University at Albany

Mentoring Best Practices

A Handbook


Chapter One: Starting a Mentoring Initiative

Because mentoring depends greatly on institutional, disciplinary, and personal realities, there is no single approach that will work for every context or every person. In addition to understanding and taking into account the local and institutional culture in which you slive and work, you also need to ask yourself what kinds of resources you are willing to put into a mentoring initiative and where those resources should be located. The most important thing to remember, no matter the resources you have available, is that for mentoring to be truly effective, an institution must make available multiple forms of mentoring to junior faculty. This document will describe various mentoring program formats and strategies for putting them into place.

Why start a mentoring initiative?

What are the different formats for a mentoring program?

How do I begin to build a mentoring initiative?


Why start a Mentoring Initiative?

The first reason to establish a structured mentoring initiative is that it avoids wasting valuable talent that you have spent a lot of time and money attracting to UAlbany. The financial cost alone to an institution for recruitment, hiring and orientation of a faculty member has been estimated to be $100,000 in the first year of employment. When including all start-up costs, estimates have gone as high as $1.2 million per faculty member. Even highly productive faculty members are unable to bring in enough research money to cover such startup expenses by the time they earn tenure.

A structured mentoring initiative can save costs in talent, energy and time for junior faculty members who spend a large part of their first two years establishing their research program, developing collegial and research relationships, and learning effective classroom strategies. Any information that saves them time with these activities directly affects their satisfaction with their work and improves both the quality of their performance and their commitment to an academic career, thus enhancing your chances for retaining and promoting them. We have all heard about departments or individual faculty members who firmly believe that figuring out the unwritten rules is—and should be—part of the process of gaining tenure. In this view, successful guesswork on the part of junior faculty somehow ‘fits’ them for the academic life. We believe that this is an unnecessary and harmful form of academic hazing which wastes university resources and faculty talent that could much better be spent on improving the trajectory of a new faculty member’s career and the quality of a program.

Involving departments and colleges in a mentoring initiative advances organizational culture and quality by fostering a sense of belonging and community between new faculty and the senior faculty who have spent considerable effort and time establishing and building up the departments in which they work. Mentoring provides the mentees with necessary acculturation to their new program and institution. Successful mentoring relationships can also foster a feeling of empowerment for both mentoring partners: for the mentor who advocates effectively for a thriving mentee and for the mentee who is encouraged to take new directions and think more strategically about his or her career. The mentoring relationship can provide professional stimulation to mentors, who, as they discuss strategic goals and research possibilities with junior colleagues often find that these reflections give them a new perspective on, and enthusiasm for, their own professional projects. Improving the performance of highly qualified and talented junior faculty directly affects the quality of the academic program in which they are tenured and is a useful way to quickly identify rising stars and future leaders that will help raise the profile of the academic program and the institution.

One caveat must be presented up front about any mentoring initiative. There is no single approach that will work for everyone, no “one-size-fits-all” solution. In mentoring initiatives of any kind, a wide variety of participation and impact on both mentees and mentors is to be expected. Individuals are variously talented as mentors, and mentees vary widely in their listening and strategic thinking skills. Some mentoring relationships bring immediate and longer term benefits; others fizzle quite quickly through no fault of those implementing the program.
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What are the different formats possible for a mentoring program?

Below we describe three major types of formal mentoring programs, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. We will discuss in depth only formal mentoring initiatives, not the kind of informal mentoring that may take place in departments or colleges with long collegial traditions, where the senior faculty have always taken care to welcome, orient and foster new faculty members. Such spontaneous and informal mentoring activities are a sign of a healthy organizational culture that takes its mission seriously and seeks to improve quality through transparency and community building. Often, such departmental or organizational cultures are happy accidents resulting from the right people with similar attitudes and goals being hired at the same time. Or they are the result of a chair or dean who has taken quality, community and transparency seriously and has intentionally set up structures and traditions to nurture them. Many departments in academia, however, do not have strong mentoring traditions or cultures, and that is where a formal mentoring initiative can begin to make a difference.

