Mentoring Matters

Teams, cascades, and knowing the whole person

Pat Marsteller

Professor of Practice, Biology and Emory College Center for Science Education

Pat MWhether you are an undergraduate, a graduate student, a postdoc, a faculty member, or a university president, everyone needs mentors. I deeply believe that everyone needs multiple mentors at all stages of their personal and career development. 

According to the AAAS’s Mentoring Matters, mentoring is often cited as a critical factor in

  • Programs to increase the participation of groups traditionally underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields 
  • The decision of undergraduate students to pursue graduate education in STEM, particularly students who participate in undergraduate research programs 
  • The retention of students in STEM doctoral programs 
  • Promotion and advancement of employees in academia, government, and industry 

Teacher, trainer, director, coach, sponsor, counselor, guide, friend, tutor, expert, listener, adviser, role model, director: Can one person be all of these? Another reason for considering mentoring teams is that at all stages of a career we may have multiple needs. New faculty may desire a writing coach, a grant-writing mentor, or someone who understands university politics. They may want assistance navigating the discipline, developing a national reputation, or understanding the tenure and promotion process. They may want a mentor for improving teaching or curriculum development. Rarely are all these skills found in one person.

Being a mentor is a tough job. It requires patience, understanding, time, and consummate tact. Mentors must balance evaluative responsibilities with advocacy. It’s part of the responsibility to critique your written, oral, and class or lab work; research design ideas; and dissertation progress. Mentors need to assess the protégée’s potential to succeed in the discipline. A good mentor can help a protégée find the right match for their skills and potentials, without destroying dreams. 

Ideally a good mentor for undergraduate and graduate students will help the student optimize the educational experience in classes, labs, and advising settings. They will be knowledgeable and willing to recommend coursework, appropriate projects, internships, and career pathways. They will develop expertise in mentoring the research process, including grantsmanship, technical writing, design of experiments, data analysis, teaching improvement, and next steps for the developmental path of interest to the student. Particularly in the research setting, the mentor will socialize students into the disciplinary culture, making sure they are aware of written policies and procedures and unwritten norms of conduct. They will introduce the protégée into professional networks, ensure that they understand responsible ethical conduct, and guide them through expectations for tenure and promotion. A great mentor also uses incentives, gentle nudges, and constructive critique and planning to encourage the protégée to develop to the fullest capacity.

A good mentor can teach unofficial lessons, such as who the powers are in the department, institution, or field; how people find out about and get nominated for special opportunities (fellowships, awards, prizes); what are the leading journals; which organizations are important to join; what conferences are important to attend; how job searches are done; and how to negotiate, raise issues and concerns, and when to take risks. For undergraduates, graduate fellows and postdocs, mentors should be able to provide advice about jobs in industry and government as well as different levels of the academy or be prepared to refer their students to knowledgeable people. 

I often tell students that choosing a mentor or a team of mentors should be given the same consideration as choosing a life partner. It’s a relationship that develops in phases similar to group work theory: forming, storming, norming, performing, and at its best evolving into collegiality and friendship. The same kinds of approaches that make relationships work are essential to good mentoring. Clear communication, clear expectations on both sides, exceptional listening skills, renegotiation as the relationship develops and changes, deep concern for the protégées’ continued growth and personal and professional development. No two relationships are alike because the needs of both parties in each relationship differ. A mentor must be flexible, willing to change the approach to fit the protégée’s needs.

Both mentors and protégées need to set boundaries and limits since each person has other duties and obligations beyond the mentor-protégée relationship.  A good mentor will teach students what to ask for and what is reasonable for mentor to provide, including the field-specific unwritten rules.

Learning to mentor

The book Entering Mentoring (Handelsman 2005) provides a syllabus, workshops, and readings for reaching graduate students, postdocs, and new faculty in the sciences. Such trainings have been proven to improve mentor and mentee perceptions and experiences. Some of the materials covered include

  • Getting started
  • Learning to communicate
  • Goals and expectations
  • Identifying and resolving challenges and issues
  • Evaluating our progress
  • Elements of good mentoring
  • Mentoring philosophy
  • Career development

Career development can include

  • Teaching and mentoring philosophy
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Personnel management
  • Interaction with own mentors
  • Inclusion of materials from other disciplines
  • Complex case studies, discussion guides

It can also involve “individual development plans” that identify skills, strengths, values, and interests and permit career exploration and goal setting in research areas, networking, and professional development. 

Faculty mentoring programs often focus on junior faculty and show that faculty who have formal planning such as individual development plans succeed and are more satisfied in their positions. They work best when mentees are also coached on what mentors can do and when they are not evaluative, but more aligned with coaching. 

