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Chapter 3. Focus on Mentors: Roles and Responsibilities

Roles of a Mentor

  • Teacher and Role Model
  • Agent
  • Networker
  • Counselor
  • ... and Mentee
An illustration of a man leaning over a desk helping a student

What Is a Mentor?

The purpose of this chapter is to remind mentors about the roles they play while grooming future scientists. Although formal mentor training is highly desirable, not all scientists have the opportunity or resources available to participate in such pro- grams. This chapter is designed to help clarify roles and responsibilities and to suggest activities that will lead to successful attainment of career goals that meet the expectations of the trainee.

As discussed previously, mentoring was listed as the most critical factor in the career success of a trainee. Mentors have many vital roles and responsibilities: they are teachers and role models, agents, networkers, counselors, and last but not least, life-long learners and mentees themselves.

One useful resource for mentoring, The Mentor's Guide (Zachary, 2000), describes mentoring as a—

  • "Powerful growth experience for both the mentor and the mentee"
  • "Process of engagement"
  • "Reflective practice that takes preparation and dedication"

In addition, this guide suggests exercises for mentors and mentees to stimulate better mentoring practices. Many roles and responsibilities associated with mentors have been identified in the literature (Armstrong et al., 2002; Ehrich et al., 2004; Jacobi, 1991; Johnson, 2002; Mertz, 2004; NIH, n.d./2004; Raabe and Beehr, 2003; Selwa, 2003; Tobin, 2004). Many have made a distinction between formal and informal mentoring, where the former refers to planned and managed activities with targeted and structured mentoring, and the latter to nonsystematic counsel (Armstrong et al., 2002). Both can facilitate career development, but formal mentoring has been found to be more likely to foster staged development, in which one experience builds on the previous experiences in a series of steps.

The following mentor roles are drawn from the multiple sources listed above and indicate the many roles a mentor can play—specific activities associated with each role are listed below. Not all mentors will play all of these roles. In addition, mentees may have multiple mentors and each mentor may play different roles for the mentee. Mentors have many vital roles and responsibilities: they are teachers and role models, agents, networkers, counselors, and last but not least, life-long learners and mentees themselves.

Mentors have many vital roles and responsibilities; they are teachers and role models, agents, networkers, counselors, and last but not least, life-long learners and mentees themselves.

Mentor as Teacher and Role Model

  • Shows the mentee how to assess journal articles critically, write technical manuscripts, and critique and revise manuscripts.
  • Demonstrates how to manage time and how to train and supervise personnel.
  • Teaches the science and trains the scientist to be one of the next leaders in the field.
  • Teaches how to conceptualize a study; design a study; and collect, analyze, and interpret data.
  • Provides regular career development opportunities, such as journal clubs and other forums to facilitate the exchange of ideas.
  • Reviews research analyses with the mentee.
  • Schedules routine, structured meetings for advising mentees and giving direction about their work and future careers.
  • Helps the mentee improve teaching skills.
  • Shows the mentee how to plan for and ensure research productivity.
  • Helps the mentee plan his/her career.
  • Assists the mentee in writing grant applications.
  • Encourages strategic thinking.
  • Gives timely feedback on the mentee's work.
    • "I value prompt, detailed feedback and suggestions. I'd like more pre-manuscript guidance." –NIDA Mentee
  • Sets a good example by being a quality citizen in both the academic and community arenas.
  • Sets an example of good behavior in lab meetings; puts a stop to bad behavior.
    • "The PI sets the tone in the lab." –NIDA Mentee
  • Participates in ongoing training in mentoring. (See "Directory of Useful Web Sites" for information on available training.)
    • "I wish mentoring training was required." –NIDA Mentee

Mentor as Agent

  • Supports the mentee in research arenas and provides recommendations for high-profile committees, journal reviews, and grant reviews.
  • Removes obstacles whenever possible.
  • Allows the mentee to try new endeavors.
  • Boosts the mentee's self-confidence by being an advocate and providing encouragement.
  • Knows when it is time for the mentee to advance.
  • Offers tips on balancing professional and personal life.
  • Does not show favoritism.
    • "I feel my research and its importance are overlooked sometimes because I work in a diverse laboratory with a number of projects and others always get the attention." –NIDA Mentee
  • Facilitates the job hunt by recommending mentees to colleagues.
  • Sets expectations for mentee.
  • Gives formal performance appraisals.
  • Encourages the mentee to ask questions at meetings.
  • Expedites resources by using knowledge of systems and bureaucracies in obtaining support.
  • Encourages the mentee to present papers and posters as first author.
  • Allows the mentee access to data.
  • Gives authorship, including first authorship, to the mentee on papers as appropriate.

