University at Albany
 

Mentoring Best Practices

A Handbook



 

Chapter Three: Guidelines and Resources for Mentors

This chapter suggests mentoring activities to Mentors and describes ways to structure effective mentoring relationships.

What can I do to be a successful Mentor?

What are possible mentoring activities?

Benefits and Pitfalls: what can I expect from my mentoring relationship?

General Mentoring Guidelines

The Successful Mentor

The primary resource of successful mentors is their knowledge of the norms, values and procedures of their department and their institution. This knowledge is essential to new faculty, but there are also personal and professional characteristics which contribute to effective mentoring. These include the ability to:

  • Value the mentoring partner as a person
  • Develop mutual trust and respect
  • Maintain confidentiality
  • Listen actively both to what is being said and how it is being said
  • Ask open, supportive questions and provide constructive feedback
  • Help the mentoring partner solve his or her own problem, rather than giving direction
  • Focus on the mentoring partner’s development, and resist the urge to produce a clone
  • Be accessible

What can I do to be a successful Mentor?

Before ever meeting your mentee, you should clarify for yourself what you are comfortable with in your mentoring relationship and how you see your role as a mentor. Do you prefer a formal relationship that remains 100% ‘professional’? Or would you like to get to know your mentee better, including his or her personal interests? Where are you comfortable meeting—only on campus? At a café? At your own house? What are your expectations of a mentee? These are important things to know about yourself so that you don’t slip into situations that make you uncomfortable and damage your mentoring relationship. They are also something for discussion with the mentee, and open for negotiation or change as you develop your relationship.

Consider using the following tools to prepare for your first meeting and for discussion with your mentee:

  • Planning for and Defining a Mentoring Relationship (Word / PDF)
  • Mentoring Activities and Topics (Word / PDF)
  • Goals Reflection for Mentees (Word / PDF)
  • Short and Long-term Goals Planning (Word / PDF)

Once you have thought about how you see the role of mentor and mentee, make contact with your mentee as soon as possible and set a meeting to negotiate the parameters and responsibilities of the relationship: what kinds of topics will you talk about? How often and under what circumstances will meetings take place? What does your mentoring partner expect from the relationship and what do you expect of your partner? These expectations can be renegotiated at any time as you get to know one another, but they should be established early to avoid the potential for discomfort due to different expectations for the relationship. Should you wish to commit your mentoring parameters to paper, you will find a template for a mentor/mentee agreement here: (Word / PDF). This document can be used just to think through your relationship or as a way to formalize it.

Initiate regular meetings with your mentee and get to know him, his circumstances, concerns, etc.  It is important to talk early and regularly to establish a level of comfort in the relationship around the easy topics—then when a challenge or a concern arises, it is much easier for both of you to have a useful discussion. Consider that it may be difficult for a new faculty member to approach you with problems or questions, either out of concern for your time or out of a worry about seeming naïve. Suggest topics for discussion for your regular meetings and be sure to ask questions of your mentee about how things are going with his research, teaching and service obligations. When asking questions, don’t take “oh, things are going great” as a final answer. Probe gently by asking for details, since, especially at the beginning of a relationship, your mentee may be unwilling to share concerns or problems.

Recognize and evaluate what you can offer a junior faculty member. Sometimes mentors feel overwhelmed or inadequate when they do not have all the answers to the questions a mentee might ask. Keep in mind that no single mentor can fulfill every mentoring function or have an answer for every question. It is perfectly alright not to have expertise in every area that might arise in a mentoring discussion. Get help when you need it—you do not have to ‘carry’ all the problems and challenges a junior faculty member confronts by yourself. Be prepared to look for additional resources or people that might help your mentoring partner with specific questions that are outside your expertise or knowledge.

Your job as mentor is to offer your mentoring partner “insider’s advice” about the campus, department and the profession. What do you know now that you wish you had known earlier? What are the sources of institutional support for career development on campus? Make sure your mentee knows about such support offices as the Institute for Teaching, Learning and Academic Leadership (ITLAL), the Disability Resource Center, the University Counseling Center, the University Libraries, ITS, the Office of Sponsored Programs and others as needed. Introduce her to colleagues within the institution and out in the profession whenever possible and appropriate: who are the people she should meet and get to know?

