What to Expect When You’re Mentoring

I had absolutely no idea what I was doing when I applied to grad school. None. Somehow, the fates smiled on me and I landed with an amazing mentor – for grad school and then again for postdoc. Unfortunately, my naivety with grad school resulted in less-than-effective use of my mentor, which I am still recovering from (and very glad that both my mentors are so patient with me!). Jen and I sat down with both of those mentors to get their take on both being a mentee and a mentor as an emerging scholar.

Attracting a Good Mentor

To find a mentor worth keeping, start by thinking about your own interests – both related to your career and your research. It may be that you need a separate mentor for your career and your research (or various aspects of your research). Once you have identified potential candidates, consider how much time that person has to focus on you, and (as with any relationship) whether there is chemistry to keep the relationship going. Not everyone will click or feel connected with every mentor.

Keeping a Good Mentor

As mentees, it is important for us to keep in mind that a mentoring relationship is a two-way street. We have responsibility to help our mentors out. This didn’t occur to me until my fourth year (!!!) of grad school that it was beneficial for my grad school mentor if I published, but made no difference to her if I had an A or an A- in my SEM course. So while we should not blow off coursework as grad students or shirk our teaching responsibilities, one way we can promote our own career and “re-pay” our mentors is by ensuring that we are productive – by making progress with theses, comps, dissertations, AND publishing.

Mentors expect to be helpful. They want you to ask them for help (after you have genuinely tried to do it independently) and so if you are struggling with how to overcome a barrier or start on a project and don’t ask for help, it is frustrating for them. If you want to keep a great mentor, it is important that you let them know what you are working on and ask for help when you need it. If they can’t help by, say, explaining why your syntax won’t run, they can probably at least point you in the direction of someone who can. Mentors love it when you take advantage of the resources in your institution and get advice from others. There isn’t any disloyalty in that (at least not if your mentor is good) – mentors want their mentees to learn and grow and be successful in whatever opportunities they have.

Getting What You Want from Your Mentor

Good communication and setting expectations early in your relationship (and being upfront when those expectations change) is key. Here is some advice on how to negotiate several areas of the mentor-mentee relationship:

Grants and publications. There is little to no chance that mentors will realize you are interested in helping with a research study, grant, or publication without you expressing that interest to them. Sitting around waiting for them to invite you to be part of a project will only leave you sitting and waiting. There are helpful ways of asking (e.g., Project X sounds really interesting to me, and if there is room for me to be involved, I would like to do that so I can learn Y and Z. If not, is there another project you can think of that will help me learn those things?) and not-so-helpful ways of asking (e.g., Can I be an author on that?) so be careful how you frame things. But if you can justify a reason and are willing to work to contribute, a good mentor would probably want you to be involved in a project you’re interested in.

Networking. Using your mentor’s network can be beneficial, but is tough to do (admittedly, I am not very good at this). The reality is that your mentor will probably not know or be aware of someone you want to meet unless you talk to them about it. Our mentors identified three sure-fire ways of leveraging a network: 1 – Raise awareness of your need to your mentor. If your mentor knows and is very aware of your need for a post-doc, for example, then when he or she hears about a colleague who is looking for a post-doc, he or she will make that connection. 2 – Work with your mentor to organize a conference symposium. Symposia are a great opportunity to meet people (via email or in person) that you would not otherwise interact with, and gives you something to talk about (like your shared interests). I have yet to email someone about a symposium and not get a good response, even if they ultimately decline participation. 3 – Explicitly ask your mentor to introduce you to someone. To be clear, there is a difference between having a good reason for wanting to meet someone, e.g.,“I would really like to be able to talk to [insert psychology famous person] about his/her research on X because I think it would help me better think about/understand/plan for Y” and a not-so-good reason to meet someone, e.g., “I really want to meet [insert psychology famous person] because I love every single paper he/she has ever written.” If you are simply looking for a chance sighting of your favorite psych-lebrity, then track down their grad students at SRA and ask questions like “So what is it like to work with [insert psychology famous person]?” Don’t use your mentor for that. But once you have figured out what to say or ask that person, then going to your mentor with a request for an introduction is a good idea, and it turns out they actually WANT you to do that. If it is in anticipation of a conference (like SRA) then talk to your mentor ASAP, because getting that scheduled will take some advance planning (psych-lebrities are busy!

Letters of recommendation. Whether the letter is for a travel award, a grant, or your next job, you will ultimately end up asking your mentor for letters of recommendation at some point. To guarantee that the letter is well-written and that your mentor will follow through with writing it, you need to give them plenty of time. When we asked our mentoring experts to operationalize “sufficient time” they said 2-3 MONTHS. Months. They acknowledged that sometimes that is not possible – but those exceptions should be highly infrequent. When you give them that notice, make sure that you include complete, detailed information for each letter you are asking them to write. That includes the due date, how to submit, who to address it for, what the purpose of the letter is, the job posting (if appropriate). Then be sure to gently remind them about the upcoming deadlines and check to see if they need any additional information.

