In response to my recent post on New Year Frustrations, I received a tweet complaining that in this particular person’s university female postdocs contractually could not receive mentoring. That statement can be read in two ways: either that female postdocs are being actively disadvantaged in comparison with their male counterparts (which would be truly shocking) or that no postdocs, regardless of gender, were provided with mentoring, which is merely depressing. When pressed, my correspondent agreed it was the latter statement they had intended. So, this university (and I don’t remember which university was concerned and I’m not trying to point fingers anywhere in particular) went out of its way to state, in their contracts, that postdocs would not be offered the practical support that mentoring can provide.
In my University all newly appointed members of academic staff are assigned a mentor, at least in principle. I know a few years ago when I asked some random questions I discovered that in practice this didn’t always happen, but the intention was at least there (I haven’t checked recently whether it has become more robust as a scheme). In other universities I suspect something similar occurs, and the existence of such mentoring is probably highlighted in Athena Swan applications, but no doubt quite often the reality departs from the aspiration elsewhere too. For postdocs, Cambridge is still only at a pilot stage of offering mentoring across the University at the institutional level (although locally there is more going on). However our very active Office of Postdoctoral Affairs is at least on the case and it does no harm to trial what works and what doesn’t for this particular group of researchers before rolling out a scheme to apply to all the thousands (literally) of postdocs employed in Cambridge.
I think the idea of a university sitting down and deciding explicitly to rule out mentoring for any cohort – as my tweeting colleague highlighted – is deplorable. Not everyone wants mentoring, not everyone will necessarily benefit from an assigned mentor if the chemistry isn’t right between the pair, but in essence to forbid such a relationship contractually seems bizarre. I am not convinced formal mentoring schemes always work and ‘accidental’ mentoring of a junior member of a department by someone more experienced is just as good if not better, because in that case it will have come to pass because both parties wish it to. But by the very fact it is accidental it is also unreliable. The right senior member may not notice some early career researcher who is in significant need of advice, a steer or just encouragement; or alternatively it may be that someone who fits into a given team really well gets all the support and another member, just as talented but less obviously a good team fit gets overlooked and so gets locked into a vicious circle of disadvantage. Those situations can occur only too easily but can to some extent be counteracted by a formal mentoring scheme because the overlooking won’t happen.
My original post which prompted the tweet referred to the feeling that progress on gender equality was dispiritingly slow. The issue of mentoring should not be about gender at all, but of course too often it is. Certainly in a male-dominated subject such as mine the person who appears to be the outsider and not fitting into a team of the kind I allude to above may be an outsider by virtue of their gender (or race or many other attributes too, but I’ll stick with the simplest example of gender here). They may be precisely the one who appears not to fit in simply because they are a woman and their confidence will be further dented if they see others in the team getting offered the conference presentations, the tap on the shoulder suggesting they apply for a fellowship or other signs of approval whilst they continue to be ignored. Official mentoring may enable them to ask for what others seem to be given as if by right plus give them the necessary encouragement that they know what the next steps they need to take are and how to set about achieving them.
One of my very early posts looked at the analysis of the 2010 ASSET survey across UK science departments. One of the things that struck me at the time as extraordinary from the results published was that it was the professors who were most likely to be appraised, not the junior staff. I believe advice – be it through appraisal (or staff review and development if you prefer that title) or mentoring – is most important for those setting out at the early stages of their career. At professorial level you should know what you’re doing, what you ought to be doing (even if you’re not doing it) and how to set about achieving your next professional goal. During your first postdoc all challenges may seem equally impossible but it may not be obvious which are the key skills to master or the crucial boxes to be able to tick on your CV. It is too easy to expend effort on tasks which are neither enjoyable nor productive if you can’t see the wood for the trees; even more so if you’ve never been encouraged to say no to whatever is tossed in your direction.
So, with the usual caveats about the dangers of stereotyping, I would suggest the people who are most in need of a formal mentoring scheme are those at the earliest stage of their careers and particularly if they form any sort of minority within a discipline. Having said that, when my own department introduced a voluntary scheme for postdocs, it was not well taken up by them. Perhaps the very fact that it was voluntary acted as a deterrent; perhaps people thought that admitting they wanted a mentor might be interpreted as a sign of weakness so they had better not put up their hand. Be that as it may, a more formal system of mentoring is now required within research groups at the Cavendish, which is to be hoped is working well (I have as yet seen no analysis so I cannot comment). Furthermore we have a formally constituted Research Staff Committee of 8 postdocs who serve to highlight training and mentoring opportunities and to disseminate information.
Mentoring can always help at any stage, but providing guidance for those whose careers are not established should be a priority. Departments know this is true for their newly recruited staff, and vested interest means they are inclined to try to help them. Of course, there is less obvious payback for a department in supporting postdocs in the same way. It is, nevertheless, undoubtedly the right thing for them to do.