What is mentoring, and why is it a good thing?

Previously in this column I’ve written briefly about women mentoring other women, highlighted mentoring as important for achieving gender equity, mentioned the possibility of choosing the wrong mentor, said that mentors can help you improve your speaking and writing, and that they should support you if you want to quit. I’ve assumed that readers know the answer to my opening question, but I now realize that was a bad assumption. Mentoring is an activity that has many forms, and people do not automatically appreciate its diversity or its potential for doing good.

Recently I participated in the 2015 JSM mentoring program as a mentor, and I also attended a mentoring workshop for new and seasoned mentors and mentees, both organized by the ASA Committee on Applied Statisticians as part of the ASA President’s Initiative on Mentoring. This committee has been tackling mentoring for about three years. They have implemented several mentoring programs for applied statisticians, helped ASA sections and chapters implement their own mentoring programs, and have produced a number of valuable resources, available to ASA members at the ASA Mentoring Clearinghouse. Among other things, they have a single sheet entitled DIY Mentorship, and a 40-page set of tools for developing a mentorship program for applied statisticians called Mentoring in a Box. There is more available on their website, and of course more still on the wider web.

Traditional mentoring has been defined as “a relationship between an older, more experienced mentor and a younger, less experienced protégé (mentee) for the purpose of helping and developing the protégé’s career.” This is frequently thought of as a one-way transfer of information and advice from the mentor to the mentee. Called the instrumental view of mentoring, the unidirectional approach is the one many people automatically adopt when asked to be mentors. However, there is also the developmental view, where the personal growth and self-esteem of the mentee are addressed, at the same time as helping them understand and meet their institutional expectations for career development.

The one-way view is too limited, for in a good mentoring relationship there are clear benefits to the mentor as well as the mentee. Mentors increase their understanding of the challenges facing their younger colleagues, they can get a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment from mentoring, and may even experience greater career success themselves as a result. Furthermore, there is no need for the relationship to be simply instrumental or developmental. Perhaps the best view is that the mentor-mentee relationship is one of reciprocal growth and development, located at the position on the instrumental–developmental continuum that best suits the current needs of the mentee.

The developmental view raises another important aspect of mentoring: working towards institutional change. It’s fine for a senior colleague to use their knowledge and experience to help a younger one meet the requirements for achieving some career goal, such as tenure, within a given institutional context. But what if that context is inhospitable, the requirements outdated or the goal unachievable? Think of a woman in an otherwise all-male department, or a person of colour in an otherwise all-white department, or an applied statistician in a highly theoretical department that values only papers in the Annals or JASA. Good mentors don’t content themselves with helping their mentees fit into the existing framework, but instead recognize the need for change in the way things are done, and push for it. It can also be valuable to collect the experiences of groups of mentors and mentees after a period of interaction in the same institution, to learn where it might be failing its younger people. In this way mentoring can be an important catalyst for change.

Mentoring comes in many forms, and need not be one-on-one face-to-face interaction. Mentoring can be remote (email, Skype). Group mentoring, with one mentor and several mentees, can be very fruitful. Peer mentoring, where individuals at a similar stage in their careers meet in a group, can be extraordinarily rewarding. There’s nothing quite as liberating as finding out that others share your hopes and fears, and will discuss their strategies for career development or career change. It is fine to have more than one mentor, for example, one with whom to discuss teaching, another to help you with your research, and a third for helping you get tenure. What matters, as all the guides will tell you, is having a clear and mutual understanding about the goals of your mentoring relationship and the time commitment involved. The DIY Mentorship document I mentioned earlier tells us that mentoring has a finite life cycle, roughly this: Establish rapport → Identify directions → Make progress → Move on.

How should mentoring look in the IMS?