Paying it forward in cascades

While many programs at Emory take advantage of peer and near peer mentoring, only a few purposefully build in tiered or “cascade” mentoring. Mentoring cascades are the real-life version of “paying it forward.” Mentors at all levels reach back to mentor the people coming up the pathway and lift them by making all the implicit rules explicit and encouraging persistence. Faculty mentor postdocs, grad students, and some undergrads. Postdocs mentor grad students, undergrads and peers. Grad student reach back to undergrads at previous institutions and here at Emory. 

The advantage of mentoring cascades is that often these forms of mentoring eliminate age and cultural barriers and emphasize building a community and also reaching out to others to share what you have gained from mentoring!

Teaching and mentoring are inextricably intertwined. An excellent teacher mentors students, helping them find their own best vocation that uses their special talents to make a difference in the world. An excellent teacher believes and affirms in her teaching that all students can learn and is disappointed when all do not. An excellent teacher creates an atmosphere simultaneously welcoming and challenging to all her students by inviting all her students to reach beyond the text, to extend their learning, to apply it in new contexts, to envision the future. Engaging students in and out of class and mentoring their development is the most rewarding aspect of my job. 

Let me illustrate with an example. A few years ago a young man in one of my classes asked if we could do a directed reading to explore some of the texts we had mentioned in class. He showed up with seven of his closest friends and we spent a semester discussing several important works on behavior and evolution over coffee and pizza. Each of those students became close advisees, and after nearly ten years we still keep in touch, following each other’s progress. 

With graduate students and undergraduates, mentoring often involves getting to know the whole person, their aims and aspirations, their qualms about the future. Over coffee, lunch, or walking across campus together, I always try to take time to ask about the student’s family and goals. Connecting students to the right resources or empowering them to bring up difficult questions with their faculty or research mentors requires that you be open, listen carefully, and know them as persons. That rarely happens fully within the classroom setting. 

An excellent teacher/mentor understands students: their needs, their rhythms, and their goals. She urges them to ever greater striving without setting them against one another in destructive competition. She engenders collaboration, modeling and encouraging them to teach one another, to develop a mastery of expertise and share it. She is sensitive to the feelings and emotions of individual students. She motivates and inspires.

Every day I hope to be a little more like her.

Defining mentoring relationships

  • Roles: Role model? Guide? Teacher? 
  • Expectations: What would each of you would like to get from the relationship?
  • Needs: What can each of you contribute to the relationship to meet the expectations?
  • Frequency of Meetings: How often do you need to meet to accomplish your expectations?
  • Both mentor and mentee need to write a description of what they expect to gain from the relationship, short and long term.
  • Identify the responsiblities of each party 
  • Consider the special needs of both the mentor and mentee in developing the relationship

More Resources

Handelsman, J., Pfund, C., Miller Lauffer, S., and Pribbenow, C. (2005). Entering mentoring: A seminar to train a new generation of scientists. The Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching, University of Wisconsin. 

Pfund, C., Pribbenow, C., Branchaw, J., Miller Lauffer, S., and Handelsman, J. (2006). The merits of training mentors, Science (311: 473-474).

Research Mentor Training from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research: www.researchmentortraining.org

Keeling, S. (2003). Advising the millennial generation, NACADA Journal, 23 (1&2), 30-36.

National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. (1997). Adviser, teacher, role model, friend: On being a mentor to students in science and engineering. Washington, D.C.:
National Academy Press.

Ramirez, J. (2012). The Intentional Mentor: Effective mentorship of undergraduate science students. The Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education (11(1): A55-A63). 

Lakoski JM. (2009) Perspective: Top 10 tips to maximize your mentoring, Science Career Magazine from the journal Science

Feldman, M. D., Steinauer, J. E., Khalili, M., Huang, L., Kahn, J. S., Lee, K. A., Creasman, J. and Brown, J. S. (2012), A Mentor Development Program for Clinical Translational Science Faculty Leads to Sustained, Improved Confidence in Mentoring Skills. Clinical and Translational Science, 5: 362–367. 

Pfund, C., House, S., Spencer, K., Asquith, P., Carney, P., Masters, K. S., McGee, R., Shanedling, J., Vecchiarelli, S. and Fleming, M. (2013), A Research Mentor Training Curriculum for Clinical and Translational Researchers. Clinical and Translational Science, 6: 26–33. 

Dolan EL, Johnson D. (2010), The undergraduate-postgraduate-faculty triad: unique functions and tensions associated with undergraduate research experiences at research universitiesCBE Life Sci Educ, 10:543–553

My Individual Development Plan, Science Careers.

National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.

National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, Re-Thinking Mentoring: Building Communities Of Inclusion, Support & Accountability.