Along with the official resources and rules, there are often informal rules for advancement in a department or a college. Whenever possible, share your knowledge of such informal rules, and look out for opportunities to showcase your mentee’s work. Junior faculty often do not know how best to communicate their successes—help your mentee to present his work in the right venues and to the right people, both formally and informally.

Communicating in ways that encourage a junior faculty member at the same time as giving her ways to improve is essential. Offering both praise and constructive feedback will be necessary in the course of your mentoring relationship. Give praise whenever warranted; praise is most useful when accompanied by descriptive statements about why or how something was done well. Just “good job!” does not give your mentee enough information to be able to replicate the behavior—give examples of what you mean when you praise an achievement. Likewise, give criticism when warranted, again using descriptive statements about behavior and its results rather than making judgments. Importantly, even while offering strategies for improvement, make sure you help your mentoring partner solve her own problem rather than just giving her directions. It is easy to ‘know better’ and to prescribe solutions, but effective junior faculty members must be able to find and implement their own solutions in the long run. Make sure to invite your mentee’s thoughts on how to improve a particular behavior or result, in addition to providing ideas of your own.

The trickiest part of a mentoring relationship, especially if it takes place within a department, is its necessarily confidential nature. Remember that information shared by your mentoring partner is always confidential. No junior faculty member can or will take advantage of your experience and advice if he does not know that when he brings a question or concern to you, you will not share it with his colleagues later on. Remember that, unless an evaluation role is structured into your mentoring relationship by the department, you are not evaluating the new faculty member: you are assisting, coaching, and supporting him. And, even if you have an evaluation role, that role is circumscribed by the conventions and timing of the renewal of contract or tenure review process. So you are still only coaching and supporting within your mentoring relationship. All discussions with your mentee are and should be confidential in nature unless the mentee agrees that you may bring up a particular challenge with other people who might be able to help with it. If your mentee does agree to your sharing a concern or situation that may be detrimental to his career, you have an opportunity to act as his advocate: bring possible solutions to the table, so that your mentee is not just seen as ‘a problem’ to be solved. Intercede carefully so as not to prejudice the case against your mentoring partner within the department, nor to take the primary responsibility for success from his shoulders.

In all your conversations with your mentee, focus on her development; respond to her needs as they develop, and help her to think strategically. Junior faculty members often feel overwhelmed in their first several years as they simultaneously develop teaching expertise and their research career. You may need to help your mentee sort out priorities, budget time, balance professional and personal activities, and learn to say ‘no’ in acceptable ways.

Throughout your mentoring relationship, work pro-actively to maintain regular and informal contact—this may include emails or phone calls, or dropping by your mentoring partner’s office between formal meetings. Often, the informal connection established over time makes better conversations possible when it really counts.

“Over-mentoring” is an easy trap to fall into for any well-meaning mentor. It is tempting to see your own career as a template for success for your mentee, and to try and push a junior faculty member to follow in your footsteps rather than taking what seem, at least on the surface, to be unnecessary risks with his career. You can and should certainly express caution about things that you see as potentially detrimental, but it will be important not to prevent your mentee from taking reasonable risks in developing his career—his creativity and perspective may help him to build new directions that were not available to you and your colleagues. Above all, avoid confrontation with your mentee—try to remain a source of information and encouragement rather than a parental figure of authority.
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What are possible mentoring activities?
Getting Started

  • Introduce the new faculty member to colleagues and “useful” people in the school, so he/she can benefit from a range and variety of colleagues.
  • Show the new faculty member the physical layout and resources of the campus as well as to explain any local rules, customs, and practices. 
  • Help your mentoring partner locate basic written information on teaching and research activities and administrative issues at the University.

