rmpOur early career Research Staff Mentoring programme has been running for 5 years now. Having trained about 150 academic volunteers in mentoring techniques and ethical practice, and having seen more than 500 pairs come through the scheme, I’ve learned a lot about the power of dialogue in supporting planning for research careers. Taking a research-led approach has helped craft a programme of value to the primary learners, the early career researcher mentees. But there’s wider listening to be done to fully embed a mentoring culture across the university – a successful mentoring programme has to align with existing structures and cultures, not circumnavigate them or try to replace them.

The Think Ahead team listens to the PhD and ECR researcher voice in many different ways (postboxes, surveys, anonymous inbox, evaluation forms, etc) but the recent conversational tour of departments led by Bryony Portsmouth included staff representatives across levels, and was a way of listening to voices within the context of their immediate research environment. A piece of learning for me that came through this consultation was that department leaders worry about the mentoring programme acting to conceal research environment problems (e.g. group leadership / supervision) that they would rather know about and act upon. This is really commendable, and I totally agree. I have also picked up a worry from the PIs too that being paired with a mentor may lead an early career researcher to experience conflicting advice and guidance on, or around, their research topic.

These worries are perfectly legitimate, and are based in two assumptions it’s easy to make about a mentoring programme:

Assumption 1. Mentoring aims to provide a relationship that is the same as a supervision or line management relationship;

Assumption 2. People join a mentoring programme because they’ve got problems, or are somehow having a sub-optimal career.

While point 2 could occasionally be the case, our programme doesn’t operate on a deficit model (i.e. that people are not good enough, or they need fixing somehow) and aims to empower everyone who comes through the door to achieve whatever they set out to achieve. It’s the task of each mentee to set the agenda, and for some this might be about getting that Research Fellowship award, for others it might be about expanding the CV to appeal in new career contexts, or for others finding better ways to balance work demands and get the most from their project and their working relationships. Mentoring is about using discussion to reflect on what got you here…and whether it will get you where you want to go next.

DOMlogoSo, to respond to point 1, what do mentors do? What are the expectations for a relationship between mentor and mentee that complements the PI relationship, but does not antagonise, replace, duplicate or substitute for it? I like to think of role of a Think Ahead mentor as providing an agenda-free space that supports the mentee to do their own thinking, learning and planning. It might be about giving some advice sometimes, but more often it’s about helping the mentee to own and solve their own queries. I cultivate the agenda-free nature by matching people outside their immediate discipline area, away from the constraints of departmental politics, away from the temptation to talk about project objectives, and into a place they can speak frankly about what’s next for them.

This is distinct from regular line-management relationships which by their very nature can never be (and shouldn’t be) free of the PI’s agenda – the PI after all shoulders the accountability for project completion, the whole group’s future directions, fit in with dept. strategies, producing research outputs, and aligning with the latest sexy research funding directions… as well as developing their individual team members. A PI can certainly use a mentoring style though, and my short workshops for supervisors could help you get a handle on the skills.

So, in terms of making sure issues at the dept. or faculty level aren’t obscured? It’s a case of regularly reviewing the data for themes or commonalities in the mentee applications and objectives for mentoring, and seeking to feed these in (of course in aggregated anonymised format) where needed. Twice in 5 years I have used this type of landscape intelligence to inform dept. understanding and both times I have found the corresponding Heads of Dept. all ears and willing to take the learning on board.

Mentoring is a self-elective source of support for career thinking and planning. It can also increase cross-discipline networking across the university, and provide a skillset that enhances PI/supervisory relationships. So…what could you use it for?

University of Sheffield ECRs – sign up here for the Sept mentoring programme.

Interested in being a mentor? Take a look at some recent examples and email me if you’d like to join the programme.

@kayguccione