The Benefits of Experience

Reaping the rewards of a peer mentoring group

Prachi Sharma

Associate Research Professor, Yerkes National Primate Research Center

PrachiLast year, an announcement from the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence (CFDE) piqued my interest. It called for a pilot mentoring project led by Debra Houry, an Emergency Room physician and a faculty member in the School of Medicine. I had heard of such programs at higher levels such as the HERS (Higher Education Resource Services) leadership institutes for women in higher level faculty and administrative roles, but not at the junior faculty level. I responded by email to the announcement and expressed interest in the program.

One of the aspects of the invitation that got my attention was that the program was structured as a “peer mentoring” program rather than a structure of senior-to-junior mentoring pairs. I was a bit skeptical about that before it began: when you think of a mentor, you imagine a person who has already “been there and done that,” and not someone who is still figuring out the ropes. I was wrong! I soon realized that even some colleagues in the early stages of their careers had already faced and successfully overcome the same issues that others faced now, and they were equipped to give excellent suggestions. People who had identified book writing as one of their goals benefited from the experiences of others who had already checked it off their list. Some members who had excellent time-management and workflow skills helped others (like me) with their tips. 

But we also received guidance and wisdom from more senior faculty, such as Nadine Kaslow (professor of psychiatry) and Sheryl Heron (professor of emergency medicine), who spoke in the orientation session on how formal and informal mentoring leads to valuable, lifelong professional relationships and opportunities for career development for both the junior and senior faculty members in the mentoring relationships. 

When the program launched, all the participants had been divided into groups based on their departments/career goals and what they wanted to achieve by the end of the program, such as refining skills in grant writing, writing and publishing, and teaching. Each group was assigned a senior faculty mentor. Our group’s senior mentor made a point of attending every meeting and promptly answering all of the group’s emails. 

Even colleagues in the early stages of their careers had already faced and successfully overcome the same issues that others faced now, and they were equipped to give excellent suggestions.

Even though I had already started communicating with my group members through emails before the orientation session, it was here that I actually met all of them. It was an impressive, likeable, pleasant group of women from different disciplines. I was struck by the fact that even though everyone was extremely busy, they all had a common motivation to move forward by overcoming professional hurdles and helping others do the same. Because of this common thread, it was easy to meet monthly.

Working with my group, I have been awed by how focused, generous, and helpful everyone is. Based on mutual suggestions, we usually pick a topic of common interest and priority for discussion for every meeting. The topics have included writing a tenure narrative, managing workplace conflicts, interacting with students, and finding the right balance between grant writing/research time and teaching responsibilities. We also got suggestions from the program’s leaders about how to deal with issues raised by members. 

Even now, after the official pilot project has ended, my group still meets, and we hope to continue our association. I am sure that I would have figured out a way to keep going professionally by myself, but it was very helpful to see how other professionals in similar shoes are moving forward and what they are doing right, so that I can apply their advice and examples to my own situation. My heartfelt thanks to those who initiated this program and brought my group together. I can only see benefits of continuing to offer the program to junior faculty members so that they can have a similarly rewarding experience.