Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Finding a great mentor - practical tips

The following is based on notes I prepared for a 'floor program' I gave in AU's Anderson Hal last Wednesday night and from reflections on the discussion that followed.

Finding a faculty mentor is an opportunity that a relatively small residential college such as American University offers. Classes often have no more than 20 or 30 students, sometimes they are even smaller. Faculty members are required to hold at least six ‘office hours’ each week, though not all do so. Yet a surprisingly small number of students actually succeed in finding a mentor - an individual who (to use a common dictionary definition) “serves as a trusted friend, counselor and teacher” who will “help them advance their careers, enhance their careers and build their networks.”

The experience shared by an AU senior with younger residents at a program I gave the other evening in the topic of finding a good mentor is typical. “I was sitting on a porch in Kenya,” he told us, “and was facing the prospect of seeking faculty recommendations for graduate school applications. I realized there was not one faculty member who really knew me well. I finally picked two faculty members who taught classes in which I had done well. They did agree to write letters for recommendation for me. But I realized that in three years at AU I had not found a faculty member who was a real mentor.”

Students may not be successful in finding mentors, however when asked, they have a pretty good idea of what an ideal mentor might look like if they had one. When we brainstormed this topic, here are some the descriptive words that students participating in our discussion used: “patient,” “knows how to get things done,” “innovative,” “approachable,” “interested in you,” “supportive,” “well connected.”

One problem students face in identifying potential mentors is that they lack a clear idea of which faculty members are likely to be the most promising candidates. Often, they don’t really grasp that the faculty members in front of their classrooms have very different, career circumstances, relationships to the university and discretionary resources of time and energy available for possible mentoring roles.

Students at AU will be taught by adjunct faculty, instructors on term-limited contracts (particularly language and college writing instructors), ‘temporary faculty’ on term-limited contracts, faculty on ‘continuing contracts‘ but not eligible for tenure, ‘tenure-track‘ faculty, tenured associate professors and tenured full professors. At AU, in contrast to many research universities, some undergraduate classes are taught by tenured full professors - I taught undergraduate classes in quantitative research methods for many years - but a goodly number are not.

Faculty members who are not tenured or on tenure track are less good candidates for a mentor, because there is no assurance they will be around when a student needs them especially during their critical senior year.

Tenure-track faculty are also less good candidates though they are younger and often seem more approachable, because meeting the research requirements to gain tenure must be their first priority. An open tenure-track position at AU is likely to have 300 or more applicants. The position of ‘junior faculty’ aspiring to tenure is very similar to the position of associates at a top Washington or New York law firm seeking to gain ‘Partner‘ status. They should expect 70 hour work weeks to be routine and 90 hour work weeks to fairly regular occurrences. Even after winning a tenure-track position, about thirty per-cent will, for one reason or another, not make the grade or leave the university for other reasons. At some universities, the attrition is much higher.

It is my view that tenured associate and full professors are students’ best candidates to be potential mentors. Their recommendation letters, if written well, will also be the most credible. They will have more widely known professional reputation. But how are you to begin building that all-important relationship? You should not expect faculty members to take the initiative. You will mostly be disappointed if you do . The most important principle to bear in mind is this: TO FIND A GOOD MENTOR, ONE MUST BE A GOOD MENTEE. A good mentee is a student whom a faculty member finds intrinsically interesting, most often because the student shares some of the faculty member’s research interests and has something interesting to contribute to them.

The good news is that when seeking a mentor, you need not limit - in fact should not limit - your search to faculty members from whom you are taking classes. Here is the process I recommend.

