality is that many associate professors feel left out. Several of us on the panel are in that liminal space between untenured and full, with few formal mentoring opportunities available to us. I've blogged about this before, and it's a real concern. Especially for women. When female full professors are in short supply on a campus, and don't exactly have tons of time to mentor associates, what are the options? #4 works, but more formal opportunities should be available as well. Last summer, RSA launched an initiative it calls "Career Bootcamp," which is taking up this question directly. It seems to me some combination of discipline-level and campus-level engagement with this question would be ideal.