Best practices in mentoring: teachings from
Chair || Michelle Effros, Cal Tech|
Vincent Poor, Princeton University|
|| Bob Gray, Professor and Vice Chair of EE, Stanford|
|| Jeff Koseff, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering,|
While we recognize that mentoring is a two-way process, this session
focused primarily on best practices for mentors, leaving questions of
find good mentors and be "more mentorable" to later sessions. The
of these remarks is to provide a brief statement and overview of
some talking points that are of interest in the context of mentoring of
engineering students and faculty. After a few general observations on
nature of mentoring, some issues arising in connection with various
of mentoring will be mentioned. Finally, some specific issues that are
of particular interest in the mentoring of women engineering students
faculty will be discussed briefly. All of the issues raised here are
discussed in greater depth in other sessions of the workshop, and these
brief comments are intended only for the purpose of raising issues, and
are specifically not intended as the final word on any subject.
It should be taken as axiomatic that mentoring, which involves many
complexities of personality and inter-personal dynamics, is more of an
than a science. A corollary to this axiom is that there may be as many
"best practices" in mentoring as there are mentor-advisee pairs.
However, as with other arts, we can still certainly look for general
principles of good mentoring, which of course was the purpose of this
workshop. As with other arts, reasonable people can, and will,
disagree on what constitutes good mentoring practice. (Not the least of
the factors contributing to such disagreements is the fact that the
trajectories of successful academic careers are quite varied.) A
issue, sometimes overlooked, is that the personality, aspirations and
stage of the mentor are major factors affecting the mentoring
in looking for good mentoring practices, we should not lose sight of
Given that good mentoring styles can vary enormously with personality
and that most faculty are not trained to mentor, many faculty learn
mentoring through personal experience and observation. Observing both
successful and unsuccessful mentoring styles and then attempting to
the lessons learned there is a useful part of the process. The role of
mentor includes directing and advocating, evaluating and rewarding,
celebrating successes and guiding through adversity and disappointment.
Some basic underlying principles to keep in mind in developing one's own
approach to mentoring include:
- The better we are at what we do, the better mentors
- It's not enough to talk about integrity, one must live
example. Many students do not take it seriously. Mentors must.
- Many students start with little but can become
when properly encouraged and appreciated.
- Discourage aggressive competition among students.
cooperative efforts and openness.
- Chores and citizenship
- Engage students in professional
reviewing, proposal writing, presentations,
mentoring. This does
not mean handing these tasks off and letting
them sink or swim. It
means, for example, having a student write a review
and then writing
your own. Let them see how it changes. Give them
to learn all of the skills they will need later in
- Communication skills
- Brilliant research is of little use if not
Correct English with good style is critically important.
writing and speaking skills constantly.
- Professional Activity
- Send students to conferences to attend and
Rehearse them extensively. Introduce them to colleagues. Get them
plugged in. After graduation, recommend them for program
technical committees, reviewing chores.
- Give credit generously to students. It helps them and
- Although many institutions have programs for diminishing
harassment, it still exists. Be sensitive to potentially
or dangerous situations and do not accept inappropriate behavior
colleagues towards your students. Institutions should have a
zero tolerance policy
towards any mentors who abuse their position.
While many of these points may seem obvious, they are not generally
Learning to mentor is a process of continual learning, rethinking, and
Feedback is a critical element in developing good techniques for
One way to measure success is to track the careers of one's former
Mentoring does not stop with a degree. It is a life-long relationship.
Students evolve into colleagues, and staying in touch with these
be useful to both former students and their former advisers. Remaining
to former students allows a mentor to benefit from their hindsight and
mechanism for gathering and promulgating successful techniques.
former students often lack mentors at new institutions, maintaining the
relationship can also be of great importance to former student's
development. Also, visits from alumni provide wonderful contacts,
and sources of information and inspiration for later
A variety of desirable attributes of mentors were suggested during
- Use a light touch.
- Be patient.
- Be supportive and encourage goodness and provide direction when off
- Try not to mess the students up, they came in as good
students. A variation on
the Hippocratic "do no harm."
- Discuss the skills needed for prospective new faculty members,
negotiating initial start-up packages and initial teaching
- Try to teach the skills that often confound new junior
faculty, such as completing
merit reviews, preparing proposals, choosing committees, and
selecting good graduate students.
- Some students need little mentoring, but it is not good to
ignore them. Everyone
can benefit from encouragement.
The following paragraphs contain some brief remarks on the main
objectives and needs for advisees in various stages of academic careers:
graduate school, untenured faculty positions, and senior faculty
The objective here is not to be comprehensive, but rather to touch on
the principal issues.
