University at Albany
 

Mentoring Best Practices

A Handbook



 

Chapter Four: Guidelines and Resources for Mentees

This chapter provides strategies to Mentees for getting the most out of their mentoring relationships.

What can I do to be a successful mentee?

How do I best work with my mentor(s)?

What questions should I ask of my mentor(s)?

What can I expect from my mentoring relationship?

 

What can I do to be a successful mentee?

Successful faculty members actively manage their relationships with their peers, colleagues, mentors and administrators and are proactive about both these relationships and their career. You may have landed in a department where you are assigned a senior faculty mentor, and/or where your senior colleagues have a long tradition of mentoring newcomers to the department. But whether this is the case, or quite the opposite, it is up to you to make the right decisions about your career, and thus up to you to find the information you will need in order to make those decisions. Many junior faculty members feel powerless in the academic hierarchy—they feel as though they must do as they are told by ‘the powers that be’ or simply submit to an unsupportive environment or situation within their department in order to get tenure. This is not a perspective which will gain you success in the long run. In fact, it is wrong in two profound ways.

  • In reality, you have the power to make choices about your life and career that no-one else does.
  • Just scrambling to ‘do what you’re told’ makes tenure (rather than your own satisfaction and success) the primary goal. This is a big mistake!

You have the power to make choices about your life and career:

Evaluate what you are hearing: It is of course important to listen carefully to all the information that senior colleagues at your new institution share with you, but you must sift through such information and ask yourself several questions about it: does the person you are listening to know what she is talking about? Is the person you are listening to genuinely interested in your success, or does he have an axe to grind with others which may color his advice to you?  Does what the person says ‘jibe’ with what others have told you?  Does it fit what you are hearing from peer institutions? If not, why might that be—is it just a different perspective on the same thing or is there something else going on that makes the two opinions different? Are there other sources of information where you can ask the same question to get a sense of the general trend of answers for your local situation? Does what you are hearing from your department mentors and new colleagues align with your own goals? Does it represent the values of an institution or department that you want to work for?

Just scrambling to ‘do what you’re told’ makes tenure (rather than your own satisfaction and success) the primary goal. This is a big mistake!

Choose to do that which fits your passion, your values, your strategic goals: your primary goal should be to work productively in a discipline about which you are passionate enough to have spent many years studying and doing research to acquire an advanced degree. You have the choice at all times about how you spend your time and what you prioritize. Prioritizing presupposes that you have strategic goals: take the time to think through why you are in your discipline—why you have chosen the research direction you have chosen? What makes you passionate about it? What is the most important thing about teaching students? Only when you begin to know what and who you want to be in your profession can you listen effectively to the many different kinds of advice you will hear on your trajectory to tenure and beyond.

Be realistic about what you can and cannot achieve. Share your plans for achievement with your mentor and ask how doable they seem. Differentiate regularly between what is urgent but unimportant and those things that are not urgent but very important. The latter often come up short in how you use your time and energy. Monitor your own levels of stress and achievement. See the Additional Readings list for more information on how to do this.

Maintain personal balance. The faculty in the department chose to hire you because you showed great promise during the interviews. Losing momentum by burning out won’t help anyone achieve their goals, not you, not your department. So whatever it is that relaxes you (gardening, walking the dog, exercising, reading a good book, talking to a friend…) schedule it into your life each week. Make an appointment with yourself to do the things that replenish your energy and enthusiasm. Then make appointments with yourself to do the kinds of work that may not be urgent, but are essential and important. Keep those appointments as religiously as you would keep an appointment with the Dean.
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How do I best work with my mentor(s)?
Be proactive. Whether your mentor is assigned to you, or you have chosen one yourself, make the first appointment to talk about your career. Have a game plan for your conversations with your mentor.

Before ever meeting your mentor, you should clarify for yourself what you are comfortable with in your mentoring relationship and how you see your role as a mentee.  Do you prefer a formal relationship that remains 100% ‘professional’?  Or would you like to get to know your mentor 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 mentor?  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 an early discussion with the mentor, and open for negotiation or change as you develop your relationship.