  • “Traditional” mentoring programs or initiatives

This is the kind of mentoring initiative most familiar to academics in any institution. It features one-on-one mentoring, with a senior faculty member, usually from the same department as the junior faculty member, ‘assigned’ to the new person as a formal mentor for the duration of their pre-tenure period. Generally, the mentor’s role is to help the junior faculty member establish his or her research program, to give advice on research and publishing opportunities, and to discuss what is expected for tenure in terms of research, teaching and service. Often, these mentors are part of an evaluation team within the department that prepares the candidate for promotion and contributes to the decision on promotion and tenure. Some departments are uncomfortable with the complications arising from the dual role of a mentor who also evaluates the mentee, and those programs divorce the two functions intentionally as much as is possible.

One big advantage of traditional formal mentoring is that it guarantees the presence of a mentor for every new faculty member. Additionally, it ensures the probability that the mentee will receive useful within-discipline information such as expectations for tenure within the department, including specifics about research, teaching and service; kinds of conferences to attend; kinds of journals in which to publish; etc. This is also a low-cost solution to mentoring, in that it expects all or most of the senior faculty members to participate in mentoring junior faculty as a matter of course, thus there is no overhead or organizational structure to maintain for the program.

Because mentors are usually assigned to mentees in this type of initiative, there is a danger that such relationships may not “gel”. A number of factors might influence the effectiveness of such a relationship. For example, the personal characteristics or communication style of the mentor or the mentee may make it difficult for them to build an effective relationship. Or a difference in disciplinary perspectives between the senior and the junior faculty member may complicate their work together.

Additionally, because the mentor generally comes from within the department, the mentee may not have access to outside sources of information or help beyond perspectives available from the mentor internal to the department. Inexperienced junior faculty may not know or dare to seek out additional sources of information, which leaves them without a broader view of the institutional context in which they are aiming for tenure.

Traditional programs also carry with them potential conflicts of interest and confidentiality: a mentor who has both mentoring and evaluation roles vis-à-vis the mentee may know about the mentee’s early struggles which can color later evaluations of the candidate for tenure. Such an evaluative element of a mentoring relationship may also lead to reluctance on the mentee’s part to discuss his/her struggles with the mentor. One-on-one mentoring relationships therefore can lead to isolation of conscientious mentors who do not wish to endanger the mentee, and therefore believe they must struggle alone with the balance between confidentiality and their evaluative role, and also with solving any unusual issues the mentee brings them.

Finally, a department that is actively hiring to replace retiring faculty may lack enough qualified mentors for their junior faculty. A good mentor should be active and accomplished in research, teaching and service, and bring a positive attitude about the department and the junior faculty to the table. Not every faculty member is necessarily an appropriate mentor for new faculty members.

Ways to address disadvantages:
When mentoring partnerships don’t “gel”, a department often does not have enough mentors to just assign a new one. Also, assigning a new mentor alerts everyone in the department about the mentoring pair’s difficulties, which can be detrimental to the junior faculty member at a later time. The best way to address such a situation is to find a mentor from a different department with relatively similar kinds of research realities. This will give the mentee additional information about the university in general, as well as fill the need for a mentor in the discipline. Such mentees may need encouragement to find additional mentors themselves to fill the gap in reliable information about research expectations, but it helps to solve several of the disadvantages listed above.

To prevent incidences of breach of mentor/mentee confidentiality or having early struggles on the part of the mentee unfairly incorporated into a promotion decision, the department should have very clear guidelines available to both mentors and mentees about the mentor’s role in the course of evaluating the mentee, and suggestions about what kinds of information need to be shared between them, and what kinds might be “off limits”. Mentors also need guidelines about how to advocate effectively for their mentee, and what the boundaries of such advocacy should be.

Finally, the lack of qualified mentors is a serious problem for all mentoring initiatives. Engaging ‘sister’ departments with similar research standards is one way to broaden the pool of mentors for junior faculty. Instituting workshops and brownbags for mentors only, where they can share their challenges, trouble-shoot problems and gain new tools for effective mentoring is another way to grow new mentors. It will always be important to minimize contact between junior faculty and particularly bitter or unproductive senior faculty who may hurt the chances for promotion of a promising mentee by expressing excessive negativity or giving faulty advice.

  • Peer mentoring

Peer mentoring initiatives focus on building a network of junior faculty only, either from one department or across departments or colleges, who meet regularly but relatively informally to discuss issues they are facing. These networks can be entirely self-run by the junior faculty or arranged by a coordinator who sets up regular meetings, identifies topics for discussion and invites possible speakers or panelists for the meetings. Peer mentoring does not exclude input of senior faculty, as either the participants or the coordinator can call on talented senior faculty as panelists and resources on a range of topics. But in a peer mentoring network, senior faculty members are not administratively responsible for the program.

