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New Faculty Tips on Having a Successful Mentoring Experience

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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This chapter will help you develop realistic expectations for the mentoring relationship, and it offers other ideas for benefits you may not have expected.


The posting below, a bit longer than most, looks at how new faculty can create  successful mentoring experiences.  It is from Chapter 3 New Faculty Tips on Having a Successful Mentoring Experience, in the book, Faculty Mentoring: A Practical Manual for Mentors, Mentees, Administrators, and Faculty Developers, by Susan L. Phillips and Susan T. Denison. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC, 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright © 2015 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.




Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Responding to Rejection


Tomorrow’s Academic Careers

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New Faculty Tips on Having a Successful Mentoring Experience


“I valued having access to someone who knows the ropes around campus, especially for managing things like service requirements, and general work-life balance. In my case, the mentor functioned like a wise person to whom I could go for friendly advice.”

— Mentee comment

If you are reading this chapter, then you have already decided to pursue mentoring or are considering whether mentoring is worth the time and effort. Perhaps you are concerned that if you ask for mentoring, you will be seen as needy or incompetent. In our experience, the new faculty members who pursue mentoring are very successful people who never miss an opportunity to improve their careers. If you search online for “tips for new faculty,” every article or list will include mentoring. You will find that a good mentoring relationship can support you in identifying your needs and help you strategize ways to meet your goals. This chapter will help you develop realistic expectations for the mentoring relationship, and it offers other ideas for benefits you may not have expected.

Regardless of how successful you have been through your doctoral program, postdoctorate, or other interim employment, you will find that university life is different. The academic life often puts us alone in our classrooms, our offices, and labs, so many new faculty members feel a sense of isolation on campus. New faculty typically feel swamped with teaching responsibilities and find themselves facing the constant new deadlines of classes and exams, leaving little time for writing up their research. The other stressor many new faculty members experience is the imposter syndrome, the sneaking dread that you aren’t really ready for this and that someone will find out. This feeling is common to most people starting something new and momentous. Don’t worry: it will go away.

It might be helpful here to list the characteristics of quick starters:

-        They get connected across campus.

-        Their work habits reflect goals.

-        They write three or more times per week.

-        They strategically plan service commitments.

-        They seek multiple mentors.

As a new faculty member, you will have some typical needs during your first year or two that reflect the issues we raised here. You need to make connections, both within and outside your department. Although you can think of several work-related reasons for this, a sense of collegiality and community is essential to a successful and happy career. You will have so many new responsibilities that it will be helpful to have someone who has been where you are to help you prioritize them and develop the time management skills to keep you productive rather than panicked. A mentor can help you determine the right balance of time spent on teaching and research for your department and institution. Last, but by no means least, a mentor can give you permission to take care of yourself and maintain the work/life balance that prevents burnout.

When you choose to pursue mentoring, you are making a solid commitment to spend the time necessary on the mentoring relationship to receive the full benefit and to repay your mentor for his or her commitment to support you. If you are in a group mentoring situation, then it is important to realize that your commitment to that group is crucial to the success of the group. Part of that commitment is to the confidentiality (see “New Faculty Mentoring Program Statement of Commitment and Confidentiality,” Appendix F, p. 97) of conversations that occur with your mentor or in the group. You will appreciate that the space you create together is safe for disclosure.

Selection of a Mentor

The most important factor in a successful mentoring relationship is a good fit with your mentor. You will need to have a trusting relationship. As your needs change over time, you will change mentors, so you will have multiple mentors. You may also have one mentor for teaching and another for research. This multiple-mentor process is designed to give you what you need when you need it. Ideally, you will have input into who your mentor is, although your department head may assign a mentor for your first year. This first mentor will help you to understand the department, from processes to culture, and to establish some initial planning and time management tasks (see Sidebar 3.1).

Sidebar 3.1

Questions to ask yourself as you seek a mentor

-        Why have I chosen to do my work in the academy?

-        What will be my contribution in my field?

-        What is my trajectory?

-        How is my fit in my department?

-        How do I find community in my work?

-        What is my projected image?

