Thursday, November 6, 2014

Guest blogger: "What is this mentoring thing anyway?"

(It's been a few months since we've posted new content here on BAnDIT. Busy busy busy. Today I'm happy to share a fantastic post about one junior faculty member's search for mentors. Lots of great advice here; hope you enjoy it!


What is this mentoring thing, anyway?

I am the only biological anthropologist (and the only female) in my small program of six full-time anthropologists. Anthropology is within a larger school with faculties of several programs, which means that full-blown faculty meetings include lots of fiery back and forth, tinged with a little zen flavor. I love my school, my program, and my position, though I am usually not completely sure what everyone is arguing about.
  A position like this comes with a few challenges, including, in no particular order: 
1) There isn’t really anyone to ask advice about being tenure-track in my field;
2) No one in my program really has any advice for how I can navigate tenure in my field; 
3) Did I mention that there isn’t anyone senior in my program (or school) who can answer questions about the tenure situation in my field? This became very clear to me when, two years in a row, I received "excellents" on my annual evaluation under the research category. All I had done for research those two years was submit abstracts for the American Association of Physical Anthropologists conference. I knew then that any "trajectory towards national recognition" - as defined for how I would earn tenure - was trajectory towards being nationally recognized for starting abstracts at 8:15 pm EST on September 15.
            Finding myself without a go-to person for advice, I started a search for some magic individual who could answer all my questions. That’s what a mentor is, right? I applied for an official “Mentor” through a program run by our teaching center - and I got one. She and I had coffee once, and talked about how to take attendance in a large class. I came away from that experience with one important realization: there is no one person who is going to be able to answer all of your questions about teaching, research, service, tenure, academic life, non-academic life, and all other aspects of your career about which you might have concerns.
So I decided I needed to do something to help myself. I became more proactive, and started asking people for meetings to ask questions. I met with the biology department chair, and told him that I’d like his help with my tenure committee and tenure packet. I met with the associate dean for research, and asked if he would serve as a reader for a grant writing activity I was becoming involved in. I met with another dean, a woman who had chaired a STEM department, and set up monthly meetings just to go over my research trajectory (and talk about being a woman in science). I meet with the chair of my school regularly to talk about how my teaching is going, and I’m on a committee with someone I ask about service responsibilities. I'm also still in regular contact with my PhD advisors, and ask them an insane range of questions, from dealing with undergraduates, to navigating school politics, to how an external letter writer for a tenure packet interprets a research record in a department with no graduate program. I look for mentoring opportunities every day, and when I see them I take advantage of them. I joined the Physical Anthropology Women’s Mentoring Network to have a community for discussions, and at one of the Mentoring Network events, I went up to a scientist more senior than me and asked her about her experience with having a baby while on the tenure-track.
Don't get me wrong: approaching senior scientists (and deans!) and asking for help is not something I find easy. It's intimidating, and sometimes terrifying. And it feels like work. People don't always have time to help, and it can be a little tough to get a negative response. But I've stopped thinking about having a mentor as some defined relationship, and instead think of mentoring as a process. It starts with determining when I need help or have questions, and continues until I find some advice that helps me in my particular situation. The process can be pretty unpleasant, but I don't feel like I would learn as much if there was one approachable person with the answers to all my questions.
Something that caught me by surprise was learning, through this process, that not every mentor is going to be senior. Peer-mentoring with colleagues starting their careers at other schools has given me a much better perspective on challenges we are all experiencing at about the same time. It's also a lot more fun to hear about stories of people developing new classes or setting up labs or having babies while they are doing it, rather than hearing about these experiences happening 20 years ago.

On any given day, I have a list of at least 6-10 people I consider mentors, each of them playing a different role in my mentoring process. Most of them probably don't know I have them on my list of mentors, though I do try to let people know how much I appreciate their time. For me, the mentoring process is about making connections, building relationships, and finding answers to my questions every day. The associated internal monologue usually goes something like this: "I think super senior intimidating scientist X could really help me with organizing this event/symposium/study I want to do, I should ask him/her for help. Let me play Eye of the Tiger while I get up the nerve to send the email." Or, “I am sitting next to the world’s expert on X, and I really want to know what his/her first grant was about. Let me hum Eye of the Tiger while I make eye contact and work up the nerve to say something.” For me, mentoring is a process that’s never going to stop, and requires constant effort. So next time you have a question about your career, and you have an idea for who has the answer, step outside your comfort zone and ask. And then ask someone else. Just keep asking