  1. Devote a bit of thought to areas in which you might be might be interested. These can be quite broad. For example as an undergraduate, I was interested in medieval history and, later, in broad theories about the rise and fall of civilizations. As you take classes, and especially as you encounter new subjects, try to be self-conscious about what engages your interest and what does not.
  2. Go to the web sites of departments in areas you think might interest you and begin reading the biographies of faculty members. Pay particular attention to the biographies of more senior faculty, those holding the rank of associate and full professor, and in addition to their biographies, pay particular attention to the areas they are researching and their recent publications. Identify one or more of these faculty members as possible mentor-candidates.
  3. For the candidates you have identified, read one or more of their publications, especially their recent publications. This assumes their creative work is publication, but applies to other areas as well. If a candidate mentor is a musician, listen to their compositions or recordings. If a candidate mentor is a film-maker, watch one of their recent productions, etc. You will note that the faculty members creative work may not necessarily be related to the classes they are teaching.
  4. Find out where the candidate-mentor or mentors office(s) is/are located and the times of his or her office hours. Stop by or, if necessary, make an appointment. Resisting any feelings of shyness or inadequacy, initiate a conversation about the faculty member’s research interest and see where it leads. Often -not always - you will be amazed at the faculty member’s receptivity and response. Think about it. Everyone likes to talk about their own interests and share them with an individual who seems genuinely interested. Faculty members are no different.
  5. If you seem to make a connection, engage further with the faculty member’s research interests and arrange follow up meetings. This is usually sufficient to create the momentum of a good relationship.

Here are four little-appreciated secrets about faculty members that may help you in your quest for a mentor.

  1. A career experience that faculty members find most rewarding; that really turns them on is when a student learns something in area of that the faculty member cares about. This observation comes from years of experience mentoring young faculty members at American University and from conversations with faculty members at many universities over the years.
  2. A corollary is that faculty members are at least as interested in finding great mentees as students are interested in finding great mentors. A great mentee can be invaluable. Several have played pivotal roles in my book projects and other research. They have been the source of creative new ideas that have furthered my work. We have co-authored papers together, often with the mentee as lead author. I have found them international travel opportunities and funding. In some cases, we have become lifelong friends and, yes, I have spent hours writing them great letters of recommendation. Other faculty members will recount similar experiences.
  3. In many instances - not all - faculty members are as shy and insecure about interacting with students, outside of a classroom setting, as students are shy and insecure about interacting with faculty members. Recognize that what you may interpret as arrogance, disinterest or standoffishness may just be the same shyness and insecurity that you, yourself, are feeling. Commit yourself to breaking down these barriers.
  4. The faculty members whom you approach with expressions of interest and questions based on having familiarized yourself with their research will be amazed, since this almost never happens. Again, this is the voice of experience speaking. I consider myself to be among the more approachable of AU faculty members. After all, I live in Anderson Hall. Yet in years of teaching probably no more 20 students have sought me out for a conversation about my research.

I am not sure how the idea of reading about a faculty members research interests first came to me, but can remember when I first acted on it. My history of civilization professor at Dartmouth College was John R. Williams. He was a quiet, reserved man and not a spellbinding lecturer, but in one of his lectures he spoke about his interest in Pope Gregory VII. I found an article he had written on the subject, read it and went to his office, during office hours, for a discussion. I can still remember our first conversation, which I approached with considerable trepidation. I followed up with additional discussions and in a more advanced class, wrote papers on the medieval papacy and the relationship between feudal and ecclesiastical institutions. This process of engagement began a friendship that lasted until his death. Professor Williams became my honors program tutor in the philosophy of history, rereading works that he had not considered in years so we could talk about them together. In weekly meetings during my junior and senior years, we discussed the writings of Toynbee, Spengler, Hegel, Gibbon, and many other philosophers more focusing on the question, ‘What explains the rise and fall of great civilizations?” He supervised my thesis on the growth of central government institutions in 12th, 13th and 14th century France. He insisted that I read original texts in Latin and French. I improved my proficiency in these languages partly to please him and live up to his expectations. (A mentoring relationship can be mutually reinforcing). The thesis, along with his recommendation, were instrumental in winning me a full fellowship for doctoral study in political science at the University of Minnesota.

Over the years I have been blessed with many mentors. Their pictures graced one wall of my faculty office in Hurst Hall and will again when I move into the new School of International Service building. If you ask a mentor ‘how best can I express my thanks for all you have done?” they will often say, ‘express your thanks by giving to others what I have given you.’ This posting is one small way of expressing my thanks to the many mentors who have made a difference in my life.

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Anonymous KamaSutra said...

Love likes the fire, it can't be made a fool, it would burn your own.
The true love suddenly broken, not only but like the old man who has lost the stick.
True love is love which only for two person, and no place for the third person.

1:00 AM  

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