Peer networks are particularly effective at diminishing the sense of isolation that junior faculty often feel when they first arrive on campus. Hearing from others who are experiencing the same kinds of successes and challenges confirms for them that they are not alone and that they are doing as well as others in facing those challenges. Peer networks allow effective troubleshooting of difficult situations that junior faculty might face in their departments or colleges, and all such discussions can happen in a supportive atmosphere. Peer networks composed of different cohorts of junior faculty are particularly effective, as those “near peers” who are just 2-3 years ahead of first year faculty have the best advice for handling difficult situations because they have the most recent experience of how institutional culture, practices and policies affect junior faculty members’ lives. This format provides some choice of participation for the junior faculty, as the assignment of a formal mentor does not. This is a medium-cost solution to mentoring if there is a centralized coordinator, a low-cost solution if it is entirely faculty-run.

Peer networks are not particularly effective in helping new faculty understand the entire institutional context, since even their “near peers” with more experience have likely not had the chance to experience all levels of the university and thus do not yet understand how the institution works as a whole. Added to this lack of institutional context, because peer networks are most often cross-disciplinary, they often lack depth in within-discipline information about research realities and specifics of expectations for tenure. Additionally, junior faculty may not see the need to participate in a peer network, and thus not benefit from its great advantages, especially if their department has a “silo” culture and does not encourage them to gather information from outside sources. Finally, the cost of such networks increases if they are coordinated centrally. We must note however, that the impact on junior faculty is also likely to be greater in a centrally administered peer network, since it is not dependent on the enthusiasm and organizational talent of particular new faculty members to keep it going.

Ways to address disadvantages:
The best way to address the disadvantages of a purely peer network is to accompany it with a more formal system of mentoring that ensures senior faculty input in providing both departmental and institutional contextual knowledge.

  • Team Mentoring

Team Mentoring features at least 2 mentors for a group of up to 6 mentees. At least one of the mentors should be a faculty member from outside the department of the mentees in the team. Ideally, both mentors are outside the mentees’ departments, as that will ensure that team mentoring does not replace local, home-grown efforts to mentor the junior faculty. In this format, the mentees are selected from a variety of departments, although some overlap might be appropriate. Teams are expected to continue as mentoring teams for at least 18 months or up to the time to renewal of contract or through the tenure decision. Teams are expected to meet regularly as a team, ideally once a month, with additional contact between mentors and mentees left up to the team members. Monthly meetings are most effective when mentoring teams are given a topic for discussion or a visiting speaker or panel is arranged to address a particular topic. These meetings include both structured discussions and time for informal discussion among the team members.

The biggest advantage of this format is that it combines the advantages of traditional mentoring with those of peer mentoring networks. The two mentors serve as peer support for one another, reducing the isolation of mentors, and they are able to give institutional context to their junior colleagues because they are outside the mentees’ departments. Mentees in the teams receive input from senior faculty who can also act as external advocates for them, and they can count on their peers to troubleshoot specific situations and gain a sense of community within the institution. When most successful, mentoring teams become strong networks that connect mentees and mentors for many years, even in less-structured, social ways. This kind of format allows for choice of participation, by not forcing a junior faculty into a mentoring relationship. It also maximizes the influence of excellent mentors by avoiding the strictly one-on-one relationship.

Because of the size of the groups, it is much more difficult to get the teams together for their monthly meetings. Even when meetings are regularly scheduled, some mentors and mentees will not be able to attend all of them. This may result in mentees not having the kind of regular contact with their mentors and peers that is necessary for the building of a community and confidence that they are on the right track. In this format, as in any mentoring initiative, a wide variety of participation and impact can be expected. It also requires a back-up plan during meetings if both mentors fail to attend, and mentee “orphans” participate. Because team mentoring relies on mentors outside the department, mentees may not receive specific enough information regarding disciplinary realities unless there are mechanisms in place within their departments to address such realities. Because it is voluntary on the part of the new faculty, this format provides no guarantee of a mentor in cases where junior faculty decide not to participate. Finally, this is a relatively high-cost solution since it is most effectively run centrally and thus requires a coordinator to establish mentoring teams and to plan the monthly meetings.

