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Making Better Mentors: It’s Not Just an Art, It’s a Science

SEATTLE—There is a science to mentorship. When it comes to ensuring that early career academics thrive and go on to produce high quality research, there is data on what works and what doesn’t. But until recently that data was dispersed throughout many different fields of study and difficult to track down.

A new report, “The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM,” published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in the United States, seeks to rectify this.

“There really is a body of science and literature to examine, and we thought it’s time to integrate them,” said one of the report’s editors, Angela Byars-Winston, a professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She spoke during a panel discussion at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

‘A Starting Point’

All of the data compiled from the report comes from studies conducted in the Western world, chiefly the United States. That could hamper its relevance to the Arab region, where interactions between young academics and their seniors are likely to be different. “We acknowledge that,” said Byars-Winston. “But part of what we’re trying to do is encouraging colleagues around the world to take this on as a starting point.”

Mentorship, according to the report, can be split into two main components. The first is career support and the second is psychosocial support, both of which are central to the long-term success of the mentee.

The new resource offers a number of suggestions for researchers and university administrators who wish to improve the mentorship of budding academics, but most

“There really is a body of science and literature to examine, and we thought it’s time to integrate them.”

Angela Byars-Winston
 A professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin–Madison

crucially those behind the report want to drive home the point that mentorship isn’t an innate ability, it can be learned.

“It doesn’t need to be a natural talent,” said Juan Gilbert, a professor of computer and information science engineering at the University of Florida, who also contributed to the report. “With proper resources and training, anyone can be a mentor.”

Nevertheless, just seven percent of faculty members are specifically trained to be mentors, despite 79 percent of them saying that preparing students for the workforce is their high or highest priority.

This highlights the need for a university’s leadership to get involved and broaden access to what the report calls “quality mentorship and support systems.” That means providing mentorship training and then evaluating the effectiveness of such interventions.

Aligning Expectations

There are practical things that mentors can learn in order to improve their usefulness, according to the report. For example, it suggests that mentors and mentees should align their expectations. That should take the form of an honest conversation in which they engage and negotiate with each other, so each party knows what the other is expecting—some mentees may need more social help while others may need more career help.

Mentors should also take the time to properly understand the limitations and potential of their mentee so they can better cater to their needs.

The report also highlights the need for mentors to foster independence in the mentees to help build their confidence.

“With proper resources and training, anyone can be a mentor.”

Juan Gilbert
 A computer scientist at the University of Florida

However, as some present at the panel discussion pointed out, it’s something of a balancing act because it’s also important not to brush mentees aside when they ask for help. Too often mentees ask for advice regarding what may seem like trivial or clerical task to then be told by the mentor to go to the university’s administration. If a mentor is constantly sending mentees elsewhere for solutions to their problems, then eventually they’ll stop seeking out their mentor’s help, warned one audience member.

Interestingly, the quality of mentorship is not equal across all fields of study. Students in the social sciences and humanities are more likely to be satisfied with their mentoring than their counterparts in lab-based science subjects, said Byars-Winston.

It’s hard to know exactly why that is, but she suspects that it’s because scientists may be less inclined to help with the emotional side of mentoring than with the professional side of things.

“Many scientists don’t want to deal with the fluffy stuff,” said Byars-Winston.


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