What does good mentoring look like?

by Dr. Rodney Cate

By Dr. Rodney Cate, first winner of the Berardo Award for mentoring, [email protected]

When Nancy Gonzalez asked me to write this piece, I thought, "I'm not sure I can put into words what I know about mentoring." I suspect that most mentors do not spend much time thinking about how to be a "good mentor." I think "good mentoring" is much like establishing a "good relationship." On the other hand, there are undoubtedly certain attributes that characterize a "good" mentor- mentee relationship. However, each mentoring relationship has its own unique features, just as any other personal relationship. Despite this caveat, I can offer some suggestions for the process of selecting a mentor in the academic research context, (i.e., the faculty-graduate student mentoring relationship.) My suggestions are organized in a series of questions suggested by Nancy Gonzalez.

What can I expect from a mentor?

Before selecting a mentor, one must have realistic expectations about what a mentor can and should provide a mentee. A good mentor will be well versed in the graduate program you are pursuing. Of course, this does not mean that you are absolved from knowing the program requirements on your own. Avoid asking questions of the mentor that can be answered by a little legwork on your part.

A successful mentor should have good communication skills. In order to ascertain this, mentees should observe potential mentors in as many interactive situations as possible. For example, go to social functions and observe potential mentors interacting with others. If invited, attend meetings where faculty will be present.

Mentees must be willing to hear both the "good" and the "bad" from a mentor. A mentor who is unwilling to provide honest feedback to a mentee is probably best avoided. However, mentees cannot be defensive when receiving feedback from a mentor. The mentoring relationship can deteriorate rapidly when this occurs.

Good mentors will help their mentees "network." Meeting other people in the profession can greatly enhance job opportunities. A mentee can find this out by asking other mentees of a faculty person about the mentor's willingness to help in the networking process. Do not expect a mentor to have all the "right" answers. Unfortunately, some mentors believe they do have all of the "right" answers. Beware of this type of mentor. For example, if you are interested a career focused on teaching, but an advisor believes that the only successful career is in research, you should look elsewhere for a mentor. A mentor's responsibility is to assist you, the mentee, in reaching your career goals. A good mentor will not make up your mind for you. Only you know all of your goals and aspirations. So, you are the one to make final decisions.

How do I identify a potential mentor?

  • Find out potential mentors' areas of interest. Do not hesitate to ask for faculty members' vitae. Departmental offices will often have summaries of faculty interests. Don't be afraid to ask for such information.
  • Ask other graduate students to identify successful faculty mentors. However, do not let this be the only factor involved in pursuing a particular potential mentor. One never knows when a particular combination of mentor and mentee will be quite successful.
  • Observe potential mentors as they interact with other students. This will provide hints about how mentors relate to their mentees. Mentors who avoid interacting with students should probably be avoided.
  • Find out how successful the potential mentors' mentees have been. Indicators of success are: publications in journals and ability to get jobs.
  • Ascertain whether mentors acknowledge the contributions of their mentees to their research or scholarly work. This can be determined by looking at the mentors' publications. Acknowledgement of students' contributions can be seen through joint authorship of publications.
  • Determine if potential mentors are active in their professional associations. Such mentors can help you "network." This can positively impact job prospects and other opportunities.
  • Find out how visible potential mentors are in your field of study. One way to determine visibility in the field is through a citation analysis. Citation analyses partially determine the scholarly contributions of potential mentors. These analyses can be performed using the Social Science Citation Index, which is available online at many universities.
  • Finally, and probably most important, trust your "gut" feelings. If one feels that the "fit" between mentee and mentor is not good, then it's probably not. Of course, the assessment of fit must come after considerable information is gathered.

What do mentors look for in a mentee?

  • The most important quality of a mentee is a willingness to be mentored. This involves being open to feedback and coaching. For whatever reason, some mentees believe that they do not need much mentoring. This situation usually results in a mentee moving from one mentor to another, which can result in a delay of the mentee completing their program of study.
  • Mentors prefer mentees who take initiative. For example, when meeting with a potential mentor, come to the meeting prepared with your ideas about what research or scholarly endeavor you are interested in working on.
  • Mentors appreciate honesty from potential mentees. Do not feign interest in a mentor's work when none is there. Your lack of knowledge will eventually be discovered.
  • Mentors prefer mentees who maintain frequent contact. However, this does not necessarily mean frequent face-to-face meetings. You can easily keep a mentor updated about your progress through the use of email. Or, it is relatively easy to pose a question to the mentor by email. A cautionary note: You should make sure that a mentor is willing to communicate in this manner.
  • The successful mentor-mentee relationship can greatly augment the graduate academic experience. More importantly, a successful career is often greatly enhanced by a fruitful mentoring experience. The mentoring relationship often translates into a collegial and/or personal relationship that continues to provide benefits to both the mentee and mentor. I can personally attest to the benefits of my experience as a mentee of Ted Huston. Our relationship over the last 36 years has enhanced my life in many ways. Thank you Ted!