Finding Mentors

Today’s post is a Special Request post for Lauri, who is a new assistant professor, and wishes to know how to cultivate mentors on campus.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I frequently mention the importance of cultivating mentors on campus when you are a new assistant professor. Many campuses already recognize the importance of mentorship, and have programs set up to link new faculty members with potential mentors. Even when the campus as a whole does not, often-times smaller, more specialized networks on campus—such as women faculty, or faculty of color—will run their own official or unofficial mentoring initiatives.

If your campus has any of these resources, be sure and avail yourself of them. While the mentor you are paired with may seem far afield at first (for example, when I arrived at U Oregon, I was paired with a senior woman faculty member in Chemistry), the fact is, that mentor can help you. Even when they are in a different field, even a different college, mentors can provide the savvy and hands-on suggestions that you need to manage things like:

  • evaluating service obligations
  • mastering the art of time management
  • creating a writing schedule
  • dealing with difficult colleagues
  • solving classroom dilemmas
  • finding pots of money on campus
  • building a network

Sometimes the out-of-department mentor is the best possible support, because he or she is not implicated in your review and tenure decisions, and can really proceed in a strictly supportive (rather than evaluative) role.

If your campus does not provide these mentoring resources, then you must proceed on your own.

You should seek out a mentor in your own department if possible, and you should seek out at least one mentor from outside your department.

Your in-department mentor will look out for you in a host of ways—by advising you on dealing with the department head and other senior colleagues; by helping you to decide which courses to offer and when; by protecting you from destructive situations; by filling you in on the backstory of departmental animosities; by assisting you in understanding the politics of voting in the faculty meetings.

You should get in the habit of stopping in that mentor’s office after getting the faculty meeting agenda in your email, and before the meeting is held. “So, what’s this thing here, this agenda item #4?” you ask, “The department strategic plan? What is that?” And the mentor explains that it’s a matter that goes back 7 years, and has supporters, and has detractors, and is the pet project of the Dean, and has finally reached the point where it has to be voted on. Your mentor will tell you who’s likely to vote how, and what the stakes are. You walk in informed and fore-armed.

Your in-department mentor will continue to play an invaluable role in your departmental life all the way through tenure. Indeed, the best mentors will mobilize at tenure-time to make sure they’re on your committee, and to intervene in all the small and large ways there are to promote a successful tenure outcome. Quiet casual conversations about who, exactly, must never, ever be asked to write your tenure letters lay the groundwork for external reviewer lists that work to your advantage. And so on.

Your out of department mentor is someone whom you can cultivate over the course of your first one or two years, as you get to know the campus and the faculty. In my own case, I cultivated a senior woman faculty member in History, vastly respected by all, and well known for being a generous and yet highly productive teacher and scholar. I knew that she was incredibly busy, and made sure not to abuse the relationship. But about once a term I’d invite her to coffee, and would share my latest dilemma. I’d email with questions about once every two weeks or so. An active and internationally known scholar, she helped me to navigate the politics of applying for a major research grant that released me from teaching for over a year. More than just a source of information, she was a model for how to comport oneself as a member of a scholarly community—at once generous, but with excellent boundaries; a first rate scholar, who also prioritized the mentoring of graduate students and junior faculty.

Many of you may be wondering, “how do I approach somebody to be a mentor to me?” and that is a good question.

In your department, allow a few months to go by. Attend a number of ffaculty meetings, and observe your colleagues’ behavior. Who knows how to listen well? Who, when she speaks, speaks rationally and at a reasonable length? Who seems well informed? Who laughs and retains a sense of humor? Who interrupts a discussion to fill “the new guy” in on the essential backstory? The person who does those things is the person you want to be your mentor.

