PART II: Managing Mentoring Relationships – Tips for Mentors

June 20, 2016

Last week in Part I, we offered some ideas for mentees in order to maximize their mentoring relationships. This week, we are going to focus on mentors.

Mentors may find it difficult to find time and energy to manage and train someone, all while trying to satisfy their own work demands. In addition, teaching and training someone is a skill that must be practiced. If you are new at it, it can cause stress for all parties involved. Wondering how you can improve upon your own mentoring skills?

Here are some ideas for mentors:

Be mindful in selecting your mentee. The mentoring relationship, if conducted with care, can be an incredibly rewarding experience for both mentee and mentor. If the match does not fit though, it can also result in a lot of stress and unnecessary effort on both ends. Therefore, it is crucial that the mentor chooses their mentee with care. Assessing the mentee’s motivation, taking similarities and differences into account, and starting the mentorship with a trial period are all steps both parties can take to ensure a successful match. Selecting a good mentee also requires self-knowledge: what are your strengths and weaknesses, how much time and effort do you have aside from your own work, and how many mentees can you realistically take on?

Set clear expectations for performance from the start. In addition to getting used to the new workflow, mentees are also likely getting used to personalities and working styles of their new colleagues and superiors. As this takes time, being explicit about your objectives and expectations for the relationship from the get go will result in more productivity and a better mentoring relationship. Be sure to challenge your mentee, but do not set expectations so high that they feel paralyzed and overwhelmed. Once you have seen the mentee’s performance, it is crucial to offer honest, specific feedback on a regular basis. Everyone loves positive feedback, but it is usually the negative feedback that sparks more learning and change. In instances where negative feedback is needed, it can be helpful to start off with a positive comment/suggestion, and perhaps end with one too. Once you have a sense that your mentee has attained mastery, escalate their responsibility over time to boost their confidence. Make sure to accelerate at a slow enough pace though!

Be accessible. Especially in the beginning. Even with the best communication and clear expectations in place, it can be difficult in a busy research environment to keep up to date and on the same page with both day to day tasks and long term goals. Projects and daily objectives change, mentees can learn of new opportunities that change their perspective. Therefore, keeping regular meetings, both formal and informal, can be a great way to check in, keep in the loop, and stay on the same page. Sometimes meetings are best in a formal context, but informal meetings over lunch or coffee can also help build rapport, and convey what you want in a more effective manner. No matter the context of the meeting, it is important for both parties to practice active listening, which includes dedicating full attention to the discussion, good eye contact, and engaging body language. In some settings, mentees could greatly benefit from even working directly with the mentor on a project; giving them direct exposure in your research and working methods could give them lifelong methods. No matter how you do it, it is imperative that you spend time engaging directly with your mentee.

Although mentoring a young researcher does not always result in a tangible benefit for the mentor, there are many valuable results that come from mentoring a student. First, creating a positive teaching relationship with a mentee often results in more work getting done for the lab’s or mentor’s own research project, saving time and energy. Playing the role of a mentor can also result in a greater self-understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses as a researcher and leader.  Lastly, mentoring a young researcher benefits the scientific field as a whole, because it provides direct hands-on learning experience for young professionals who might have no other way of getting such experience. If done correctly, it constitutes a win for all involved.

If you want to read more about mentoring relationships, check out previous blog posts on: Identifying Mentors: Why it Matters  and Getting the Most Out of Mentoring Relationships.

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Is Your Mentor Opposed to Your Career Development?

October 6, 2014

The answer to this question in most instances is no; however this may seem to be the case if you are relying too heavily on your PI for this function. You must always remember, the person most responsible for your career development is the person who benefits most from it – you! Many trainees feel that their mentors are too busy and/or too important to “bother” them with their questions or thoughts. That shouldn’t be the case – they are there to help you learn and pass along their scientific knowledge to a new generation. While it can be difficult to approach your mentor to discuss career progression – and even harder to judge when this discussion is appropriate – this dialogue can be extremely helpful.

Your mentor likely has a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be very helpful as you prepare for your career. But, the rigors of the day-to-day functioning of the lab can sometimes delay or prevent career development discussions from occurring. In this case, it is certainly acceptable for you to request a meeting for this purpose. Below are some suggestions that may help as you think about this conversation:

Prepare thoroughly

  • Be able to articulate your strengths and weaknesses, short-term work goals and longer term career objectives.
  • Honestly assess your contribution to the lab. An accurate evaluation of your performance can build trust with your PI, and also allow you to point out contributions that you are making of which he or she may be unaware.

Identify areas in which your mentor can help you achieve your goals

  • This can also help facilitate the discussion by allowing your mentor to react to and comment on your assessments, and can avoid putting him or her on the spot.
  • Healthy discussion on this topic may identify additional areas of which you had not previously been aware.

Take care in scheduling the meeting

  • Remember, your mentor’s chief responsibility is for the success of the lab. Avoid scheduling around busy times and critical deadlines.
  • Potentially set it for non-working hours.

Be willing to engage in additional learning and development opportunities

  • This can be for the purpose of enhancing performance in your current position, preparing you for your career goals, or even both.

Even with preparation, making the initial request for the meeting can be daunting. A statement like (or an email), “I’d like to discuss my performance with you and get your input on my longer-term plans” can be effective. By approaching it in this manner, you are communicating to your mentor that you have thought about your career development and will not be relying solely on him/her on the topic.

This may sound like an intimidating challenge and you may be nervous for the first meeting. You will find that by using this approach, future meetings will become easier and more productive as you are able to build on past discussions. Next week, we will discuss in-depth how you can talk to your mentor about your career development, even if that means a career change.