Teaching, Research, Service

  • Discuss the preparation of lectures and teaching materials.  You might offer to have your mentoring partner observe your classes.
  • Observe your mentoring partner’s teaching and provide constructive feedback.
  • Discuss, and if relevant, share your teaching materials with your mentoring partner.
  • Discuss the construction of assignments and exam questions as well as how to fairly assess students’ work.  (Departmental colleagues may be particularly helpful here.) Remind your mentoring partner of the services the Institute for Teaching, Learning and Leadership (ITLAL) offers.
  • Offer feedback on the writing of research articles, conference papers and grants; suggest appropriate journals for publication if you are in the same discipline. Discuss how to handle co-authors in a dossier, how to get the attention of editors, what the best ways are to get feedback on a paper or a grant. Advise on potential sources of funding for research, teaching, and travel within or outside the University.
  • Let your mentee know about research opportunities such as the Faculty Research Awards Program A and B (FRAP), and the Drescher Leave for female and protected-class junior faculty.
  • Advise on relevant service, administrative duties and committee work. Consider your mentoring partner’s interests to help her choose service obligations strategically.
  • Explain the various support systems for faculty and students within the university (for example ITLAL, the EAP program, the Counseling Center, the Disability Resource Center, Disabled Student Services, Academic Advising and Support Services, the Writing Center, Academic Affairs, the Office of Conflict Resolution and Civic Responsibility, the Office of Diversity and Affirmative Action, the Office of Sponsored Programs, ITS, UUP, etc.)

Career Development

  • Exchange CV's with your mentee to stimulate discussion about career paths and possibilities.
  • Initiate a discussion about steps in preparing for tenure and promotion and career advancement. What does the promotion and tenure process look like at UAlbany? What are the formal and informal criteria for promotion and tenure? How does one build a tenure file?
  • Share experiences of setting priorities, managing time, handling stress, and balancing workload effectively.
  • Discuss student issues, such as advising, working with and supervising grad students, academic dishonesty, etc.
  • Help your mentee to set up a plan of short- and long-term goals.
  • Offer information on how to find and get nominated for fellowships, grants, and awards.
  • Discuss how to handle concerns, issues, or problems in the department. What are appropriate ways to bring them up?
  • Encourage your mentee to attend any meetings or retreats provided by the college or Provost’s office aimed at explaining tenure realities and processes.
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Benefits and Challenges: what can I expect from my mentoring relationship?
By now, you have likely been chosen as a mentor, or already act as one to a junior colleague, so you are aware of the benefits of mentoring. Nevertheless, it is useful here to repeat what some of those benefits are: You will have a hand in framing the future of your department, and the institution, by helping a talented junior faculty member succeed at UAlbany. You will find new or renewed connections to other people and resources on campus as you work to provide your mentee with the information she needs to thrive. Finally, one of the greatest benefits mentioned regularly by mentors is the joy of discovering and getting to know a vibrant young colleague, and in the process finding that your own research, teaching or service agendas are clarified and reinvigorated.

As you know, however, mentoring relationships don’t just magically ‘gel’. It takes intentional effort on both sides to ensure an effective mentoring relationship over time. Thus the bulk of this chapter is focused on the challenges and pitfalls of mentoring relationships—and how to overcome or avoid them.

One of the obvious difficulties in giving ‘advice’ on mentoring relationships is that they are dynamic in nature, and each one is unique. So while there is never one single best way to overcome challenges or avoid pitfalls, some general statements about problems that can arise and how you might avoid them are in order.

Too much respect for partner’s time
A primary reason that mentoring relationships do not ‘take’ from the very start is an overly pronounced concern for the mentoring partner’s time: Mentees may be hesitant to “bother” their mentors with “silly questions” when their mentors are obviously such important and busy people. Conversely, mentors who are not regularly asked for help often do not wish to seem “pushy” and thus do not contact their mentees without express invitation. While well-intentioned, such concern for the mentoring partner’s freedom, time and independence often has a negative impact on the usefulness of the mentoring relationship and on the mentoring partners’ attitudes toward mentoring in general. A large part of the success of a mentoring relationship lies in the trust that builds up over time when mentors and mentees get to know one another. This trust builds through informal and regular contact, and is what will allow the mentee to share any difficulties, ask important questions about being effective as a faculty member, and get honest answers. Effective mentoring partnerships are the result of efforts to meet and/or communicate outside formal departmental or program events—even if just a few times per year. It is important for both the mentor and the mentee to be pro-active in the relationship so that the mentee gets the support he needs for professional success. Mentors cannot begin to help if they have not spoken often enough with their mentee and do not know what his primary questions and concerns are.

Consider setting up your own breakfast, lunch, coffee or dinner opportunity with your mentoring partner to enhance the trust and collegiality necessary for an honest exchange.

