How to feel as bright and capableTopBest practicesEarly and mid career mentoring

Early and mid career mentoring and support: Finding mentors and setting priorities, maintaining momentum after tenure

Co-chairs Jia Li and Sheila Hemami
Panel D. Richard Brown, Assistant Professor,
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Lydia Sohn, Assitant Professor, UC Berkeley
Rebecca Willett, Graduate Student, U. Wisconsin/Rice
Sheila Hemami, Associate Professor, Cornell Univ.
Yoonkyung Lee, Assistant Professor, Ohio State


The previous chapter was largely directed at the mentors and potential mentors. Attention now passes to the mentees. How do you find a mentor? What should you look for? How do you evaluate the success of the relationship and how do you maximize your chances of continued productive exchanges? These generic questions echo those in all human relationships, but here the issues are specific to graduate students interested in an academic career, freshly minted PhDs begining an academic career, and mid-career faculty who may feel serious sea changes with the acquisition of tenure. For graduate students, the interaction with their thesis advisers profoundly affects their motivation to pursue research and the extent they can grow as a beginning researcher. Good mentors can bring substantial advantages to junior faculty members as well. Training in the graduate school mostly focuses on producing independent researchers. A junior professor, however, requires a variety of skills to develop a successful career in academia, including teaching, committee work, professional service, and finding research funding. Mentoring during tenure-track years is highly valuable for a junior professor to master skills in these areas. In this chapter we consider the progression of finding mentors, benefiting from mentors, and in maintaining momentum after tenure.

Graduate students

How find good mentors?

For graduate students the research supervisor usually plays the role of primary mentor, so for the moment we consider the issues of finding a good reseach supervisor. There is a school of thought, however, that it is best to find a mentor who is not your research supervisor. A good compromise is to go for multiple mentors.

It is easy to put together a list of ideal qualities for an adviser. Among the attributes that come to mind are the following.

On the other hand, mentors should not be expected to have godlike qualities or to be able to work miracles. If the professor's research group is productive and happy, it is a very good sign. Note that a perfect technical match between student and adviser is not stressed. With some advisers and students this is necessary, but some of the most interesting research projects develop when the topic is new to both student and adviser.

Finding a mentor should begin with a little homework, beginning with some self appraisal. What are your objectives in graduate school? What type of training do you desire? What are your strengths? What skills do you need to develop? What kinds of research or creative projects do you want to work on? What type of career do you want to pursue? You may not know the answers to all of these questions, but you should give them some thought. They may arise in conversations with peers and potential mentors.

Explore the available research groups in areas that interest you on the Web and in discussions with other students. Go to general seminars where professors and students discuss their work. Take courses from the candidates, especially project courses where you get the opportunity to do initial research and get to know the professor and senior graduate students. Eventually you need to chat with them about doing some research with their group, but it is an enormous help if you already know them when you do this. If you have taken a course from them and done well, it gives you an extra boost. Sometimes you can sign up for a directed reading or individual research course, where you can negotiate with the professor for a custom project. Some professors will want candidate group members to tackle a well defined problem that they provide, others prefer to point a student to a general area and the literature and let them propose a problem.
Mentor age can be a factor. Older advisers are often more famous and established and may be better connected in the professional world. They might also, however, be less accessible and more remote. Young, enthusiastic assistant professors may be less well known, but in building a research group you may find an excitement not matched in a more established group, and you may end up in the front ranks of a brand new field. Sometimes famous older professors will have research associates who manage most of their research projects, so you might end up spending most of your time with someone who is entirely involved with research and not the other aspects of academia. That can mean insufficient mentoring if you are hoping for an academic career. Retired faculty can be good mentors. They have more time to mentor, but they may have had a very different experience since it was so long ago.

Funding is often an undercurrent in these discussions, some professors have more funding than others and have larger groups, but all are very careful about committing the precious research assistantships they might control. Rarely will they be available for new students, usually students have to work their way up the ladder. Be prepared to discuss your funding or lack thereof. If you really like an underfunded professor, you may have to seek alternative funding to work with the professor-- things like teaching assistantships, industrial support, consulting, or possibly an assistantship for another professor as a computer/network administrator.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and finding a research supervisor, like finding a research project, is a substantial part of the PhD. It usually requires as much creativity, imagination, persistence, and hard work as does the research itself.

How can a mentor help?

The most obvious contribution of a PhD research supervisor is guiding students to learn how to do, evaluate, and present research. In addition, typically a mentor Not all mentors consider these opportunities all the time, sometime it takes some prodding on the part of the mentee. But these are all typical and reasonable, so do not be afraid to ask.

And then there is the negative side. You will often get advice, solicited or not, about which potential advisers to avoid. Opinions were voiced against the following character types:

You should also be wary of mentors who are only cheerleaders without also being constructive critics -- they may ultimately be of little use towards your professional growth. On the other hand, you may notice that often even those professors with bad reputations may have good and contented students, while the apparent paragons might have divisive and stressed groups. So weigh the gossip you get against your own observations. Some great mentors have reputations for being "difficult," while some self-professed saints can be Hell to work for. Caveat emptor!