You do need to consider your personality and communication style. We find that both mentors and mentees come in two varieties: either they want their meetings to be all business and strictly focused on the path to tenure, or they appreciate spending some of the time on relaxed conversation and life balance issues. Do you want someone who is the same as or the opposite of who you are? If you tend to let things slide, you may want someone who will hold your feet to the fire. If you work until you drop, you may benefit from someone who will tell you how to take care of yourself.

There are benefits to having different mentors as you progress toward tenure. A five- to six-year relationship can get stale, and it is a large commitment to ask of someone. If your department is large enough, having one mentor for your first year, then another to take you up to reappointment, and a third to take you the rest of the way to tenure allows you to discuss your research with at least three senior faculty members in your department.  It will be helpful to have people on your tenure committee who have had the time to talk with you and understand your research. If it is a large department, you might want to have a different person each year, though that may make a good fit with each person less likely. You will find it helpful to get different points of view on your work, and it is good to know what expectations each senior faculty member has for your tenure dossier.

You will also benefit from having a mentor outside your department. If your university has a campus-wide mentoring program, you can find an outside mentor through that program. If not, ask your department head to help you find someone. It is important that you have someone outside the department to talk with about things you may not feel comfortable discussing with a colleague inside your department. There is no way around the fact that the mentor in your department will be voting on your tenure some day, and you may not wish to share all of your concerns with that person.

In each case, it would be helpful to have the opportunity to talk briefly with a potential mentor to get a sense of whether this would be a good fit for you. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation; for our university-wide mentoring program, we use a five-minute speed meet event. So, prepare an elevator talk about yourself that includes questions about potential mentors and use it when you meet colleagues in or outside your department. Then file away potentially good matches for future consideration. Another possibility is to ask a potential next mentor for advice on a particular matter and see how it goes.

What to Expect

Initially you will want to get to know your mentor. What are his or her areas of expertise in teaching? In research? What are you mentor’s outside interests? If you are young and juggling the responsibilities of work and a family, has your mentor been through that experience? At your first meeting with your mentor, you will also want to establish expectations on both sides. It is important to establish the boundaries of the relationship within which you will both feel comfortable meeting your needs (see Sidebar 3.2). 

Here are some questions you will want to ask:

-        How often will you meet?

-        How long will the meetings be?

-        Will you have e-mail contact between meetings?

-        Can you ask advice for a spur-of-the-moment concern?

-        Can you attend university events together?

Sidebar 3.2

Get the most out of a mentoring relationship

-        Meet regularly.

-        Set boundaries.

-        Set goals.

-        Prepare for meetings.

-        E-mail a summary of each meeting.

-        Keep a mentoring journal.

The second order of business will be a needs assessment. There is a needs assessment checklist in Appendix C (p. 72). You can fill it out before your first meeting, or make it an assignment for the second meeting. It is a good idea to do this with each new mentor because your needs will change, and each mentor may be able to help you address different needs. You will be the driving force behind what you and your mentor choose to talk about, but ask your mentor to question you as well; he or she may be aware of issues that are not on your radar. One good use you can make of each mentor is to have him or her hold you accountable to accomplish something between meetings and ask you about it. This will be particularly useful regarding your writing, since teaching and departmental responsibilities have regular deadlines, and it is easy to put off writing time. Writing is part of your job description and should be scheduled just like class time. If you use a digital calendar that others can see, they will know that you are busy at that time and be less likely to ask you to attend a meeting.

We recommend coffee meetings for 90 minutes. Lunch and dinner meetings require too much time spent eating and ordering food. If this is your first year as a professor, and you have a mentor in your department, you might want to meet every couple of weeks for the first month or so.  After that, monthly meetings should be adequate for the first year. You might also attend university events together; this will be helpful as you will not feel so isolated and your mentor can introduce you to people. Another good activity is to observe your mentor teaching, and have your mentor provide a formative assessment of your teaching (rather than a summative assessment, which involves judging the quality of your teaching for your department head). If such summative assessments are part of your departmental mentor’s duties, then ask for several formative assessments, so your mentor can write a summative assessment that includes growth during the year.