Consider using the following tools to help you prepare for your first meeting:

  • 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)

Agree on the parameters and responsibilities of the relationship: what kinds of topics do you want to talk about? How often and under what circumstances will you meet or communicate? What would you like the mentor to do? What does your mentor expect you to do? Again, these expectations can be renegotiated but must be established early to avoid misunderstandings in the future.You might even establish a formal mentoring agreement, if appropriate. Please see an example of such an agreement here: (Word / PDF).

Make a plan with your mentor. Start by clearly articulating your career needs and goals, ask your mentor for feedback on a timeline for achieving your goals.

Spend time reflecting with your mentor on the achievement of your goals and on realistic adjustments to your career plan. Make sure your career plan has enough flexibility to account for unexpected opportunities.

Set an agenda for meetings with the mentor. The agenda can take into account changes in your career plan as you put it into practice, as well as any immediate concerns you may have regarding your career at UAlbany.

Build a relationship that goes beyond your interactions in formal meetings so that you can speak frankly, candidly and comfortably with your mentor. It is important to already be on easy terms with your mentor in case you need to consult him or her for ideas on a difficult situation at some point in the future.

Get more than one mentor. No single person can have all the answers. Choose senior faculty, both on campus and off as mentors. Ask your mentor to help you create a support network both within your department and within the university. Your mentor might introduce you to key people who should know you and whom you should know.

Be receptive to constructive feedback. Ask your questions of more than one person to ‘triangulate’ on the answers you are hearing—this will make it easier to listen to your mentor’s advice and feedback as a source of information for you, rather than as a criticism or attack.

While triangulating, keep an open mind toward your mentor and other senior faculty who give you advice, no matter what other things you might hear about them.  Only rarely will you find people who are truly trying to hurt you.  You will find that senior faculty in your department live in a political world and have histories with one another that have nothing to do with you.  As much as possible, listen and take what is positive from each of their comments to you.

Appreciate the work your mentor is doing. Be generous toward the comments or advice you are receiving from your mentor—he or she may have perspectives and motivations the value of which you do not yet see.

Develop a peer network, both on campus and nationally. You will find that you are not alone and can get good advice and information from those who are in the same situation. Work to maintain your network of friends from graduate school—they are often the best source of information about how things are done elsewhere which allows you to gauge your local situation better.

Realize that your success is important not just to you, but also to your department and to the university. Remember that "going it alone" doesn't work well for anyone.
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What questions do I need to ask of my mentor(s), my peers, my chair? 1
Below is a list of questions to ask your mentor, your near peers, your chair, senior faculty within and outside your department, your dean, faculty at peer institutions. The list is a bit overwhelming when taken in all at once, so use it strategically and over time so as not to overwhelm your conversation partners (or yourself!). Don’t forget that it is extremely important to ‘triangulate’; that is, ask the same question of several different people. You might find that you get a consistent answer from asking multiple people, but if you get 3 or 4 different answers to the same question, ask yourself why that might be so: Is it the kind of people of whom you are asking the question (are they the right people who are ‘in the know’ about this topic)? Is it because a person’s position in the university gives them a unique perspective on the topic, so that a senior faculty member, a chair and a dean have given you different answers because they have respectively narrow or broad views of the institution? In this case, take time to think about how you might act to conform to the rules while still remaining true to your own goals. Remember that answers to questions are valuable information, but it is up to you to sort through the resulting data, choose directions and make decisions about your own career.

What Do I Need to Know about My Department?

  • How is the department organized?  How are decisions made?  Are there interpersonal or departmental dynamics that would be helpful to know about?
  • What resources are available in my department (e.g., travel funds, typing and duplicating, phone, computer equipment, supplies)?  Is there support staff?  What should be expected from support staff?
  • What is the approximate balance between research, teaching, and service I should aim for? If they are not identical, how do I balance tenure requirements with departmental expectations in teaching and service?
  • How important is the Faculty Activities Report (FAR) in merit, reappointment, tenure, and promotion decisions in my department?  What sort of documentation of my achievements will help me succeed in these decisions?
  • Do I need to “read between the lines” in the chair’s recommendations on my FARs?
  • How does the department fit into the College in terms of culture and personnel standards?  Do I need to take two sets of standards into account when planning my professional development?
  • How much time do I need to spend in my office being visible in the department?  Is it considered acceptable/appropriate to work from home? 
  • Are there department or university events that I should be sure to attend?


