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Whither mentoring?

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Drugmonkey takes issue with the assertion that mentoring is dead*:

Seriously? People are complaining that mentoring in academic science sucks now compared with some (unspecified) halcyon past?


What should we say about the current state of mentoring in science, as compared to scientific mentoring in days of yore? Here are some possibilities:

Maybe there has been a decline in mentoring.

This might be because mentoring is not incentivized in the same way, or to the same degree, as publishing, grant-getting, etc. (Note, though, that some programs require evidence of successful mentoring for faculty promotion. Note also that some funding mechanisms require that the early-career scientist being funded have a mentor.)

Or it might be because no one trained the people who are expected to mentor (such as PIs) in how to mentor. (In this case, though, we might take this as a clue that the mentoring these PIs received in days of yore was not so perfect after all.)

Or, it might be that mentoring seems to PIs like a risky move given that it would require too much empathetic attachment with the trainees who are also one’s primary source of cheap labor, and whose prospects for getting a job like the PI’s are perhaps nowhere near as good as the PI (or the folks running the program) have led the trainees to believe.

Or, possibly PIs are not mentoring so well because the people they are being asked to mentor are increasingly diverse and less obviously like the PIs.

Maybe mentoring is no worse than it has ever been.

Perhaps it has always been a poorly defined part of the advisor’s job duties, not to mention one for which hardly anyone gets formal training in how to do. Moreover, the fact that it may depend on inclination and personal compatibility might make it more chancy than things like joining a lab or writing a dissertation.

Maybe mentoring has actually gotten better than it used to be.

It’s even possible that increased diversity in training populations might tend to improve mentoring by forcing PIs to be more conscious of their interactions (since they recognize that the people they are mentoring are not just like them). Similarly, awareness that trainees are facing a significantly different employment landscape than the one the mentor faced might help the mentor think harder about what kind of advice could actual be useful.

Here, I think that we might also want to recognize the possibility that what has changed is not the level of mentoring being delivered, but rather the expectations the trainees have for what kind of mentoring they should receive.

Pulling back from the question of whether mentoring has gotten better, worse, or stayed the same, there are two big issues that prevent us from being able to answer that question. One is whether we can get our hands on sensible empirical data to make anything like an apples-to-apples comparison of mentoring in different times (or, for that matter, in different places). The other is whether we’re all even talking about the same thing when we’re holding forth about mentoring and its putative decline.

Let’s take the second issue first. What do we have in mind when we say that trainees should have mentors? What exactly is it that they are supposed to get out of mentoring.

Vivian Weil [1], among others, points us to the literary origin of the term mentor, and the meanings this origin suggests, in the relationship between the characters Mentor and Telemachus in Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. Telemachus was the son of Odysseus; his father was off fighting the Trojan war, and his mother was busy fending off suitors (which involved a lot of weaving and unweaving), so the kid needed a parental surrogate to help him find his way through a confusing and sometimes dangerous world. Mentor took up that role.**

At the heart of mentoring, Weil argues, is the same kind of commitment to protect the interests of someone just entering the world of your discipline, and to help the mentee to develop skills sufficient to take care of himself or herself in this world:

All the activities of mentoring, but especially the nurturing activities, require interacting with those mentored, and so to be a mentor is to be involved in a relationship. The relationships are informal, fully voluntary for both members, but at least initially and for some time thereafter, characterized by a great disparity of experience and wisdom. … In situations where neophytes or apprentices are learning to “play the game”, mentors act on behalf of the interests of these less experienced, more vulnerable parties. (Weil, 473)

In the world of academic science, the guidance a mentor might offer would then be focused on the particular challenges the mentee is likely to face in graduate school, the period in which one is expected to make the transition from being a learner of scientific knowledge to being a maker of new knowledge:

On the traditional model, the mentoring relationship is usually thought of as gradual, evolving, long-term, and involving personal closeness. Conveying technical understanding and skills and encouraging investigative efforts, the mentor helps the mentee move through the graduate program, providing feedback needed for reaching milestones in a timely fashion. Mentors interpret the culture of the discipline for their mentees, and help them identify good practices amid the complexities of the research environment. (Weil, 474)

A mentor, in other words, is a competent grown-up member of the community in which the mentee is striving to become a grown-up. The mentor understands how things work, including what kinds of social interactions are central to conducting research, critically evaluating knowledge claims, and coordinating the efforts of members of the scientific community more generally.

Weil emphasizes that the the role of mentor, understood in this way, is not perfectly congruent with the role of the advisor:

While mentors advise, and some of their other activities overlap with or supplement those of an advisor, mentors should not be confused with advisors. Advising is a structured role in graduate education. Advisors are expected to perform more formal and technical functions, such as providing information about the program and degree requirements and periodic monitoring of advisees’ progress. The advisor may also have another structured role, that of research (dissertation) director, for advisors are often principal investigators or laboratory directors for projects on which advisees are working. In the role of research director, they “may help students formulate research projects and instruct them in technical aspects of their work such as design, methodology, and the use of instrumentation.” Students sometimes refer to the research or laboratory director as “boss”, conveying an employer/employee relationship rather than a mentor/mentee relationship. It is easy to see that good advising can become mentoring and, not surprisingly, advisors sometimes become mentors. Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish the institutionalized role of advisor from the informal activities of a mentor. (Weil, 474)

Mentoring can happen in an advising relationship, but the evaluation an advisor needs to do of the advisee may be in tension with the kind of support and encouragement a mentor should give. The advisor might have to sideline an advisee in the interests of the larger research project; the mentor would try to prioritize the mentee’s interests.