When you’ve chosen someone, find ways to open up a channel of communication. Drop by his office occasionally (not intrusively!!) when his door is open. Chat by the water cooler. Send the occasional email asking for clarification of a departmental memo. Little by little, determine whether he seems available and willing to be your go-to person in the department. At some point, you could say something like, “I really appreciate all the help you’ve given me as I get adjusted in the department. You’ve been so generous, thank you. Would it be ok if I considered you a kind of senior mentor in the department? I know I’ll have a lot of questions as time goes by, and it would be great if I could run some of those by you.” Generally, as long as you’ve proven that you’re not a pest or a drama queen your mentor-candidate will feel flattered to have been asked and respond kindly.

Outside of your department, the same principle applies, but you must be more circumspect and cautious. Many senior faculty are already over-taxed, and may have demands from junior faculty in their own departments. They won’t necessarily fall all over themselves rushing to serve as a mentor to you. This effort may emerge gradually, over your first year or two on campus. As you attend various interdisciplinary events, you’ll begin to see the same people. Just as you observed your departmental colleagues in faculty meetings, you’ll observe campus colleagues in larger events. Again, ask: who has a sense of humor? Who says smart and rational things? Who is open-minded in talking to colleagues? Who seems to be kind? You will quickly learn.

And again, start out slowly, with the occasional email. Don’t just make yourself a burden—rather, contribute to campus wide events that the colleague is involved in. Prove yourself to be a valuable community member. That buys the kind of goodwill that wins friends, and mentors.

In sum, the first year or two as an assistant professor is fraught with confusion and inadvertant political and social missteps. The senior mentor can help prevent the worst errors, and guide you as you make a name for yourself, and go after money, leave time, reputation, and tenure.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Finding Mentors — 6 Comments

  1. fyi — Except for the first intro sentence, this is all in the same font 🙂 thank you! I don’t know why things shift between an original document and a blog post, but I’m guessing you’re writing in Word and there is some internal coding to it that gets weird…

    • i would love to take credit for that, but it was totally random. And meanwhile friday’s guest post has gotten completely f-ed up and is all in micro-font except for one para.

      One thing I should mention is that in the Weaver theme, which is otherwise wonderufl, they don’t let you choose your font style or size—the default is a miniscule font, and to do otherwise requires the cut and paste thing.

  2. For 5 years I have been saying that graduate school has not prepared me one ounce to be an actual employee of any institution or a colleague to any scholar. I think this one post of yours has opened windows that have been sealed to me for half a decade. WHY DOES NO ONE TELL US HOW TO WORK FOR A DEPARTMENT??? Why this assumption that your brilliant work magically leads you to know how to be collegial, gain mentorship, understand office politics, and make the due smalltalk at the water cooler??? Thank you for offering such tangible, detailed, and applicable advice for how this is done.

    • Why indeed? I genuinely don’t know. I mean, I know that faculty are entitled, elitist, self-absorbed, and spectacularly selfish much of the time. But *even so* it just always seemed very normal, and not a stretch, to me to chat and joke with my Ph.D. students about the funny, cynical elements of departmental life. I mean, talking about that stuff is actually FUN! More fun, often, than slogging painfully through the edits of a diss chapter. So even assuming monumental selfishness, it would strike me that the selfishness would inspire more chatting about “how things work” in the department, and not less.

      So, while I am comfortable imposing judgments and admonishments on faculty who fail to do this (!), I remain somewhat confused about their motivations.

  3. I’m new to the site, but am finding it really useful so far- I’m an assistant professor, straight out of grad school, and I’ve definitely made some mistakes that I could have easily avoided by reading some of these blog posts! I have one mentorship-related request to make: could you offer some words of advice about BAD mentors? I’m sort of stuck with a more senior faculty member that wants to mentor me, but she has a terrible reputation around campus, and all of our meetings seem to devolve into a therapy session for her about how much she hates her job and her (our!) colleagues. I’ve been looking for articles on this kind of issue, but haven’t found much. Any insight?

  4. Hi, I desperately need a mentor. They do have a mentorship program on my campus however am not able to connect to the individuals. I live in New York if you have any recommendations this will be amazing.

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