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Career Advice

Helping hands for new faculty

For junior professors, finding a mentor means not being afraid to ask

BY HELEN KNOLL | SEP 10 2007

The academic milieu is becoming more and more complex, and demands on professors, both new and experienced, are increasing. One of the best ways for a new faculty member to navigate the complexities of a university career is by working with a mentor. A considerable body of literature reports that academics who have mentors have a higher level of satisfaction, better compensation, more promotions, fewer work-life conflicts, and fewer turnovers between organizations (Janasz and Sullivan, 2004). Finding the right mentor and ensuring that the relationship is both positive and effective takes some effort, but this effort will be well worth it.

Some universities have formal programs to help establish and maintain mentoring partnerships between newly appointed tenure-track faculty members and experienced faculty members. If this service is not available at your university, there are a few simple steps you can take to establish a mentoring relationship – and ensure it succeeds.

Who will be your mentor?

Selecting a mentor simply because you like them is not reason enough. When selecting someone, you should consider the following: their technical skills, social skills, emotional skills, and personal qualities. Each of these skills, in turn, embrace several factors: technical skills should include experience at your university or within your specific domain; social skills can help you to broaden your network – an important consideration when facing the experience of being a new professor, which can be isolating.

How to ask someone to be your mentor

Asking someone to be your mentor can be difficult. There is always a risk that the person will refuse – or, worse, accept when, in fact, they are not really prepared to take on the role. Your request should be made in person; a face-to-face meeting offers both you and your potential mentor to create an open dialogue.

Having set up dozens of mentoring relationships, I am always surprised at how many people agree to mentorships; they are often honoured to have been asked. Note, however, that you should organize your request in such a way that you have the best chance of success.

Given the schedules of academic faculty members – the demands on them are many – start by being realistic about the commitment of time involved, and be honest with your mentor about this commitment. A mentoring relationship will typically last nine months, and monthly meetings, lasting for over an hour, are recommended.

Outline your expectations; they are volunteering their time to help you, and it should be your responsibility to come to the meetings prepared with questions and an outline of what kind of feedback you are expecting. Your mentor should not be responsible for structuring your meetings – make it clear that what you expect from them are suggestions, advice, and sharing of their experience. Reassure them that if you take their advice and it does not work out as you had hoped that you will not hold them responsible.

You should also address what we’ll call the “white elephant” – the possibility that the relationship won’t work out. You can do this by suggesting to review the relationship at the three-or six-month mark. Give the potential mentor some time to think about your request, then follow up in a few days. Being open, honest and clear will help to ensure that the relationship starts off on the right foot.

Don’t be discouraged if you get turned down. It’s unlikely that a refusal is related to you personally; more likely, scheduling, workload, or other career-related concerns are responsible for a refusal. If your mentor does agree to the relationship, offer your thanks and get things started by setting up the first few appointments.

What could go wrong?

In my experience, few mentoring relationship have had poor results. Logistics can play a role – perhaps you’re based on one campus and your mentor is on another campus on the other side of town – but with clear communication, clarity of intentions, and reasonable expectations, the relationship can be fruitful and rewarding.

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