Graduate school is essentially an apprenticeship for learning to do
research. The main objectives of graduate students are to learn to do
creative, leading-edge research, and to publish it to the research
community through conference presentations and journal articles. The
things that graduate students need to do this are the freedom to be
creative (a lot of it), encouragement, patience and opportunities for
confidence-building through progressively public and formal forums in
to present their work. Obviously, mentoring of graduate students is
performed primarily by research advisers (although post-docs and other
faculty can of course play roles as well), and the primary objectives of
mentors should be to provide an atmosphere that encourages individual
creativity, and that offers opportunities for students to develop
An untenured tenure-track faculty position is essentially an apprenticeship for
learning to be a professor. Junior faculty members are in much greater
need of mentoring than are graduate students, for several reasons:
- Junior faculty members have much more complex jobs, involving
preparation and development, teaching and evaluation of classroom
supervision and advising of research students, setting research
and raising research funds, and participating in departmental and
university governance. Most of these jobs are completely new to
- Junior faculty members are typically at an age when they need
to begin achieving a balance between work and outside life. Often being
out of school for the first time in life, it is a time when family and
other personal obligations and interests begin to increase.
- Unlike the situation in graduate school, there is no well-defined
"curriculum" for successfully accomplishing the job of a junior
member; i.e., the rules are not formalized.
- Many junior faculty members have no formal mentor or adviser.
some departments do set up a mentoring system, it is not universal, and
there may be conflicts of interest that do not really arise in the
- The environment that junior faculty members find themselves in may
supportive or even benign. Departmental politics often affect even
apolitical faculty members.
So, this stage of mentoring is perhaps the most important one, and the
one that deserves the most attention.
Untenured faculty members need to focus their efforts on two things:
building a visible, independent research program, and being a good
classroom teacher. Although there are of course many dimensions to
this job, these two are essential for achieving tenure at most
universities. Aside from emphasizing the importance of these two
objectives, mentors of young faculty members (and such mentors include
former professors as well as senior colleagues) can help them in
practical ways such as sharing of successful proposals as exemplars,
sharing proposal-writing advice, sharing of class notes, providing
introductions to senior colleagues and program managers, and extending
invitations to participate in workshops, special sessions at
Although sometimes forgotten as targets of mentoring, senior faculty
members are still in need of advice and support on issues such as
career advancement and recognition. Here, a mentor can help with
things like nominations for positions of responsibility in academia or
scientific organizations, nominations for awards, and simply providing
encouragement and reassurance when needed.
One thing to note about mentoring at this stage is that it is usually a
two-way street, as the distinction between mentor and mentee tends to
blur with time.
While the above comments apply to mentoring generally, there are some
specific issues that arise specifically in the mentoring of women
members. (Some of these comments also apply to other under-represented
groups. However, they are phrased here in the context of women,
primarily because of greater experience with women.)
First, with regard to the mentoring of graduate students, experience
shows that differences in personality and ability are much more
than differences in gender, ethnicity or national origin. Thus a good
practice in mentoring graduate students of all stripes is to treat all
students the same, recognizing differences only in the former two
i.e., personality and ability.
As with mentoring in general, untenured faculty status brings perhaps
the most sensitive issues for women, namely tokenism and child bearing.
Since the number of women faculty members in engineering is
still relatively small, women tend to be asked (even while still
untenured) to take on a greater service burden than are men faculty.
Although this is driven by the admirable goal of providing diverse
opinions on key committees, it can adversely affect the progress of
junior faculty members in establishing successful research programs.
Some service is of course expected from all junior faculty, but women
faculty need to be especially careful in not becoming too immersed
in such matters before tenure. As has been noted, this phenomenon can
also provide opportunities for young faculty to meet very senior
university administrators. But, this often does not help at tenure
time, and so some caution is needed. A mentor can be very useful here in
helping junior women faculty members navigate these waters. Even when not asked,
women usually form a small minority subgroup of whatever faculty group they
find themselves in, including faculty meetings and informal discussions. Being in a minority
can make all actions more visible and put added stress on individuals.
A second major issue, and perhaps the most critical
issue for women faculty members, is the potential conflict between
the biological and tenure clocks. The tenure system that we have
today was established in the days when most professors were men,
and does not really recognize this issue adequately. Although many
universities now extend the tenure window for faculty members who
take parental leave, this still does not fully address the issue.
The role of the mentor is not clear here, since this is clearly a
very personal issue. However, as with much good mentoring, simply
providing information about various options and also providing
introductions to others who have been through the same decision-making
processes can be of help. This issue is treated in some depth
in chapter *.
Finally, with regard to senior faculty, a significant issue with women
faculty is the "imposter syndrome," the subject of
While this phenomenon is, of course,
not restricted to women faculty, it seems to be voiced more often by
Here, again, a mentor can help by providing reassurance and help in
advancement and recognition, although as considered in
chapter *, recognition does not always relieve the
associated with the imposter syndrome. So, again, here is an issue
that requires particular attention.
In summary, the above remarks are intended to help frame more in-depth
discussion of the general issues arising in the mentoring of academics
at various career stages, and also to raise some issues that are of
particular concern in the mentoring of women (and other
groups) in engineering academia.
May 9, 2005