Mentoring Matters, but for Whom?

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.

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3 Responses to Mentoring Matters, but for Whom?

  1. xykademiqz says:

    I have mixed feelings about institutionally mandated peer mentoring in academia. Great in principle, rarely works as intended, and is usually vastly inferior in effectiveness to the informal mentoring liaisons.

    I had assigned faculty mentors in my department when I was an assistant professor, and I never used them. One was a senior man of whom I was afraid; he was the kind of a volatile guy who I perceived would vote against my tenure if I shared insecurities and he thought I was a weak link; the other mentor was a kind but ridiculously busy woman, whom I was never able to get a hold of on the timescales that mattered (so maybe just busy to email or meet with me), so I eventually stopped bothering her completely. Effectively, all my mentoring came from the people on whom I could actually count to answer my emails in a timely manner: my senior collaborators in several different departments and a couple of senior colleagues in my field who were are different institutions.

    My university even has a female faculty mentoring program, where junior women are matched with senior female faculty outside the department. I was matched with someone to be my mentor when I was junior (we met a couple of times and that was it, she was very busy and I didn’t want to impose) and now I am someone’s mentor but I doubt it will be of much use (luckily, the person has other close female mentors in department and I don’t think she has much use for me). Based on informal discussions with other female colleagues, for a majority these proscribed connections go nowhere, but I suppose the program is useful for the (very) few that do work out.

    The thing about mentoring is that it requires the senior person to willingly give up time and energy for the benefit of a junior person, and the junior person to be at least somewhat amenable to listening to that advice and to not be made to feel like they are imposing on the senior person every time there’s a question. People have to have good interpersonal chemistry for this type of relationship to work, so that the junior person would feel free to ask questions whenever they arise. In my experience, it really helps if the people involved are in close proximity (e.g., offices nearby). I am currently on the mentoring cte of a faculty member and I think it works well among other reasons because we’re across the hall from one another. Easy access to the mentor (physical and metaphorical) is critical for the mentoring to work. Anything imposed by the institution, no matter how well meaning, may look good on paper but doesn’t actually work as intended until the personality combination and the logistics are such that the junior person feels there are no barriers to having their questions answered and their concerns alleviated.

  2. Kay Guccione says:

    Thank you for this post Athene — as a designer of specialist mentoring programmes for post-docs (including the one your Cambridge model spun off from), I think the points you raise are really important. We want mentoring to be accessible, to feel informal and about real connections, but to encourage participation the official formal permissions to partake and prompts to met need to be in place. Similarly we want people to be ‘ready’ (mature, open-minded) for mentoring, but voluntary participation requires a cultural okay-ness about engaging with mentoring that not all departments are ready for.

    My role at Sheffield is to understand and break down the tensions that prevent engagement, to broker and smooth connections being made, and to make sure that mentoring is delivered as a professional ethical practice. This means developing mentors with a repertoire way beyond ‘advice giving’ and at the same time recognising this is volunteer time. This is true for post-docs as mentors as well as mentees.

    I think it’s possible to create bespoke programmes that speak to the needs of early career researchers, what’s missing from programmes is often the specialist expertise in design and delivery. I have written on the topic (here: (and here: (and here on mentoring and gender: and would be happy to talk more about the tensions, considerations, and expertise involved in developing robust programmes from scratch.

  3. sharen frost says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this post. I think the points you raise are really important. We want mentoring to be accessible, to feel informal and about real connections,

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