Chapter * and the following URLs provide resources for finding and profiting from mentors:

Junior faculty

How find good mentors?

The needs and methods of junior faculty differ markedly from those of a graduate student. Be prepared by absorbing all you can from your graduate school mentor before you leave the nest, "be prepared" is good advice for more people than Boy Scouts. Many of the desirable attributes and effective strategies still apply, but many are no longer relevant. Perhaps the biggest difference is that you now have an entirely new system to learn. With luck you will know something about such things, but most likely you will not be well equipped to handle them. Most beginning assistant professors have had minimal teaching experience, no experience obtaining research funding no academic (group, department, school, university) committee experience, no advising experience, and little grasp of "how things work" in academia.

Some schools have organized programs for mentoring new faculty, sometimes forming teams based on preferences. Investigate to see if you have such resources available to you. Some departments assign mentors for new faculty, and that gives you someone to talk to and it may be enough. Often, however, it is not sufficient and you may need to seek additional council, possibly even from other institutions. It is particularly important at this stage to find someone with a reputation for both strong teaching and strong research and for a good balance between the two. Unfortunately deans and chairs are not always suitable for this role because they are less active in both teaching and research because of their administrative duties. Two attributes often mentioned for good mentors are that they should have a good sense of humor and that they should be pragmatic.

Probably the best strategy for finding a primary or secondary mentor is to chat with many possible candidates and pursue conversations with people with whom you feel comfortable. Take advantage of any connections you might have, for example local friends of your PhD supervisor or other professors you know and like. It is best to look for someone who is tenured, because learning about the tenure process early can make it far less scary. Every institution operates differently, but all have similar criteria for excellence in research, teaching, and professional service. Finding good advice for allocating your time can be very helpful.

How can a mentor help?

In addition to addressing the skills needed to survive and prosper in academia already mentioned as reasons for seeking a mentor, there follow many other helpful influences a mentor can have on a new faculty member.

These advantages only accrue if you maintain regular contact with your mentor, and regular lunches or walks or coffee provide a good opportunity for doing so.

Mentors at other institutions are less helpful in dealing with the home institution, but they can be a big help in many other aspects of your career. They can provide independent advice on your grant applications and an outside objective perspective on your career advancement. Sometimes they can find out useful information through their own informal networks. They can also nominate you for editorial and program committee service that can provide an excellent means of expanding your knowledge of the field and its members.

Maintaining momentum after tenure

So you are a success as a junior faculty and to your great relief you are awarded tenure. Now what? It may come as a surprise that this can be a tough time for people who have not thought past this apparent professional black hole. In fact, this can be a depressing time for some and it is not good to let it take you by surprise. Some think the stress will vanish and the most unpleasant aspects of academia will disappear because they can no longer fire you, but as Professor Terry Fine explained to the Chair of the workshop when he received tenure, "there is always another carrot."

The right of passage of tenure effects all major aspects of academic life: research, teaching, service, sabbatical leaves, and the other part of your life (you have one, don't you?). The impact on research is the easiest to predict. Presumably you are doing it because you like it, so momentum on research is usually easy to maintain. Often, however, people consider sabbaticals at about this time to consider new research directions, perhaps far from the PhD work. Paulette Clancy, Chemical Engineering Chair at Cornell, said "I ...had no problem maintaining research momentum ...because research is the single most appealing task of my day."

Teaching momentum is also easy to maintain if you're excited about what you're doing. It is a good time to consider designing a new class or redesigning the same-old-class that your department has been teaching for the last 50 years. Be proactive about your teaching assignments and you will enjoy it more. A good balance is to be involved both in advanced courses for recruiting graduate students and core courses for bringing new undergraduates into the field.

Expect major changes in the service aspect, however, these are likely to rise significantly. Junior faculty are often protected from major committee assignments, like the committees that handle admissions, appointments and promotions, and the academic program. Now that you are famous and tenured, you may also find invitations for major editorial positions in technical journals, chairing conference technical committees and the conferences themselves, and possibly government agency advisery committees and panels. Be proactive, not reactive: identify areas in which you want to contribute and notify the authorities. Take a leadership course if your university offers it.

So what about the sabbatical? Common suggestions are to write proposals in a new area or go elsewhere and learn something new, meet new people, do cool things. This requires careful planning, but can inject a major boost in your career. Another alternative is just to hide out, work on your on research and writing with your graduate students, and hopefully return well rested and ready to go.

Be aware that if you have a family, they may have expectations about a lightened workload after tenure. Think about rebalancing your life commitments with academic progress. Does your kid/dog/plant still recognize you?

This is perhaps a good time to ask yourself if your are happy at what you are doing and adjust accordingly, but please don't retire on the job.

May 9, 2005

How to feel as bright and capableTopBest practicesEarly and mid career mentoring