Ways to address disadvantages:
Nothing can be done about the difficulty of getting larger groups together in the absence of a common time set aside university-wide for mentoring and other university business. However, whoever composes the teams can set up a “mentoring partnership agreement” that all team members must fill out and sign and that outlines the team’s agreed-upon expectations for how the team will conduct its business. [Click here for a sample partnering agreement] The person coordinating the regular meetings can sit together with “orphan” mentors and mentees and be prepared to conduct a useful discussion with them while the other teams are at work. Encouraging the mentors to connect with the department chairs and senior colleagues of their mentees can help them advocate effectively for their mentees, and also acquire a better understanding for how to guide them in terms of expectations for research. Mentors must explicitly be given the freedom not to have to know everything—and the tools to find those who do know answers when they do not. To combat the high cost of a centrally administered program, a college can select a faculty member or administrator already on campus to oversee and coordinate the program. The duties connected with managing a team mentoring program should then be factored in to the expectations and annual evaluation of the selected individual.

Ideally, a full-blown mentoring initiative in an institution would offer a mixture of all of the above formats so that junior faculty can make choices about the best way to acquire institutional and disciplinary information that will help them thrive at their new institution. Developing mentoring networks that offer multiple ways of receiving information helps not just junior faculty, but ultimately develops into a “mutual mentoring” network where senior faculty receive the benefits of on-going conversations with colleagues about how to succeed and how to help others to succeed.
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How do I begin to build a mentoring program?

The first step is to take a look at your institution’s mission, goals, and culture, and then review your program’s mission, goals and culture. Not every program option you find in the section on different mentoring formats will be appropriate for your department, college or all-campus program. You need first to ask:

  • What is currently being done with regard to mentoring?
  • What is lacking in these mentoring efforts?
  • How do you know?
  • What attitudes are there about mentoring?
  • Are any of those attitudes ones you want to change through the establishment of a new program?

Once you have a grasp of what is actually happening, and have designed a workable structure for what you would like to have happen in your department, college or institution, it is of utmost importance to involve and persuade the opinion leaders of the value of your initiative. Mentoring cannot happen if the senior people to whom everyone listens are negative about mentoring in general or uninterested in being mentors in your new program. At most, in such a situation, you can help junior faculty set up peer mentoring networks as a way to defend themselves against an unsupportive climate. You need to know your arguments for starting a mentoring initiative, and ensure that the initial discussion with the opinion leaders allows them to voice support, objections, and alternatives to your plan. If possible, involve them in collecting information about what peer institutions do particularly well to help inform the system you will use. Collecting such information and using opinion leaders helps you to design an initiative that fits the culture of your program or institution and creates buy-in among the people who will be most effective at helping you sell it to other colleagues.

In designing your mentoring program, it is important to establish an early definition of success. How will you know if the mentoring program is working well? For example, would the ultimate sign of your success be that you tenure every faculty member who is hired into your department? What about a situation where, because of excellent mentoring, a new faculty member realizes in his second year (instead of waiting until just before promotion to decide) that this is not where he wants to make his mark and that he is unhappy with his situation? Such an early decision on his part would waste less time and fewer resources on someone who might be more effective elsewhere. Once you have an initial idea about the definition of success, you can decide what mechanisms you will put in place for regular assessment of the program.

Once you have decided on the design of your mentoring initiative, you will need to think about how to orient both mentors and mentees who will participate in the program. Setting appropriate expectations for mentoring partners and offering tools and resources that help support them are extremely important elements of any mentoring program. Please see the chapters for deans and department chairs, mentors and mentees for more information on setting expectations and parameters for a program and for mentoring partners.

It is important to document both the successes and the failures of your mentoring initiative, so that a conversation within your unit can begin about how to improve outcomes. Junior faculty respond well when a mentoring program is assessed transparently but with regard to maintaining confidentiality—especially within departments—and when changes are made in response to the data collected. Finally, spend time celebrating successes that come out of the program and recognize publicly all the participants (no matter how visible their success), since each mentoring partner has put time and effort into this work. By celebrating mentors and mentees regularly, you can build a community of people who share the same goals for your unit, the same definitions of success and a common tradition of collegiality that will help foster excellence in your program.
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