Unrealistic expectations
Junior faculty members’ expectations for their mentors can be unrealistic: one mentor cannot be the only resource on every topic. However, out of respect for the experience of their mentor, junior faculty members can overestimate the information and guidance a single person can provide. They may also not be aware that they should always be looking for additional mentors and sources of information to help them get their questions answered. Being seen as the only source of relevant information may feel somewhat unfair to the mentor, and results in mentors sometimes feeling overwhelmed by the relationship. Mentors should be able to discuss with their mentees the value of gathering multiple perspectives and building multiple mentoring relationships that can act as additional resources, both within their discipline and within the University. Mentors should also admit when they do not have expertise in a particular area, and look for other people who might be appropriate resources on that topic, and help the mentee build a solid support network.

Mentors can also readily overestimate their mentees. This usually takes one of two forms. First, having the benefit of great experience in a discipline or at an institution, mentors may not accurately remember how hard it is to learn a new institutional culture, to figure out the best ways to communicate one’s achievements, to learn the unwritten rules of success. Over time, these have become second nature to the mentor, and thus not visible as necessary foci of discussion and mentoring. Mentees on the other hand, may not even know what questions to ask to elicit the unspoken rules of the game. Secondly, the rigorous selection process used to recruit new faculty results in the hiring of highly talented junior colleagues: mentors presented with a mentee who seems very accomplished may underestimate the need for guidance of any newcomer to a discipline or institution. Out of a concern of ‘getting in the way’ of a junior colleague who seems to be thriving, mentors may not ask enough questions, and thus miss the early signs of stress or lack of progress that may become serious problems later in the mentee’s career.

The best way to counter these pitfalls is to meet regularly, even if there is no particular problem to discuss. As we have stressed elsewhere, it is in the more informal contact between mentoring partners that good communication strategies and habits are built, habits which will allow the more difficult conversations, when there is a problem, to take place more readily.

Relationships that don’t “gel”

Since mentees are new to an institution, more often than not, mentors are pre-assigned to mentees without the input of either party. This is not necessarily negative: research shows that assigned mentors are as effective as mentors chosen by the junior faculty member. However, it is important to remember that, through no fault of the mentee or the mentor, some relationships may never gel. This possibility is much less likely if you begin your mentoring relationship with a frank and honest discussion about what you want and need, and how you see the role of mentor and mentee.

As a part of its foundation, any mentoring relationship should have a no-fault termination possibility so that mismatched mentoring partners are not trapped in a negative relationship.

The ‘seasons” of a mentoring relationship
:

All mentoring relationships undergo changes as the career needs of the mentee are gradually met. A successful mentee often becomes increasingly independent of the mentor, which can lead to disappointment on the mentor’s part as contact with the mentee declines or changes. Mentors and mentees need to take into account the natural “seasons” of a normal mentoring relationship, and accept that contact with their partner may vary over time.

Building the Base:
During the first three to six months, the mentor and mentee are getting to know each other, building trust, and developing expectations of each other. The interaction which occurs at this stage lays the foundation for a strong and beneficial relationship.

The Middle Period:

The middle phase of a mentoring relationship is typically the most rewarding time for both mentor and mentee. The mutual trust which has developed between them can give the mentee the confidence to ask questions, share concerns and disappointments, and even challenge the ideas of the mentor. Likewise, the mentee’s ideas can be challenged by the mentor, who can help the mentee think more strategically about her career.

Loosening of the relationship:

Often, the relationship begins to draw apart after a year or two. It is important, at this stage, that the mentor discuss with the mentee how he wishes to continue their relationship.

Questions to check the process of the relationship might include:

  • What’s going well?
  • What needs to be changed?
  • How do we feel about the structure, format, activities of the mentoring pair/group?
  • What other topics/activities would be helpful that we haven’t tried? In what other areas does the mentee still need guidance?

Redefining the relationship:
Here the mentoring relationship enters a new phase, where the mentoring partners begin to regard one another more as equals. At this point, the relationship may continue as a productive, collegial one that might even beget new collaborations, or begin to cool as the mentee gains independence and distance from the mentor. This cooling of the relationship can sometimes be hurtful to mentors, considering the time and effort they have put into helping their junior faculty succeed. However, it is important not to take a cooling relationship personally: it is a normal phase in some kinds of mentoring relationships and simply shows that the mentee has developed her own directions and confidence in her career.
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