What Do I Need to Know about Expectations and Resources for Research?

  • Do I need to get grants?  Is help available for writing proposals, preparing budgets, etc.?  How much time should I spend seeking funds?
  • What kind of publication record is considered excellent in my department and college?  How many refereed articles do I need? In what journals? How are online journals viewed? Do I need a book? 
  • How are journal articles or chapters in edited collections viewed?  May material published in one place (conference, workshop) be submitted to another journal?  How much work is necessary to make it a “new publication”?
  • How is collaborative work viewed within the department/school?  Do co-authored articles count in my discipline?  Is being first co-author considered important?  Should I put my graduate students’ names on my papers?  How is alphabetical listing of authors viewed?
  • Do conference and workshop papers/presentations count as research in my discipline?
  • Should I give talks within my department?  How are colloquia organized in my department?  How do I publicize my work within the department?
  • What conferences should I go to?  Is it better to go to national conferences or smaller ones?  How much travel is allowed/expected/demanded?  What support is available for travel expenses?  From where?  How else can I gain the type of exposure I need for good tenure letters?
  • How is it viewed when I miss classes in order to attend conferences?  What, if any, are the processes for communicating this or arranging  alternatives for my students?
  • Would it be advisable to further develop my dissertation or branch out into a new area of research?
  • What documentation of my research will be needed for my tenure file?
  • What local or SUNY-wide research awards are there I need to know about, such as the Faculty Research Awards Program A and B (FRAP), and the Drescher Leave for female and protected-class junior faculty?  Where are the guidelines and dates for submission?

What Do I Need to Know about Expectations and Resources for Teaching?

  • What is the normal teaching profile for junior faculty in my department/college?
  • How many independent studies should I agree to sponsor?  How do I choose them?
  • How do I find out what the content of a course should be?  Does the department share syllabi, assignments, etc?
  • If I teach undergraduate courses, are resources available for grading, section leadership, etc.? Does the department/college take the nature of the course into consideration when analyzing student evaluations of teaching?
  • Does the department use student evaluations? Does the department use any other methods beyond student ratings to assess teaching effectiveness?
  • How is advising handled in the department?  How many undergraduate advisees should I have? How much time should I spend in advising them?  What campus resources are available if I have questions about departmental and institutional degree requirements?     
  • How many graduate student advisees should I have?  How much time and effort should I invest in working with graduate students?  How do I identify “good” graduate students?  How aggressive should I be in recruiting them?  Do I need to find resources for them?  What should I expect from them?  How do I promote my graduate students to rest of the community?
  • What is considered an appropriate response to a student who is struggling with course work or is clearly troubled in some way?  What resources are available for students?  What can/should I suggest?
  • What kinds of files should I keep on my students and the courses I’ve taught? 
  • What am I expected to teach?  Should I ask to teach service courses?  Should I teach the same course, stay within a single area, or teach around?  Should I develop a new course?  An undergraduate course?  A specialized course in my research area?
  • How do I establish an excellent teaching record?  What resources are available at the department/college/university level to help me do so?
  • Are there department guidelines for grading?  What is the usual frequency of midterms, exams, or graded assignments?
  • What documentation on teaching and advising should I retain for my tenure file?  When should I begin collecting such materials?
  • Are peer observations necessary for my tenure file, and if so, what are best ways to get them as part of my documentation of good teaching?

What Do I Need to Know about Expectations for Service and Outreach?

  • What kind of service to the department, college, and university is expected of me?
  • Are there committees I should seek out as a new faculty member? Any I should turn down if I am asked to serve?
  • What kind of community service is expected of me, and how much?
  • What kind of outreach (recruitment of students, representing the university at career fairs etc) is expected of me?
  • When should I begin service and outreach?  How much should I take on?
  • How much service to the profession is recommended or expected?  What forms should that take?
  • How do I develop and document an excellent record of service and outreach?

