Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Importance of Mentoring for Fostering Diversity

When traveling to a completely new city, or especially to a different country, knowing how to do basic things like getting around via public transit and knowing where to eat can become difficult tasks. However, with the right person by your side, the difficulty in handling these activities melts away and the adventure becomes much more enjoyable. In this case the “right person” is someone who lives in the particular place, or has been there before. It takes very little effort for a French person to help the uninitiated travel around Paris and find a good place to have lunch and a latte. However, this small effort has a big effect on the newbie.
Similar arrangements can be set up along the well-trodden road of academe. For a first-year grad student, the journey ahead can seem daunting. Knowing what classes to take and which to put off till later; how to interpret Prof. X’s lack of eye contact; how to set up a new computer account; how to approach and pass the qualification exam. All of these tasks can be very challenging and frustrating for a young scientist. However, for an Nth-year student, a postdoc or professor, these tasks are very manageable if not completely trivial. The older person can act as a guide, or mentor, with a very small investment of time and effort, knowing that the investment can have a huge payoff for the mentee.

Mentoring is distinct from teaching and academic advising, but not necessarily separate (see here and here for more on mentoring and advising, respectively). An academic adviser or teacher can serve as a mentor, but in my mind the processes of advising and teaching are separate from the process of mentoring. Mentoring is based on a personal relationship, often with someone with a set of shared experiences. The mentor’s role is to serve as a guide for the mentee, to help them develop professionally and personally.

In contrast, advising is often a formal arrangement focused only on arranging course schedules, or making progress on a specific thesis topic (think of those semesterly blue slips that need to be signed). Teaching is also more formal, restricted to the confines of a given topic of study. Mentoring goes beyond these formal boundaries. But pinning down exactly what mentoring is and how it works is as difficult as defining friendship or any other type of one-on-one relationship, but no less valuable.

I really like that last point: mentoring is key to fostering diversity. I can say with certainty that I would not be where I am today as a minority scientist without the mentoring I have received over the past two decades. As a result, I am dedicated to offering quality mentoring to the young people around me. Hiring a diverse faculty greatly improves a department’s ability to not only recruit diverse individuals, but also retain them by ensuring they have the support network they need.

If you are looking to improve the experiences of women in your department, I strongly encourage you to read up on the mentoring process and offer your time to those around you. This goes for professors, as well as postdocs, grad students and even senior undergrads mentoring those behind them. A small investment (say an hour every two weeks) can make a huge difference in the lives of those in your department.

In a follow-up post I’ll discuss how to set up a mentoring relationship, as well as the importance and mechanics of a mentoring network. I acknowledge the helpful and illuminating conversations about mentoring that I've enjoyed with Alicia Soderberg and Ruth Murray-Clay in the hallways at the CfA. 

My first experience with a mentor was as a sophomore engineering student. My Engineering Physics professor (Prof. Ron Bieniek) took me under his wing and he taught me how to study more effectively, to think like a scientist, to pursue learning beyond the homework set, and to speak confidently and clearly. When I started my graduate astronomy career at UC Berkeley, Prof. Bieniek handed me off to another mentor, Prof. Gibor Basri. Gibor helped me with everything from IDL coding, to writing papers, to tackling the unique challenges I was facing as a minority student. Since graduating with my Ph.D., my mentor network has expanded to include about a dozen people who I look to for advice, and dozens of others who I mentor on a variety of levels. Here are some aspects of mentoring that are laid out in the short, helpful guide Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend. In a broad sense, a mentor is someone who takes a special interest in helping another develop into a successful professional.
  • In science and engineering, a good mentor seeks to help a student optimize an educational experience, to assist the students socialization into a disciplinary culture...
  • A successful mentor is prepared to deal with population-diversity issues, including those peculiar to ethnicity, culture, sex, and disability.
  • An effective mentoring relationship is characterized by mutual trust, understanding, and empathy.
  • A good mentor is a good listener.