Skip to content Skip to navigation

Mentoring and Productivity

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

Message Number: 

Making one simple adjustment to how you think about mentoring can help you get your needs met, focus your energy, and increase your productivity.


The posting below looks at how a simple change in the way you look at mentoring can make a big difference in your mentoring relationship. It is by Kerry Ann Rockquemore*, PhD, president andCEO of the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity[] It is from the posting of November 7, 2016 in her Monday Motivator series which you can find at:


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Preliminary Steps in Quantitative Data Analysis


Tomorrow’s Academic Careers

---------- 1,541 words ----------

Mentoring and Productivity


I was once in a meeting with a president, chief diversity officer and dean at a small liberal arts college. The president launched our conversation by confidently insisting that while lots of people talk about the importance of mentoring, nothing really works, nobody has figured it out, none of the existing program models have rigorous enough measures, and all any program can really do is make people feel better. As someone who has run a variety of successful mentoring programs, that is typically the moment when I glaze over and disengage because the implicit message is: Go ahead and try to prove to me what you’re doing works, but I probably won’t believe you anyway.  [E5] Contrast this with the fact that the very same day I met with a great many faculty members on that campus who were desperate for mentoring. Like most of the pre-tenure faculty members I've met with while traveling to different campuses, they had a fundamentally different perspective on mentoring. The vast majority didn't have a mentor (and never have), wanted a mentor immediately, and wanted someone to help them figure out how things work so they could get on with actually doing their work.

I find this situation oddly curious and highly problematic. On one hand, there’s a pervasive sense that mentoring is some mystical, uncontrollable, unpredictable relationship between senior and junior faculty on a particular campus. As a result, administrators tend to assume that the best they can possibly do is randomly match senior and junior faculty, encourage them to have coffee, and hope for the best. If some people get "mentored" and others don't, that's okay because nobody has really figured it out anyway. On the other hand, there are faculty members who want help, aren’t getting it, and are not as productive as they could be because of it. This has always struck me as organizationally inefficient, and it contributes to the tenure-track experience being unnecessarily miserable for those left to "figure it out.”

This week, I want to encourage you to fundamentally re-think your approach to mentoring, partly because the rigid resistance of the president I met with is regrettably typical and explains why most university mentoring programs don't go beyond a basic mentor-match and hope-for-the-best approach, and partly because making one simple adjustment to how you think about mentoring can help you get your needs met, focus your energy, and increase your productivity. Re-thinking your approach to mentoring requires the acknowledgement of one very flawed assumption -- that mentoring is a reliable and valid construct. I’ll even go a step further and suggest that our insistence on using the very word "mentoring" negatively impacts faculty members for the following two reasons: 1) the term "mentoring" means so many different things to different people that it’s meaningless, and 2) using the all-encompassing term "mentoring" focuses faculty on connecting with a person instead of identifying their needs.

Whenever we believe that something is critically important but nobody agrees on what it means, there’s going to be a wide variety of problems. In other words, whenever someone tells me that they need "a mentor” or that their college needs a "mentoring program,” I ask them what exactly they mean by "mentoring." There’s always a long pause as if it’s self-evident, but the breadth of responses that follow is staggering, ranging from a parental figure in their professional life to having coffee once a year. So instead of talking about “mentoring” and hoping that everyone means the same thing (when we know we don’t), let’s shift our thinking and our language to focus on two questions: 1) What do I need? and 2) How can I get my needs met? I work most frequently with tenure-track faculty, and over the past six years I’ve observed that the average new professor has some combination of the following needs:

Professional Development

Many new faculty are looking for help learning how to manage time, resolve

conflicts, administer projects, organize your office space, teach efficiently

and well, supervise graduate students, and make strategic decisions about

service commitments. 

Emotional Support

As a new faculty member, you are in the midst of a significant identity and

role transition -- from graduate student (or post-doc) to professor. As a

result, you may need support in dealing with the common stress and

pressures of transitioning to life on the tenure track. 

A Sense of Community

Given that most new tenure-track faculty have uprooted their lives to move

to a new area, you may find yourself seeking both an intellectual and/or

social community where you feel a true sense of belonging.


The structure of your job likely provides the least accountability for the

activity that is most valued -- research, writing, and publication. In order to

avoid getting caught up in the daily chaos, the vast majority of new faculty

members need some form of accountability system for writing.

Institutional Sponsorship

You also need to cultivate relationships with people who are invested in

your success at your institution. By that, I mean senior faculty who are

willing to use their power to advocate for your best interests behind closed


Access to Networks

Because knowledge isn't produced in isolation, it's critical for you to connect

with others to discuss potential research collaborations, navigate external

funding, and access opportunity structures that might not be immediately

apparent to you as a new faculty member. 

Project Specific Feedback

You will also need to regularly communicate with people who can provide

substantive comments on your proposals, manuscript drafts, and new ideas.

Role Models

As a new faculty member, looking to other faculty members who are

navigating the academy in a way that you aspire to will be critical for your

development as both a faculty member and academic.

Safe Space

This applies at any career stage, but especially as a tenure-track faculty member. It's extremely important to have the space to discuss and process unique and individual experiences without being invalidated, questioned, devalued and/or disrespected.

Having this wide variety of needs is perfectly normal anytime you transition from one status to another in your academic career whether it's as a graduate student to faculty member, pre-tenure to post-tenure, and/or faculty member to administrator. And it's literally impossible (and in my opinion, dangerously unhealthy) to have all these needs met by one person in your department. Having worked with thousands of faculty members, there’s one thing I’ve seen over and over again -- when faculty members start identifying their needs, asking for the specific types of assistance that will meet those needs, and pro-actively cultivating an ever-expanding network of information, support, contacts, referrals, and advisors that are both internal and external to their campus, they become more productive. In other words, when you shift from a person-based to a needs-based framework, it frees you from the search for "a mentor” and focuses you instead on identifying your needs and getting them met. This shift acknowledges that it’s normal to have an evolving set of needs throughout your career and that those needs are most effectively, efficiently, and comprehensively met in the context of a broad network of information, community, support, accountability, and ongoing feedback.


The Weekly Challenge

This week, I challenge you to:

•   Pause every time you feel the urge to use the word "mentor” or

              "mentoring” and ask yourself: What do I need right now? What’s holding me back?And what (specifically) would help me to be more productive and effective?

•   Go through the previous list of typical faculty needs and specify what would be helpful to you in moving forward. Don’t be afraid to name your need. If you don’t know how to write a successful grant, get un-stuck in your writing, or are floundering in the classroom, it’s okay! Name it so you can get the help you need to move forward.

•   Ask yourself: How can I get _________ (insert current need not being met)? If you don’t know, state the need to someone else, and ask them to help you brainstorm how to get your needs met.

•   Once you know what you need and have identified possibilities for getting it met, ask for help widely without shame, insecurity, or the belief that such a request means you are incompetent.

•   Release yourself from the limiting belief that all you need is to find a single guru-like figure who will care for you, protect you, and lovingly guide you through your academic career. Repeat after me -- There is no guru. Instead, see what opens up this week for you when you replace that limiting belief with the idea that you can get your needs met from a wide variety of people and then take action in that direction.

•   Be sure that you are taking advantage of whatever "mentoring" programs your department, college, and/or university offers, as well as any that may be offered by your professional organizations. They may not meet all of your needs, but they will increase the size of the network of people you can call on to assist you when you need it. 

I hope this week brings you the clarity to shift your thinking about mentoring from the desperate search for a mentor to an empowered reflection on what you need and how you can get it.


Peace & Productivity,


Kerry Ann Rockquemore, PhD

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity