Starting a Mentoring Initiative

Why Mentoring Matters 

Mentorship empowers everyone who is involved. It also helps develop and retain our talented faculty, saving the University from time-consuming and costly hiring searches. 

Junior faculty members spend much of their first two years at the University establishing their research, developing relationships and learning effective classroom strategies. Faculty who are mentored through this period may have higher job satisfaction, work performance and career commitment — increasing the likelihood that they’ll stay at UAlbany and be promoted. 

Additionally, UAlbany stands firmly against “academic hazing,” in which new hires are left to figure out their unit’s unwritten rules alone as they work toward tenure. University resources and faculty talent should be used to improve the trajectory of a new faculty member’s career and the quality of a program. 

Schools, colleges and departments with mentoring initiatives have a stronger sense of community and belonging among their entire faculty because junior faculty feel supported and senior faculty have helped shape their unit’s culture.  

In a successful mentoring relationship, mentees feel encouraged to take new directions and think more strategically about their career, and mentors feel professionally stimulated by conversations that result in new enthusiasm for and perspective on their work.  

Mentoring depends greatly on institutional, disciplinary and personal circumstances, so there is no single approach that will work in every context or for every person.  

You should also consider the resources you have available to support and sustain an initiative that offers multiple forms of mentoring to junior faculty. 

Explore how to develop different types of mentoring programs below.  

 

Main Formats for Formal Mentoring 

There are three main types of formal mentoring programs, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. 

This section does not discuss the informal mentoring that may already be taking place in your school, college or department. In some units, senior faculty has always taken care to welcome, orient and foster new colleagues — spontaneous, informal mentoring traditions which are a sign of a healthy organizational culture. 

A formal mentoring initiative is a great option for schools, colleagues and departments who do not yet have a strong mentoring culture or who want to expand, diversify or update their existing traditions. 

Traditional Mentoring
Format & its Advantages

This type of mentoring is most familiar to academics of any institution.  

Traditional mentoring hinges on one-on-one mentoring, where a senior faculty member is assigned to mentor a junior faculty member for a set period of time. The faculty members are usually from the same department and typically work together until the junior faculty member receives tenure. 

Generally, the mentor helps their mentee establish their research, gives them advice on research and publishing opportunities, and explains the research, teaching and service requirements for tenure.  

Mentors are also often part of the evaluation team that prepares the candidate for promotion and contributes to promotion decision-making. However, some units are not comfortable with a mentor evaluating a mentee and avoid introducing that dual role whenever possible. 

The major advantage of traditional mentoring is the guarantee of a mentor for every new faculty member, increasing the likelihood that the mentee will receive useful information about their discipline and understand the tenure expectations within their department. 

This format is also typically low cost. All or most senior faculty members are expected to mentor a junior faculty member, which eliminates the need for overhead or organizational structures. 

Disadvantages & How to Address Them

First, there is a possibility that assigned mentors and mentees will not “gel.” Most often, complications stem from different personal characteristics, communication styles and/or disciplinary perspectives. 

When mentoring partnerships encounter difficulties, the department may not have another mentor available or may not want to reassign the mentee because doing so would alert the entire unit about the issue.  

The best way to address the situation may be to find a mentor who is from a different department and has similar research interests. This person can offer the mentee additional information about the University in general and fill the need for a mentor in the discipline.  

This solution will also solve a second disadvantage: Traditional mentoring does not give mentees access to information or perspectives outside their department. Encouraging junior faculty to seek out additional mentorship on their own will help them learn broader institutional context. 

Secondly, traditional programs in which the mentor holds a mentoring role and an evaluation role face confidentiality issues and conflicts of interest. 

A mentor’s evaluations of the candidate for tenure may be colored by their knowledge of the mentee’s early struggles. And a mentee may be reluctant to ask for help or to talk about an issue with their mentor if they know it could affect their career. 

To prevent this, units must have clear guidelines that govern a mentor’s role in evaluating their mentee, what kinds of information should and should not be shared between a mentor and mentee, and how mentors can advocate effectively and ethically for their mentee. 

Lastly, a department that is hiring new faculty members to replace retiring faculty members may not have enough qualified mentors.  

(A good mentor should be active and accomplished in research, teaching and service, and have a positive attitude. Junior faculty shouldn’t be paired with bitter or unproductive senior faculty members who may express excessive negativity or give faulty advice.) 

Partnering with departments that have similar research standards can help broaden your pool of mentors. Schedule workshops and lunch-hour discussions for mentors only, during which they can share challenges, troubleshoot problems and learn new tools for effective mentoring. 

Peer Mentoring
Format & its Advantages

Peer mentoring programs build a network of junior faculty — either from one department, school or college, or from across departments, schools or colleges — that meet regularly but relatively informally to discuss any issues they are facing. 

These networks can be entirely self-run by the junior faculty or can be arranged by a coordinator who schedules regular meetings, identifies topics for discussion and invites speakers or panelists to certain meetings. 

Senior faculty can play several different roles: they can become a participant or be invited to attend a meeting by the coordinator to discuss any range of topics. However, they are not administratively responsible for the program. 

Peer mentoring is especially effective at mitigating the sense of isolation that junior faculty often feel when they arrive on campus because it provides an opportunity for them to meet others experiencing the same successes and challenges and to troubleshoot difficult situations together in a supportive atmosphere. 

Peer networks composed of different cohorts are particularly effective because near peers, who are just two to three years ahead of the newest faculty members, can offer advice from their own recent experiences with institutional culture, practices and policies. 

This format allows junior faculty to have some choice in their level of participation, whereas the assignment of a mentor in the traditional mentoring format does not. 

Peering mentoring is a medium-cost format, as it requires a centralized coordinator. 

