Teamwok And Children Concept. Diverse excited group of emotional happy junior school kids sitting at desk in classroom and putting hands together, having fun, studying or playing game

Our kindergarten lessons can still apply if we choose to use them. It just gets a little awkward to approach someone and ask them to be your friend — or for the purpose of this article — your mentor. 

Won’t you be mine? 

In academia, it’s hard to initiate relationship building in any context. There also tends to be a lot of pressure on formalized relationships and mentoring roles; is there an agreement, expectations for interactions, meetings, and communication exchanges? Mentors wonder if they are doing enough. Mentees wonder if they are asking the person too much. It could be so much simpler. Aaron Reifler, director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA), recommends making the relationship as natural and authentic as possible. 

“Often just getting coffee with someone who has the knowledge you want to know, that can be a mentor. It doesn’t have to be a continued contact or recurring engagement. It could be a brief interaction,” said Reifler. “No two mentors will be the same in their interaction with a mentee. If a formal mentorship is desired, start by getting to know someone before approaching the idea of a mentorship role. Realize that mentoring means something different to everyone. At the root, it is establishing a relationship.” 

Boundaries and Bridges

There is a lot of mutual mentoring, very rarely is this a one-way street. A friend can be a mentor. It’s a thing you do, rather than a title. We’re all multifaceted. We set boundaries in all relationships. For example, you’d go to the movies with friends, but not your physician.

MSU postdocs are establishing boundaries and regularly balancing their need for growth toward individual goals, alongside the need for professional development relating to the research project, while diligently working towards grant deadlines and milestones. Mentoring for them, similar to other positions, is broken down into different areas of support. Development needs in a research project could be writing, organization, experiments, idea generation, communication, and aspect of project management. An individual goal could be teaching a course to gain experience towards the goal of becoming full-time faculty one day, this could include informal mentoring of undergraduates and graduate students in their own career trajectory.

“Sometimes one mentor can’t do all of that to help an individual grow. It’s one thing to know something and completely different to be able to show someone else. When you hire someone to do work there is a different feel to that relationship, due to the expectation of working toward your interest and what you are trying to accomplish. It’s hard sometimes to separate your needs from the work and the mentoring that needs to be done,” said Reifler.

The OPA does host monthly meetings with newly hired postdocs and tries to provide advice on seeking a mentor, but it really is personalized to each postdoc. Some postdocs go back to their previous organization to fill that mentorship role. Some see mentorship as a lifeline role, some as a lifetime role, and others are working along a parallel path with their hiring faculty without being nurtured by them. When people come into MSU and try to establish their mentoring team, obstacles can make the process even more difficult. Unless the skill development areas are clearly defined, along with the names of people who can help, mentorship can take a long time to figure out.

Mentoring Map

Reifler regularly shares a Mentoring Map (PDF) / Postdoc Mentoring Map that includes spaces to add people who can be relied on in both formal and informal ways to support individuals and their development. The map helps to define the needs along with providing space to include someone who has done those things and is willing to provide guidance or insights in some capacity. 

Mentoring is different for each individual and at each stage of a career. There will continue to be a need for development. There is always something new to learn, such as taking on a role as an associate dean or a chair. Even after moving into an area, mentors can help check in and suggest the next steps. 

Finding Mentors

Identifying mentors can be difficult, especially for postdocs, because there isn’t a system that easily defines them. When a postdoc is hired they aren’t presented with a team of mentors in the same way as graduate students or faculty in some departments. 

There are lots of ways to find a mentor, including directly asking (taking a cue from our kindergarten memories). As discussed, the role can be as casual or as defined as necessary. 

Many times these relationships can be categorized in two ways.

  1. Role models: these are experts in the field or people who know what needs to be done.
  2. Personal guides: someone who understands the mentee as an individual and what they need. Often this can help identify sticking points to help get unstuck, providing praise when something is right. Accountability and encouragement are important.

“Mentoring postdocs is a real area to evaluate in our system,” said Reifler. “Some additional structure and guidance could help faculty provide postdocs with access to opportunities, accountability for personal growth, feedback on skill development, and encouragement to find support groups with peers within the department and beyond.”

Along the Way

The whole notion of mentoring is determining where to get the resources to develop personally, professionally, in order to get you where you want to be next. The postdoc position is not a permanent role. Hopefully, it leads to a longer career trajectory within higher education or a research institution, just as other academics aspire to longevity in a career path while seeking mentors along the way.

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