You will probably find that, as the year goes on, you need to meet with your mentor less. This is a natural progression in our experience and serves as an indicator that soon you will move on to a new mentor. Ask your current mentor for advice on this; discuss the possibilities in terms of your current and expected needs. As your formal relationship ends, ask whether you can contact him or her in the future, or whether you might meet for coffee once a year. Regular meetings can keep a former mentor who will vote on your tenure up to date with developments in your work.

Participation in a Mentoring Group

Faculty members at our university greatly appreciate participating in a mentoring group with other new faculty members across campus. As these groups are meant to be support groups, the size of the group should not be more than six to eight. With a small number of people, each member of the group can have the opportunity to speak. If you are going to participate in such a group, it is crucial that you make a commitment to be at every session. A group in which the participants change every week will not bond well and will be a disappointing experience. The other commitment you all must make is to confidentiality (see Appendix F, p. 97), so that everyone will be comfortable sharing concerns openly.

Mentees report that participating in these cross-disciplinary groups gave them a broader perspective of the university community. They also found that it was very illuminating to hear that others were having the same concerns and that they weren’t alone in their worries or concerns. Participants were also very happy to get to know other new faculty across campus, which gave them friends with whom to attend events or have coffee, and got them out of their offices and the small world of their departments. They valued sharing ideas, strategies, and experiences. If the group is composed of some first-, second-, and even third-year new faculty, the more experienced members can share tips with the newer faculty. Friendships made in these groups continue past the formal program.

If your university does not provide group mentoring, you may wish to create your own group. Here we describe how the groups work to let you know what to expect, or to help with your efforts if you are developing your own group. The first session of these groups is usually devoted in part to some getting-to-know-you activities. There are many ideas for these icebreakers, which can be found in Appendix B. You may want to use one at the beginning of each meeting. Since mutual support is part of the function of these groups, the beginning of each session will be devoted to a go-around so that all members can talk briefly about how their month has gone or about an anticipated event.

Although ideally there are senior faculty group facilitators, the group members will determine the focus of each session. The group may complete Appendix C’s, “Needs Assessment for New Faculty” checklist (p. 72) to help determine discussion topics on which they can agree. Sometimes you will have a common concern and plan ahead to bring in someone to facilitate the discussion around that topic. You may find that some people prefer to have a structured format every time, while others prefer an open discussion about whatever comes up that month. These types of things should be discussed at the first meeting so you can meet everyone’s needs at least some of the time.

We highly recommend that you participate in a mentoring group. Here is how one participant responded to a question about unforeseen benefits:

-        Learning from everyone else’s experiences – I learned so many useful tips and strategies from the other new faculty and the facilitators that I wouldn’t have even known to ask about.

-        Participating in the Learning Community also helped me to normalize my experiences – for example, almost everyone in the group mentioned feeling like they were slow writers, and almost everyone had a similar experience of feeling heavily recruited when we were interviewing but then no one stopping by to welcome us once they actually arrived [i.e., it’s nothing personal; everyone is just really busy, so you have to make an effort to get to know people in your department].

Self-Assessment of Your Mentoring Experience

You need to take the time to assess how your mentoring experience went at the end of each formalized relationship for two reasons. The person who set up the program, whether it is university-wide or departmental, will need to know what worked and what did not.  Providing feedback to him or her helps to improve the program in the future.  If it is within your department, then it will also improve your continuing program. You will find a suggested form to help you do this in Appendix G (p. 100).

You probably will want to do some kind of informal assessment at least midway through your year in a mentoring relationship. What is going well, that you want to continue? What is proving to be less than helpful, that you’d like to stop? What is missing that you need to start addressing? Take a look at the goals you set for yourself. Is the experience meeting your expectations? Were your expectations realistic?

Taking careful stock of the experience at the end of each year will help you choose your next mentor and plan what you want to get out of your next mentoring experience. If you are lucky enough to be participating in both one-on-one mentoring and group mentoring, ask yourself which of your main goals are being met by each type of mentoring, and how much of your attainment of those goals is due to your own efforts. You can think of this as three legs of a tripod of support for a fulfilling, successful career.

Show gratitude to your mentor. If your mentor gives you some advice that turns out to be just what you needed, then tell him or her so and say thank you. You will probably find that there are ways you can help your mentor as well, so that the relationship is reciprocal. This is the ideal mentoring relationship.