?

Log in

No account? Create an account
Mentoring - The Mad Schemes of Dr. Tectonic [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Beemer

[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ archive | journal archive ]

Mentoring [Apr. 18th, 2006|05:05 pm]
Beemer
I looked over a survey about mentoring for early-career people at work today, and had some reactions.

I thought the survey looked well-designed, but I'm not sure it will get at the problems that need addressing. Mentoring is a very tricky problem for a number of reasons.

First off, the person in need of mentoring generally doesn't know what he needs to know. He doesn't know what questions to ask, or who to ask them. If he knew these things, he wouldn't need mentoring. He might be aware of his ignorance, but he doesn't know what the boundaries on it are. So it's hard for him to know that he needs mentoring.

Second, even if he does feel the need for mentoring, it's very difficult to ask for it. Saying "hey, I could use some help managing my career" feels like an admission of incompetence, and not only is that a very difficult thing to say in general, it's even harder to say it to a well-esteemed colleague who's very good at managing their career -- which is exactly the kind of person you should be asking for advice.

Being an early career person is often highly competitive, and a request for mentoring can feel like exposing a weakness, which is dangerous in a competitive environment. Not to mention the fact that, even though everyone says "oh, yes, we'd be happy to mentor you", the more senior people are all incredibly busy. It's difficult enough to interrupt their schedules for requests related to work; demanding personal attention for ill-defined feelings of inadequacy seems like it would be well-nigh impossible.

So I guess my point is that institutions in general and this survey in particular both seem to view mentoring as something that should be driven by the person in need of mentoring, and it seems to me that that is the exact wrong person to be asking about it: he doesn't know whether he needs mentoring, because he has no frame of reference; he doesn't know what to ask for, because that's what mentoring would be teaching him; he doesn't have the nerve to ask for it, because he's in a relatively new and insecure position; and he doesn't have the social standing to request attention from the people who make the best mentors.

I also think that most of those who are in need of mentoring will not have a high level of self-awareness about the issue; they'll just know that the subject makes them feel awkward and uncomfortable, and that they wish it worked better, but they don't know what's wrong.

I'm all about root causes these days. Instead of asking the people who need mentoring "so, what would make mentoring work better for you?", I think that if we really want more mentoring to happen, we should be asking the potential mentors "Do you mentor? No? Why not?"

(I ought to be using "mentee" instead of the phrase "person being mentoring", but I can't bring myself to type it. It just looks dumb.)
LinkReply

Comments:
[User Picture]From: ng_nighthawk
2006-04-18 09:06 pm (UTC)
Thinking back on the start of my career, I think nothing quite as formal as "mentoring" ever happened. Now, in grad school, my professors did what I would call mentoring.

This is one of the hallmarks of an MFA program--it is aimed at training people in a skill and a profession, not just theory. So in addition to workshops, literary analysis, literary theory, and classes on compilation, we also had workshops on getting published, grant writing, self-publication, etc.

Also, almost every guest professor and professor gave a career biography: this is how I started out, this is what I did that was good, this is what I did that was dumb, here's what you should do now based on what I can see where I am now. We also read similar stuff from many successful authors (Phillip K. Dick has produced some seriously depressing autobiographical writing on his early career).

My impression is that many more academic/scientific grad schools don't include a lot of this, and I think perhaps they should.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2006-04-18 09:39 pm (UTC)
You are absolutely right: grad schools should do that, and they don't, generally. It's compounded by the fact that tenure track to professorhood is actually the minority career path; there are far more grad students than there are available professorships, so your advisor generally can't give you much advice if you're doing something else...
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: ng_nighthawk
2006-04-18 10:12 pm (UTC)
Maybe the answer would be placing the subject in the format of talks from guest speakers and short seminars.

Mind you, I'm not calling this a panacea. It's one part. Clearly, your manager should act as your mentor in the job. Out of curiosity, in your space what prevents a manager from taking this role--talking to the entry level person about career goals, advising him/her about demeanor, quality of work, etc? I know I had bosses who knew where I wanted to go and tried to offer me opportunities for training, advice about the industry, etc. (although it wasn't always good advice).
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2006-04-19 12:42 am (UTC)
"Manager" is ill-defined for most of the scientific staff. There's the person that's technically your supervisor, who's likely hideously overworked, but to a large degree, people are working independently. Probably moreso than they're supposed to be, but there's a need for junior scientists to develop their own research agenda and a name for themselves...
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)