‘Mentoring' is often thought of as a ‘transfer of wisdom' between an experienced member of staff and a more junior colleague. The aim of the relationship is to provide one-to-one guidance and support for the junior member of staff in the early stages of their job or career.
Mentoring relationships may involve a degree of ‘coaching' too. Coaching is less directive than mentoring. It relies on the coach asking pertinent questions to help the colleague reach their own decisions.
Having a mentor or a coach can be an invaluable support as you seek to develop your career. Being a mentor can be a fantastic way of helping and supporting your colleagues as well as a means of developing your own interpersonal skills.
Mentoring often happens informally. For example your line manager may give you advice and guidance in relation to your project or your career development. If you are new to a research team, you may get support and guidance from established members of the team. In turn, once you are established you may guide and support other colleagues in the team, or postgraduate researchers.
Many universities and research organisations now run formal mentoring or coaching schemes for staff. The balance between mentoring and coaching will differ from institution to institution. It will also differ according to where you are in your career and what your own personal support needs are.
It is common for new members of staff to be assigned a mentor during their probationary period. Mentors are usually from the same department or discipline as the person being mentored (the ‘mentee'), but are not directly involved in the mentee's day-to-day work. This gives the mentor a certain objectivity. It means they can try to keep the long-term interests of the mentee as their priority, regardless of the ups and downs of the research project. It also means that they are in a good position to offer impartial advice if any difficulties arise in the mentee's working life.
Members of staff may be encouraged to find a mentor or a coach as part of their Professional Development Review. If you are more experienced and a coaching type relationship is more appropriate, it might be beneficial to look for a coach who is outside your department or discipline altogether. Your institution's Personnel Office or Staff Development Unit will be able to advise on how to find a mentor or coach.
A number of professional societies have mentoring schemes which members are eligible to join. If you are interested in a particular career path after your research post, the society may be able to put you in touch with someone who works in the same area who will be willing to act as a mentor. You may even be able to volunteer to be a mentor yourself.
Key features of the mentoring relationship
- the mentoring relationship is confidential
- mentors and mentees are often required to attend training to help prepare them for the role
- mentoring usually takes place over an extended period of time, maybe six months or a year
- you will usually have a degree of choice over your mentor/mentee
- there will be a named third person for you to contact if you are experiencing any problems with the mentoring arrangement
The mentoring scheme from the University of Edinburgh provides an example.
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