Early and mid career mentoringTopReferencesBest practices

Best practices in mentoring: teachings from experience

Chair Michelle Effros, Cal Tech
Panel 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 how to find good mentors and be "more mentorable" to later sessions. The purpose 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 the nature of mentoring, some issues arising in connection with various stages of mentoring will be mentioned. Finally, some specific issues that are of particular interest in the mentoring of women engineering students and 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.

General observations

It should be taken as axiomatic that mentoring, which involves many complexities of personality and inter-personal dynamics, is more of an art 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 related issue, sometimes overlooked, is that the personality, aspirations and career stage of the mentor are major factors affecting the mentoring process. So, in looking for good mentoring practices, we should not lose sight of these human dimensions.

Given that good mentoring styles can vary enormously with personality type and that most faculty are not trained to mentor, many faculty learn about mentoring through personal experience and observation. Observing both successful and unsuccessful mentoring styles and then attempting to apply the lessons learned there is a useful part of the process. The role of a 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 we will be.
It's not enough to talk about integrity, one must live the example. Many students do not take it seriously. Mentors must.
Many students start with little but can become outstanding when properly encouraged and appreciated.
Discourage aggressive competition among students. Encourage cooperative efforts and openness.
Chores and citizenship
Engage students in professional responsibilities: 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 the opportunity to learn all of the skills they will need later in their career.
Communication skills
Brilliant research is of little use if not understood. Correct English with good style is critically important. Practice writing and speaking skills constantly.
Professional Activity
Send students to conferences to attend and give talks. Rehearse them extensively. Introduce them to colleagues. Get them plugged in. After graduation, recommend them for program committees, technical committees, reviewing chores.
Give credit generously to students. It helps them and makes you look good.
Although many institutions have programs for diminishing sexual harassment, it still exists. Be sensitive to potentially embarrassing or dangerous situations and do not accept inappropriate behavior from 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 recognized.
Learning to mentor is a process of continual learning, rethinking, and revision. Feedback is a critical element in developing good techniques for mentoring. One way to measure success is to track the careers of one's former students. Mentoring does not stop with a degree. It is a life-long relationship. Students evolve into colleagues, and staying in touch with these colleagues can be useful to both former students and their former advisers. Remaining accessible to former students allows a mentor to benefit from their hindsight and provides a mechanism for gathering and promulgating successful techniques. Further, since former students often lack mentors at new institutions, maintaining the mentoring relationship can also be of great importance to former student's continuing development. Also, visits from alumni provide wonderful contacts, examples, and sources of information and inspiration for later generations of students. A variety of desirable attributes of mentors were suggested during discussions:

Stages of mentoring

The following paragraphs contain some brief remarks on the main mentoring objectives and needs for advisees in various stages of academic careers: graduate school, untenured faculty positions, and senior faculty positions. The objective here is not to be comprehensive, but rather to touch on only the principal issues.

Graduate students

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 main 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 which 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 communication skills.

Untenured tenure-track faculty members

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:

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 conferences, etc.

Senior faculty members

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.

Issues in mentoring women

While the above comments apply to mentoring generally, there are some specific issues that arise specifically in the mentoring of women faculty 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 important 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 qualities 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 *.

The "Imposter Syndrome"

Finally, with regard to senior faculty, a significant issue with women faculty is the "imposter syndrome," the subject of chapter *. While this phenomenon is, of course, not restricted to women faculty, it seems to be voiced more often by women. 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 feelings 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 under-represented groups) in engineering academia.

May 9, 2005

Early and mid career mentoringTopReferencesBest practices