Add to this that the mentoring relationship is voluntary to a greater degree than the advising relationship (where you have to be someone’s advisee to get through), and the interaction is personal rather than strictly professional.

Among other things, this suggests that good advising is not necessarily going to achieve the desired goal of providing good mentoring. It also suggests that it’s a good idea to seek out multiple mentors (e.g., so in situations where an advisor cannot be a mentor due to the conflicting duties of the advisor, another mentor without these conflicts can pick up the slack).

So far, we have a description of the spirit of the relationship between mentor and mentee, and a rough idea of how that relationship might advance the welfare of the mentee, but it’s not clear that this is precise enough that we could use it to assess mentoring “in the wild”.

And surely, if we want to do more than just argue based on subjective anecdata about how mentoring for today’s scientific trainees compares to the good old days, we need to find some way to be more precise about the mentoring we have in mind, and to measure whether it’s happening. (Absent a time machine, or some stack of data collected on mentoring in the halcyon past, we probably have to acknowledge that we just don’t know how past mentoring would have measured up.)

A faculty team from the School of Nursing at Johns Hopkins University, led by Roland A. Berk [2], grappled with the issue of how to measure whether effective mentoring was going on. Here, the mentoring relationships in question were between more junior and more senior faculty members (rather than between graduate students and faculty members), and the impetus for developing a reliable way to measure mentoring effectiveness was the fact that evidence of successful mentoring activities was a criterion for faculty promotion.

Finding no consistent definition of mentoring in the literature on medical faculty mentoring programs, Berk et al. put forward this one:

A mentoring relationship is one that may vary along a continuum from informal/short-term to formal/long-term in which faculty with useful experience, knowledge, skills, and/or wisdom offers advice, information, guidance, support, or opportunity to another faculty member or student for that individual’s professional development. (Note: This is a voluntary relationship initiated by the mentee.) (Berk et al., 67)

Then, they spelled out central responsibilities within this relationship:

[F]aculty must commit to certain concrete responsibilities for which he or she will be held accountable by the mentees. Those concrete responsibilities are:

  • Commits to mentoring
  • Provides resources, experts, and source materials in the field
  • Offers guidance and direction regarding professional issues
  • Encourages mentee’s ideas and work
  • Provides constructive and useful critiques of the mentee’s work
  • Challenges the mentee to expand his or her abilities
  • Provides timely, clear, and comprehensive feedback to mentee’s questions
  • Respects mentee’s uniqueness and his or her contributions
  • Appropriately acknowledges contributions of mentee
  • Shares success and benefits of the products and activities with mentee

(Berk et al., 67)

These were then used to construct a “Mentorship Effectiveness Scale” that mentees could use to share their perceptions of how well their mentors did on each of these responsibilities.

Here, one might raise concerns that there might be a divergence between how effective a mentee thinks the mentor is in each of these areas and how effective the mentor actually is. Still, tracking the perceptions of the mentees with the instrument developed by Berk et al. provides some kind of empirical data. In discussions about whether mentoring is getting better or worse, such data might be useful.

And, if this data isn’t enough, it should be possible to work out strategies to get the data you want: Survey PIs to see what kind of mentoring they want to provide and how this compares to what kind of mentoring they feel able to provide. (If there are gaps here, follow-up questions might explore the perceived impediments to delivering certain elements of mentoring.) Survey the people running graduate programs to see what kind of mentoring they think they are (or should be) providing and what kind of mechanisms they have in place to ensure that if it doesn’t happen informally between the student and the PI, it’s happening somewhere.

To the extent that successful mentoring is already linked to tangible career rewards in some places, being able to make a reasonable assessment of it seems appropriate.

It’s possible that making it a standard thing to evaluate mentoring and to tie it to tangible career rewards (or penalties, if one does an irredeemably bad job of it) might help focus attention on mentoring as an important thing for grown-up members of the scientific community to do. This might also lead to more effort to help people learn how to mentor effectively and to offer support and remediation for people whose mentoring skills are not up to snuff.

But, I have a worry (not a huge one, but not nanoscale either). Evaluation of effective mentoring seems to rely on breaking out particular things the mentor does for the mentee, or particular kinds of interactions that take place between the two. In other words, the assessment tracks measurable proxies for a more complicated relationship.

That’s fine, but there’s a risk that a standardized assessment might end up reducing the “mentorship” that mentors offer, and that mentees seek, to these proxies. Were this to happen, we might lose sight of the broader, richer, harder-to-evaluate thing that mentoring can be — an entanglement of interests, a transmission of wisdom, and of difficult questions, and of hopes, and of fears, in what boils down to a personal relationship based on a certain kind of care.

The thing we want the mentorship relationship to be is not something that you could force two people to be in — any more than we could force two people to be in love. We feel the outcomes are important, but we cannot compel them.

And obviously, the assessable outcomes that serve as proxies for successful mentoring are better than nothing. Still, it’s not unreasonable for us to hope for more as mentees, nor to try to offer more as mentors.

After all, having someone on the inside of the world of which you are trying to become a part, someone who knows the way and can lead you through, and someone who believes in you and your potential even a little more than you believe in them yourself, can make all the difference.

*Drugmonkey must know that my “Ethics in Science” class will be discussing mentoring this coming week, or else he’s just looking for ways to distract me from grading.

**As it happened, Mentor was actually Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, in disguise. Make of that what you will.

[1] Weil, V. (2001) Mentoring: Some Ethical Considerations. Science and Engineering Ethics. 7 (4): 471-482.

[2] Berk, R. A., Berg, J., Mortimer, R., Walton-Moss, B., and Yeo, T. P. (2005) Measuring the Effectiveness of Faculty Mentoring Relationships. Academic Medicine. 80: 66-71.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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