Mentoring Junior Faculty

Apr 29 2016 Published by under academia, jr faculty

I'm nearing the end of my run as a assistant prof - which means that I am on the brink of either getting tenure or getting fired.* When I started my faculty appointment, there was a lot of discussion about how to mentor the jr faculty (me). Now I'm looking back on how things unfolded, and I have to say ... I'm not really convinced that the mentoring attempts helped me all that much. Which has started me thinking about how (if) the process could be changed so it was more effective.

First, how it went for me: in my department, each new faculty member puts together a "mentoring committee" of senior faculty that they choose. I picked several folks that I really respected (though I didn't really know them that well). We met once a year to discuss my progress, and then a letter was written (by them) and forwarded to the Chair for my file. The folks on my mentoring committee are awesome, and I know that they genuinely wanted to help me. But, TBH, most every one of our meetings could be boiled down to "Get grants and publish papers, and you will be fine". This is not exactly breaking news. I also had "unofficial" mentors - people who I got to know and who I would visit when I needed advice/sounding board for dealing with the everyday trials of running a research group (this group included many of my formal mentors but also other jr faculty and colleagues from other departments). These conversations were hugely helpful, as they helped me deal with situations in real time.

When I started, I thought that a formal mentoring committee would be super helpful. Now I'm not so sure. I'm wondering if there is a better way to mentor junior faculty. We don't need to hear (again) about how we just need to get papers and grants. We know that. There has to be a better way - but what is it?

Seriously. Is there something you do that is awesome for mentoring junior faculty? Does it ever work, or is this just a useless exercise to make the administrators feel like they are doing something?


*Knocks on wood, crosses fingers, makes sacrifice to gods of academia

16 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    Are you hinting at the divide between telling jr faculty what to do vs helping them to do it?

    • gerty-z says:

      maybe? I just feel like being told by yet another concerned group isn't actually helping. But I'm not sure what IS the right answer.

      • drugmonkey says:

        I think it is mostly about cover for the institution. There can be no complaining from a disappointed tenure candidate that nobody told them that X was super important, that no, 10x the minimum of Y doesn't counter a lack of Z or that W doesn't actually count for anything.

  • B says:

    I am having the same experience.

  • Ass(isstant) Prof says:

    I am in pretty much the same place--should have a tenure decision next week--and can report a very similar experience. My mentoring committee was selected by the chair, but the advice was the same: publish, get grants, get grad students through. I also had informal mentors in my field who helped me along greatly.

    What I do for the younger faculty is make sure they know how to put review files together, how to work with the IACUC, Office of Sponsored Programs, Procurement, HR, and the like. These are things that no one told me. It's more about navigating the system. Everyone knows to publish and submit proposals.

  • namnezia says:

    I really think that having an informal mentor who is a senior colleague can be greatly helpful. Because off the record folks will really tell you what you are doing right, what you are doing wrong, who you need to not piss off, who you can ask for help and how to do it. Someone to tell you what is important and what not so much. Someone who is undoubtedly on your side and has no formal role on evaluating your progress. But in the end, it is you who has to get the grants and get the papers published, so for that no amount of extra mentoring will necessarily help.

  • asst prof says:

    From someone in the same position, I'm very interested to see what others have to say about this. I think one thing that I have seen over the last few years is that people do better when they not only have a "mentor" (or mentoring team) but have a real "champion." As you said, it's not enough to have someone tell you that you need papers / grants (the obvious). You need someone who will put your name in to give talks at national meetings / put your name in for awards / etc so that your name stands out for paper and grant reviewers...someone who will fight to protect you from extra committee / teaching service so that you have time to focus on research.

  • Morgan Price says:

    As a non prof, I have always thought it bizarre that scientists with 10 years of experience ("junior" faculty) are believed to need mentoring.

  • JB says:

    Agree with Drugmonkey. Immediately after tenure, my senior faculty mentor retired and I went about finding several new ones.

    The one area where I needed the most help was reading between the lines of somewhat unclear P/T decision-related documents.

  • ProdigalAcademic says:

    I had no formal mentoring committee, but met with the departmental chair to go over my progress a minimum of once a year to get the "you need to publish more and get more grants" talk. I found my own informal mentors for various in the moment issues, and they were super-helpful and wonderful. I am not sure that formal mentoring is really needed other than as CYA. But informal (i.e. off the record!) mentoring is vital.

  • Another Assistant Prof says:

    My ramblings on my mentors is linked below. I too think that assigned mentorship programs are completely useless for new faculty, but recognize how important real mentors have been for me.

  • potnia theron says:

    Do not be fooled by the name of the relationship. Advice and insight comes from many places. If people in academics have codified some instances, it is merely the name, not the substance.

  • […] been very lucky to have some really great mentors. I'm not really impressed with formal "mentoring committees", but I have absolutely benefitted from some great people who have helped me along in this journey. […]

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