Disadvantages & How to Address Them

Peer networks are not particularly effective in helping new faculty understand the entire institutional context, since all members are relatively new to the University. And, since most peer networks are cross-disciplinary, they also cannot offer discipline-specific information. 

If junior faculty members don’t see the value in participating, or are discouraged by an insular department, they will not benefit from the advantages of a peer network. 

Lastly, centrally coordinated networks are most effective but do involve administrative costs. 

The best way to address these disadvantages is to accompany your peer mentoring with another formal system of mentoring that ensures senior faculty input.

Team Mentoring
Format & its Advantages

Team mentoring features at least two mentors for a group of up to six mentees. Mentees are selected from a variety of departments, with some overlap as appropriate. 

At least one of the mentors should be a faculty member from outside the mentees’ department(s). If the mentees’ departments have their own informal mentoring tradition, both team mentors should be from other units, so as not to interrupt or replace those homegrown efforts. 

Teams are expected to work together for at least 18 months, until the mentees’ contracts are renewed or through the tenure process. Teams meet regularly, ideally once a month, with any additional contact between mentors and mentees left up to the team members. 

Monthly meetings are most effective when mentoring teams have a discussion topic or have invited a speaker or panel to address a particular topic. The meetings should include both structured discussions and time for informal conversation among members. 

The main advantage of team mentoring is that it combines the advantages of traditional mentoring with the advantages of peer mentoring.  

The two mentors serve as peer support for one another and are able to give institutional context to their junior colleagues, who are outside their department.  

The six mentees receive input from senior faculty, who can also act as their external advocates, while working with their peers to troubleshooting specific issues and building a sense of community on campus. 

The most successful mentoring teams become strong networks that connect mentors and mentees for many years — even in less structured, more social ways. 

This format also allows junior faculty to have some choice in their level of participation and maximizes the influence of excellent mentors by avoiding strictly one-on-one relationships.

Disadvantages & How to Address Them

This is a relatively high-cost solution, since team mentoring is most effective when centrally administered — requiring a coordinator to establish mentoring teams and plan monthly meetings.  

To reduce those costs, a school or college may elect to name a faculty member administrator already on campus to oversee and coordinate the program. Those duties should then be factored into that individual’s work expectations and annual evaluation. 

Give the size of a mentoring team, it can be difficult to schedule monthly meetings. Even when meetings are scheduled regularly and in advance, some mentors and mentees won’t be able to attend every session. Regular contact with mentors and peers is necessary to build confidence and community. 

While scheduling difficulties can’t really be avoided, the team’s coordinator should create a mentoring partnership agreement that outlines the team’s agreed upon expectations and that all team members must sign. Download a Mentoring Partnership Agreement template.

This format also requires a backup plan for meetings when both mentors cannot attend but mentees still elect to gather. In those cases, the coordinator could be asked to meet with the mentees and facilitate a useful discussion instead. 

Since team mentoring relies on mentors outside the mentees’ departments, mentees won’t receive discipline-specific information (unless their departments have a program in place to address this).  

Mentors can mitigate this issue by connecting with their mentees’ department chairs and senior colleagues, who can help them advocate effectively for their mentees. It’s important that mentors are explicitly given the freedom not to know everything; it’s better they have the tools to find those who know answers they don’t. 

Since team mentoring is voluntary for new faculty, a junior faculty member who decides not to participate won’t be guaranteed a mentor. Ideally, a full mentoring initiative would offer a mix of all three formats so that junior faculty can choose the best way to acquire institutional and disciplinary information that will help them succeed.  

Developing mutual mentoring networks with multiple avenues for participation not only helps junior faculty but also offers senior faculty the benefits of ongoing collegial conversations on success.

 

Building a Mentoring Program 

First, consider the mission, goals and culture of your department, school or college, and UAlbany. Not every mentoring format will be appropriate for your reality. Ask yourself: 

  • What mentoring is currently being done and how? 

  • What is lacking in these mentoring efforts? How do you know? 

  • What attitudes are there about mentoring? 

  • Do you want or need to change any of those attitudes? 

Once you know what’s happening on the ground and have a workable structure for what you’d like to create, involve your leadership and present the value of your initiative.  

Without the support of your unit’s decisionmakers, you’ll only be able to help junior faculty set up a peer mentoring network as a way to defend themselves against an unsupportive climate, at most. With the support of your unit’s decisionmakers, you’ll be able to get senior faculty involved, create the necessary administrative framework and grow your program. 

Know your arguments for why mentoring initiatives matter and allow your leaders to voice their opinions, support, objections and alternative ideas during your initial conversations. Collect information on what peer institutions do particularly well to help you select the right mentoring format. 

This will help you design an initiative that fits your unit’s culture and gain the support of those most effective at getting your other colleagues on board. 

Next, establish an early definition of success so you know if the initiative is working. For some, success may be helping mentees secure tenure. For others, success may be defined by mentees feeling empowered to make career choices based their needs and interests. Whatever your definition of success will be, you should use it to design regular assessments of the program. 

Now that you’ve designed your mentoring initiative, you’ll need to decide how to orient your mentors and mentees in the program. Set appropriate expectations for mentorship partners. Find or create the tools and resources they’ll need to succeed. (You’ll find more detailed information on how to accomplish these steps in the other sections of this guide.) 

Once your initiative is running, document its successes and failures so you can make improvements along the way. Junior faculty do best when a mentoring program are assessed transparently and when changes are driven by data. Maintaining confidentiality is also key. 

Lastly, celebrate the successes that come out of your program and publicly recognize all participants. Each mentor and mentee have put in a lot of time and effort. Celebrating them regularly builds community, tradition and a common set of goals that will foster excellence in your program.