Feedback on papers. Just like with letters, mentors want time to be able to give feedback on the things you have written. You should create an agreed-upon timeline (which you have tentatively prepared prior to meeting with your mentor) for when you can get drafts to them and when to expect feedback from them. Once you create that timeline, stick to it. You may even want to set a time (e.g., You want to read it Thursday morning – so if I send it to you by Wednesday night, that will be okay?) – and be flexible when scheduling. You may not be aware of your mentor’s  own projects, trips and deadlines, so you will probably have to work around their schedule and if they are willing to read your paper on a flight, for example,  you may need to get drafts completed more quickly than you had planned.

Breaking Up

If a mentoring relationship is not working out, the best way to end it is with an upfront, cordial conversation. Express your gratitude to your mentor for all of the contributions they have made to your research and career thus far, and let them know that while your interests or career path is leading you in another direction, you value the opportunities, resources, and experiences they have given you up to that point. It is also important to keep in mind that you don’t have to navigate that process alone. You can seek out other mentors to help you navigate that mentorship break-up. Those mentors should be more senior than you – don’t rely on the advice of your peers for this tricky subject.

Of course if you don’t feel comfortable initiating the break-up, there are also several tried-and-true ways to sabotage a mentoring relationship, guaranteeing that your mentor will be the one kicking you to the curb. It is worth stating that this will guarantee that you won’t get the things you want (like a strong letter of recommendation or a favorable reputation with that mentor’s colleagues) but they are effective.  There are a few things that are likely to lead to your mentor wanting to break up with you, so here is a list of behaviors that will be sure to put you on the naughty list:

1. Over-share. Your mentors should care about you as a person (in addition to your research or career) but that doesn’t mean they want to know everything about you. Some mentors are more open to sharing personal information than others, but oversharing rarely is helpful for a mentoring relationship. Both the mentors we spoke with were clear on this: they want to know about your general highs and lows so they understand and can balance their expectations with the demands you have outside of grad school, but they don’t need all the details.

2. Don’t prepare. The best way to end a mentoring relationship quickly is to show up at meetings with that (inevitably very busy) mentor without an agenda, any work accomplished prior to meeting them, or questions. If you want them to ditch you as a mentee, then don’t do what they ask you to do, ignore their emails, and then show up at their office and stare blankly at them and shrug when they ask you why you are meeting with them. Preferably during the two weeks before their grant is due. That will guarantee a quick break-up.

3. Don’t worry about their time. Related to #2, mentors hate it when they feel like their time is being wasted. Be aware that they have whole other lives and projects that don’t involve you. Doing things like asking to read your whole dissertation in one night, with little notice ahead of time, or expecting them to help you with projects while they are on vacation will most definitely sour the relationship.

4. Be unprofessional. If you show up late to meetings, dress inappropriately, and spend time at work doing non-work activities, it will almost surely end the relationship. Of course, non-work-related activities at work are tough calls, because “work” and “life” tend to blur (see last month’s post for that discussion). But the office is not generally seen by mentors as the place to do online shopping, plan your summer vacation, or keep up with Facebook.

From Mentee to Mentor

An interesting transition happens as we move through our careers. We get to hang on to our fantastic mentors, but they start to treat us a little less like a student and more like a colleague. Discussions about research are more like sharing ideas and getting feedback than asking for advice. Mentors let you be more independent, and appear to trust your judgment on things. But they are also always there to ask for advice, which is really great.

It is usually around that time that you start to have undergrads or grad students approach you about mentoring. Here is the advice our mentors gave us on becoming a mentor:

1. Don’t take on too many formal mentees. Make sure you balance how many you are officially mentoring (for the longer-term) with what your own needs are.  And keep in mind that you may also be informally mentoring, by being a good team-member. Team mentorship is really helpful, because the burden doesn’t rest completely on you.

2. Follow your gut about fit and compatibility. There is a gestalt about a good potential mentee that is more of a feel than an objective call. Early in your career, too much investment in a bad call for a mentee can be detrimental to your career. So don’t gamble with it.

3. Always interview in person before you agree to a formal mentorship. This will help you know how prepared they are, and will reveal things that won’t show up on paper or over the phone.

4. Avoid potential mentees who have letters of recommendation from others that are not personal. It is obvious when you read letters whether the recommenders are genuinely enthusiastic, and if the letter is underwhelming.

5. Make sure that you are considering whether you will benefit from the relationship – if there is no clear benefit to you, then don’t agree to take them on.

Helpful advice – and we thank both our mentors for that!

Do you have ideas for helpful information to share with SRA Emerging Scholars? We are looking for new bloggers for SRA! Email jdworkin@umn.edu if you’re interested!

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