Personal and Professional Concerns   

  • What are the resources for meeting and socializing with other new faculty?
  • Where can I get help with dual career issues, childcare, and other personal concerns?  What sort of support is available to me through the campus and surrounding communities? What are the policies regarding tenure clock stoppage, parental leave etc?
  • Where can I find advice on balancing a professional life (e.g., teaching, research, service) with a personal life (e.g., time for significant others, children, leisure, civic responsibilities)?
  • How do I say “no” when I need to? How do I know when to say “no”?

Other Questions

  • How should I record any controversial matters?

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What can I expect from my mentoring relationship?
By now, you have likely been given a mentor or you are in the process of choosing one, so it’s obvious what the benefits are to you: you will learn the ropes, get information on how to succeed and on ways your new institution works.

But, as you may guess, mentoring relationships always don’t just magically ‘gel’. It takes intentional effort on the part of both mentors and mentees to ensure an effective mentoring relationship over time. Thus the bulk of this section 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 common 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: You may be hesitant to “bother” your mentors with “silly questions” when they are obviously such important and busy people. You need to remember that asking your mentor for help, advice, or a small favor is a way of showing respect and building your relationship.

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 you to share any difficulties you may be facing, 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 you to be pro-active in the relationship so that you get the support you need for professional success. Your mentors cannot begin to help if they have not spoken often enough with you and do not know what your 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. Out of respect for the experience of their mentor, junior faculty members can overestimate the information and guidance a single person can provide. As mentioned elsewhere, you should always be looking for additional mentors and sources of information to help you get your questions answered. You can also ask your mentor to suggest other people who might have expertise in a particular area.

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 remember how hard it is to learn a new institutional culture, to figure out the best ways to communicate one’s achievement or to learn the unwritten rules of success. Over time, all of these have become second nature to the mentor, and thus not necessarily visible as useful foci of discussion with you. Additionally, because the department chose from the best candidates in the search process that culminated in your being hired, your mentor is presented with a mentee who already seems very accomplished, and he or she may underestimate your need for guidance. Out of a concern of ‘getting in the way’, your mentor may hesitate to ask questions, and thus miss the early signs that you need more information to succeed.

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”
More often than not, mentors are pre-assigned to mentees before the mentee even arrives on campus. 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 your own or your mentor’s, 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.

The ‘seasons” of a mentoring relationship:

All mentoring relationships undergo changes as the career needs of the mentee are gradually met. As a successful mentee, you may become increasingly independent of your mentor which can lead to disappointment on your mentor’s part as contact with you declines or changes. Both 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 Foundation:
During the first three to six months, you will spend time getting to know each other, build trust, and develop 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 mentoring partners. The mutual trust which has developed between you can give you the confidence to ask questions, share concerns and disappointments, and even challenge your mentor’s ideas. Likewise, your ideas can be challenged by your mentor, who can help you think more strategically about your career.

Distancing:
Often, the relationship begins to draw apart after a year or two, as you have the requisite information and become more able to judge situations without additional help from your mentor. It is important, at this stage, that you discuss with your mentor how you both wish to continue your relationship. Questions to check the process of your relationship might include: What’s going well? What needs to be changed? How do we feel about the structure, format, and activities of the mentoring pair/group? What other topics/activities would be helpful that we haven’t tried? Where do I still feel that I need guidance?

Redefining:
Here the you will enter a new phase in your mentoring relationship: you and your mentor may 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 it may begin to cool as you gain independence from your mentor. This cooling of the relationship is sometimes hurtful to mentors, considering the time and effort they have put into helping you. It is important at this point to honor the time and effort that your mentor has invested in you and ‘give back’ to the relationship. Your mentor is likely to be an important ally for many years in the future, so it makes sense to nurture your relationship, even if it has moved in a different direction since its inception.
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1 Adapted with permission from Mary Deane Sorcinelli’s compilation for the Office of Faculty Development, Mutual Mentoring Guide, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, http://www.umass.edu/ofd/mentoring/Mutual%20Mentoring%20Guide%20Final%2011_20.pdf