Mentor as Networker

  • Provides opportunities for the mentee to shadow him/ her in the lab, at local meetings, and at conferences.
    • "I used to stay right beside my mentor; she would introduce me to everyone she knew. That allowed me to also meet her colleagues' mentees, the people who would be my cohort. Now, we are all friends and colleagues." –NIDA Mentee
  • Includes the mentee in discussions and meetings with appropriate administrators to facilitate future access. Involves the mentee in research tasks that matter and avoids delegating only undesirable jobs.
  • Introduces the mentee to visiting professors and arranges lunches or meetings with them.
  • Accelerates access to colleagues and networks to nurture and develop the next generation. Recognizes that exposing mentees to the professional world and increasing their visibility helps them become more recognized.
    • "My mentor is genuinely interested in my academic and professional development and seeks out opportunities to network with people who will help my career advance." –NIDA Mentee
  • Introduces the mentee to colleagues at conferences and meetings; allows the mentee to sit nearby so that others associate him/her with the mentor.
  • With permission of the editor, allows the mentee to review journal manuscripts—not as a draft reviewer, but as the primary reviewer—and makes sure he/she receives credit for the review.
  • Establishes connections with other trainees in the institution and other cohorts.
  • Facilitates the job hunt by recommending mentees to colleagues and writing strong and detailed letters of recommendation.

Mentor as Counselor

  • Acts as a sounding board for the mentee.
    • "I value my mentor's support, responsiveness, and respect." –NIDA Mentee
  • Shares experiences when relevant.
  • Just helps the mentee; does not try to do it all for him/her.
    • "I would like to not have my mentor micromanage my writing—he writes it without me knowing why he changed it." –NIDA Mentee
  • Listens and gives advice when asked, or when necessary for the good of the mentee.
    • "I think mentoring is a lot like parenting—a good mentor knows the current level of the mentee and provides the right level of support." –NIDA Mentee
  • Protects the student from committing major professional mistakes.
  • Protects the mentee in situations where his/her best interests are not represented. Protection should first come in the form of preventing potential pitfalls. Some students may require assistance in protecting their time commitments so that they are not overburdened or prioritizing the wrong activities.

Mentor as Mentee

  • Becomes a lifelong learner.
  • Doesn't let go of his/her own mentors. Meets regularly with his/her former mentors.
  • Learns from his/her mentees.
  • Attends formal programs sponsored by NIH or other organizations whenever possible to enhance mentoring strategies.

What Is Good Mentoring?

Each of the roles described above is just one component in a process that promotes career development. Overall, the process is based on an apprenticeship model, in which the student/trainee works closely with the teacher to learn the science and art of his/her chosen career. The goal is for the mentee to eventually become an independent scientist and future leader and mentor in his/her profession.

In practice, mentors carry out their functions on a daily basis through formal and casual mechanisms. Seminars, workshops, scheduled meetings, and other didactic forums are typical, formal mechanisms through which development takes place. Hands-on activities such as writing manuscripts and journal reviews under the tutelage and supervision of one's mentor, or with other senior-level scientists in a team approach, are also important parts of mentoring. Investment in each mentee will vary—for example, editing documents by a mentor can run the spectrum from rewriting to only offering general suggestions. Both quantity and quality of efforts may vary depending on the level of the mentee's experience.

Flexibility in the mentor matching and selection process is a key ingredient in the development of a successful mentoring relationship. This flexibility allows mentors and their mentees to begin work together, yet provides the freedom to find another match if they discover divergent views, personalities, or styles. Successful relationships can be mentee-directed (i.e., when a student gravitates toward a particular professor and then a mentor-mentee relationship develops) or program-directed (i.e., the result of a structured mentoring program that suggests a mentor for a mentee). A key factor for a successful relationship is the creation of a supportive dynamic where the mentee feels support but knows that a high level of performance is necessary for the relationship to continue. This process includes an obligation to establish and communicate clear and realistic expectations.

