Why Mentoring?

This post is the first in a series on mentoring. In this series, we will address both sides of the mentor-mentee dyad, with the assumption that readers will benefit from suggestions on how to be a better mentor and on how to cultivate a better relationship with their current mentor or advisor. We hope that these posts will encourage you to rethink your current mentoring relationships, while helping you to prepare for your future career.

Ultimately, the goal of mentoring is a transfer of knowledge and skills: that is, teaching others to do what you have already learned to do well. This process happens most effectively in a relationship of trust and mutual benefit. Thus, effective mentors:

  • Take an active interest in developing their mentee’s career and well-being
  • Help to advance their mentee’s stated academic and professional goals
  • Consider differences in culture, ethnicity, gender, and student experience in advising[1]

There are many reasons to find, and to become, a good mentor. In an academic context, mentoring is unavoidable, critical, and highly valuable. As such, an investment in mentoring on either side of the dyad—and ideally both—is the most effective way to quickly gain the skills and background needed for success both in the current stage of your career and in the next one.

Mentoring is Unavoidable

Whether through classroom instruction or lab training, the default method of university education is the transmission of knowledge and skills through guided experiences. At the graduate and postdoctoral level, this necessarily takes on a more personal form, as the primary means of guidance is a formal advisor or advisors.

Because of this unique structure, it is imperative that you take active steps to maintain a healthy and open relationship with your postdoctoral advisor. Part of the challenge will be seeing yourself as your advisor’s colleague; another will be embracing an important advising role of your own, guiding others in your lab, department, or group. Understanding this dynamic is essential to successfully navigating your postdoctoral experience.

Mentoring is Critical

In addition to being unavoidable, mentoring is critical to the transmission of what is known as the “hidden curriculum.” Coined by Philip W. Jackson in his 1968 essay, “Life in Classrooms,” the hidden curriculum consists of the unwritten and inflexible obligations that form the basis of academic life. These include the assumptions, values, expectations, and social context of your academic field.

These aspects of academia are considered “hidden” because they are not found in any book or guide. Rather, they comprise the “culture” of your department, school, and field and are only transmitted from mentor to mentee, by example or in conversation. Good mentors uncover these hidden expectations, while good mentees are not afraid to ask about them.

Mentoring is Valuable

A University of Washington study surveyed over 3,000 PhDs, five years after earning their degree. The study found that while students reported being well prepared for their careers in many ways, they often needed additional training in essential professional skills.[2] These competencies included teamwork, managing people and projects, and working in interdisciplinary contexts.

These results were reported not only for academic jobs, but also for those in the public and private sectors. While institutions are actively seeking ways to offer such training, learning how to be a good mentor and how to be a receptive mentee are excellent ways to develop these skills. An active investment in your mentoring relationships will better prepare you for the kinds of collaborative and interdisciplinary work necessary to be effective in any professional environment.

Final Thoughts

We hope you will take this opportunity to reflect on your current mentoring relationships. In future posts, we will discuss practical steps for beginning and maintaining an effective mentor-mentee dynamic. We will also offer suggestions on how to negotiate the inevitable conflicts that arise, in addition to discussing how to address issues of equity and inclusion as both a mentor and mentee.

[1] https://rackham.umich.edu/downloads/student-mentoring-handbook.pdf, p. 4

[2] https://www.education.uw.edu/cirge/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/ss5-highlights-report.pdf

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