Why You Should Be Mentoring
“Mentor someone else? I need a mentor!”
Are you giving advice to colleagues on how to navigate processes, like how to get your article through the publication and peer review process, how to position yourself for an eventual promotion, how to negotiate for a pay bump or other work benefits, or even how to handle tricky interpersonal situations at work? You may already be mentoring without knowing it.
With so much uncertainty these days, people want guidance and support to navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of the working world. Mentoring, whether formal or informal, can help us paddle through these waters with a little more knowledge and confidence.
Mentoring can also help with mapping out a longer-term career strategy. Indeed, according to the 2022 HERC Job Seeker Survey Report, survey respondents across all age groups agree that “mentorship/supervisory development program” is the top indicator of an employer’s commitment to career advancement.
With everything on your plate, though, why would you take on another task? I recently had the opportunity to chat with Jennifer W. Olmsted, an associate professor in art history at Wayne State University, about her experiences as a mentor and mentee and to get her take on how to answer that question.
The Rewards of Mentoring
Help Others Grow
You have acquired a lot of knowledge in your years of working–probably more than you think. Being a mentor is a way to use that information to help others. “As a mentor, it has been a joyful experience to see my younger colleagues receive tenure and develop strong research programs. Although I take no credit for their successes, seeing other people grow and flourish is deeply meaningful,” said Olmsted.
Make Strategies for Career Progress More Transparent
Talented, smart, and capable people may not always have access and understanding about things not taught formally about how to advance in a particular field or institution. There may be gaps in necessary knowledge for an individual to navigate career progress. This is where a formally assigned mentor can be helpful. As Olmsted noted, mentoring in the tenure-track process can be “critical to offer clarity where administrative processes are involved and to take things step by step.”
Be More Visible at Work
For some, being a mentor can also provide a platform for you to showcase skills in training or teaching what you know to others.
Informal Mentoring at Your Institution
If you interact with students, supervisees, support staff, peer colleagues, you may have been informally providing support and guidance already. You can make a difference by supporting and encouraging colleagues in an informal way. When Olmsted was a junior faculty member, there was no formalized mentoring program in her department, “so I just asked my senior colleagues or my department chair when I had questions about administrative matters or the tenure process.”
One way to provide informal mentoring support is by sharing work experiences when relevant to a student or a more junior colleague. “It’s much easier to understand what a research statement is when you have read your tenured colleague’s statement. Sharing what worked or didn’t work for me (and why) in a given situation can help another person develop their own strategies,” Olmsted said. She also mentioned that “one of the most important thing[s] a senior colleague can do for a junior one is to take the heat for setting a boundary” in the workplace. “[A] younger faculty can say, for example, “my mentor says I must decline this nomination” for a service-heavy committee.”
Informal Mentoring Outside of Your Institution
You can informally mentor people in your field or industry outside of your immediate employer. Mentoring can happen through relationships built through professional associations, outside conferences and workshops, and professional development resources, like classes.
“Outside my university,” Olmsted said, “I’ve been lucky to have informal mentors among senior scholars in my academic field who have generously taught me how to develop sound strategies for research and publication and otherwise navigate the sometimes rocky terrain of academic publishing.”
Formal Mentoring at Your Institution
Check to see if your department or institution has a formal mentoring program that you can join as a mentor. Although grateful for the guidance received from informal mentors in preparing for tenure review, the experience also showed Olmsted how important it is to have at least one formal mentor–a mentor formally assigned to provide information and guidance on the tenure track process.
Her department saw that need and responded by creating a formal mentoring program. Olmsted helped with developing that program as “a member of the committee that created guidelines for a formal departmental mentoring program that assigns a senior faculty member to a junior one (with the approval of both parties). Since then I have mentored two tenure-track faculty through the tenure process as part of that program.”
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About the Author: Shirley Huey, J.D., is a consultant providing research, writing, and strategic development assistance to organizational clients. Her experience includes service on academic and professional hiring, diversity, and professional development committees as well as coaching peers and mentees. She is also a freelance writer, with a focus on her passions: food and culture.