The Daloz (1986) model is a validated paradigm for effective mentoring (Bower et al., 1998). According to this model, effective mentoring is both supportive and challenging (Bower et al., 1998, 1999). Mentors express their support by respecting and trusting their mentees and remaining optimistic and hopeful in the face of difficulties. This is particularly important early in an investigator's career when career prospects are uncertain. A mentor who is neither supportive nor challenging can create a barricade to growth, and the mentee may enter an academic "stasis." A mentor who is supportive but not challenging will confirm the status quo for the mentee rather than inspire advancement. A mentor who is challenging but not supportive will cause the mentee to retreat and withdraw. Growth and vision only occur with a mentor who is a combination of both (Bower et al., 1999).

mentor speaking to group

Four Phases of Mentoring

  1. Preparation
  2. Negotiating
  3. Enabling
  4. losing The Four Phases of Mentoring

The Four Phases of Mentoring

Zachary's The Mentor's Guide (2000) provides exercises to facilitate effective learning relationships. The exercises are suggested for both mentors and mentees, and they cover four phases of a mentoring relationship: preparation, negotiating, enabling, and closing. Others have labeled these phases differently, such as initiation, cultivation, separation, and redefinition (Barnett, 1995); or initiation, protégé, breakup, and lasting friendship (Kram, 1983, 1985; Hunt and Michael, 1983).

In the preparation phase, mentors are asked to review a number of skills, from communication to management of conflict, and rate their comfort level with each. One exercise asks mentors to prioritize which of their skills needs to be improved. Strategies for that initial conversation with the mentee are given in The Mentor's Guide.

In the negotiating phase, mentors need to be mindful of the issues discussed in the Sigma Xi survey, including the importance of declaring their expectations. Goal setting is imperative. Mentoring contracts are required at the outset and renewed each year between the mentor and mentee to remind each that regularly scheduled meetings are required and to encourage mentees to attend monthly meetings with other trainees as well as others, such as a training director, if required. In this phase, the mentor also is reminded that mentor–mentee discussions are confidential.

During the enabling phase, mentors perform the difficult mentoring work. A learning environment is built on mutual trust and respect. In this phase, the mentor gives feedback and helps solve ethical dilemmas. Boundaries may be crossed, jealousies may arise, and other stressful issues may occur. Suggestions are given on how best to support the mentee during this phase.

The final phase, the closure phase, can be an emotional period: some mentors and mentees have a hard time letting go. The most successful closures occur among mentors who are secure and who have prepared for and negotiated the closure. Whatever the duration of the mentor–mentee relationship, the mentor should anticipate the successful transition of mentorship.

Additional Mentoring Considerations

Why Become a Mentor?

  • The field of drug abuse and addiction research needs more investigators.
  • Mentoring can extend your contributions to science.
  • You can keep your skills up to date as your mentee teaches you new techniques.
  • You can strengthen your contacts by meeting colleagues of your mentee.
  • Working with someone is more enjoyable than working alone.
  • You gain a sense of personal satisfac- tion and pride.
  • Your mentee's success becomes your success.
  • You build potential collaborative relation- ships for the future.
  • Will an in-person interview with a candidate be required? Who will conduct the interview? Is a talk by the mentee required?
  • Are trainees allowed to choose their own mentor? Their own research topic?
  • Is a cohort of trainees enrolled together?
  • What key achievements are expected from mentees:
    • How many publications are expected to be submitted already? To be submitted in the first year?
    • What specialized training do they need to have before joining the lab?
    • How much money will be provided to them for expenses and for travel to conferences?
    • Are they expected to write grant applications and/or to apply for their own funding?
  • Is there an ombudsman who can help settle disputes?
  • What resources are available to train mentees on writing grants and papers? Will the mentor perform this training?
  • Are trainees requested to work (e.g., interviewing, fidelity checks) each week on a specific funded grant? If so, who will supervise them on those tasks?
  • What hours are they expected to work? Are prolonged absences acceptable?
  • Will mentees be located near other trainees, or near the project or mentor?
  • Are there specific opportunities for female and minority trainees to take advantage of at your institution, such as formal networks or associations?
  • If distance is involved, how will this be handled? (See "Mentoring at a Distance.")