Mentoring for Success

by Geraldine Richmond | Dec 19, 2019

From the President banner


Geraldine RichmondThere is considerable buzz about mentorship in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Departments are assigning new hires a more senior staff or faculty member, students are encouraged to find a mentor for career advice, and funding agencies increasingly require a mentorship plan for graduate students and postdocs involved in a proposed funding project. Mentoring has always been a centerpiece of Sigma Xi’s mission, and members can help carry on this tradition!

Mentorship can take several different forms. The mentor may coach the mentee for a short-term task or may be an advocate with award nominations, promotions, or new job opportunities. Both are less time intensive than the more traditionally viewed, long-term mentorship. All roles are invaluable to the mentee and can be served by one or several mentors. In all cases it is valuable to set expectations on time commitment.

But first, what factors contribute to effective mentorship? First and foremost is trust, which may take time to build, given the confidential nature of the partnership. Build trust with consistency, confidentiality, reflective listening, and respect. Open-ended questions designed to encourage meaningful responses are especially effective. 

Effective mentorship is mutually beneficial to both the mentee and mentor. The benefits to the mentee are many: assistance in making career choices, adjusting to a new position, learning about the formal and informal workings of the organization, and connection to the mentor’s network. For the mentor, the benefits include learning the views of others less senior, sharing insights, improving interpersonal advisory, supporting skills in a safe environment, and passing the torch to the next generation.  

Effective mentorship fosters independence and self-confidence in the mentee. A long-term mentor is a guide. The mentee should not expect to receive solutions to a career-related problem or directives on where his or her career should go.  It’s also important that the mentee takes responsibility for selecting topics to be discussed, rather than relying on the mentor to develop a discussion agenda.

“Will you please be my mentor?” is not an easy ask if you don’t know the potential mentor well. A way of “testing the waters” is to reach out to someone to play the role of coach or advocate, and if that works well, the relationship could evolve into a long-term mentorship. Although there is a tendency to choose a mentor who is similar in gender identity, race, and ethnicity, there is value in finding a mentor who might provide a very different perspective. Near-peer, peer-mentoring, and mentorship networks can also be invaluable, especially with those in underrepresented STEM groups. 

Geraldine L. Richmond is the Fiscal Year 2020 president of Sigma Xi. 

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