Monday, 6 August 2012

Matching mentoring partners - how difficult is it?

In this post I want to talk a little about the process for matching mentors and mentees to create effective mentoring partnerships.
When I first took over our mentoring scheme for early career academics I inherited quite a simple process for creating provisional matches, based on a limited set of 'core' criteria. These include which institution they would prefer their partner to be from (in our cross-institutional scheme), preferred gender of their mentoring partner and discipline (broadly grouped into four categories). By applying these core criteria to each mentee we are able to eliminate the unsuitable mentors, leaving us with a shortlist of potential, available mentors. The selection from this point is based on a less scientific process of looking at the statements of the mentors and mentees about why they wanted to join the scheme and what they hoped to gain from it, and by looking in more detail at their expressed research interests. From this we are able, in most cases, to identify what looks like a suitable match. In some cases our knowledge of the individuals concerned enables us to make a judgement about the likely 'chemistry' between the provisionally matched partners.
Once we have identified provisional matches, we then offer this match to the mentee, providing all the relevant information, including links to webpages so that the mentee can learn about the mentor's research profile.
If this provisional match is accepted by the mentee we then send out 'official' matching letters to both parties and the mentoring relationship can begin.
Our investigations seem to indicate that at least some other mentoring schemes put a great deal more time and effort into the matching process than we do. However they are doing so for far fewer participants overall, which would be impractical with a scheme involving upwards of 100 participants (in our case).
The evidence from our own experience is also that with the matching process described above, we ARE able, in most cases, to create effective and successful mentoring relationships. Our view, and this is born out by the outcomes and formal evaluations of the scheme, is that:
1. All the participants are taking part because they want to, and this creates an immediate motivation for the participants to make the mentoring relationship work
2. All the participants are mature adults, and therefore able to behave in a rational and pragmatic way. They are thus able to ensure that, regardless of the 'chemistry' between the partners, they are able to use the mentoring process to achieve some of their objectives and derive some benefit from it
3. Every mentoring relationship will be different - some will be more formal and distant, some will be very warm and informal. It is not the job of the scheme coordinators to exclusively aim to achieve the latter. Almost all relationships will work on some level, and it is the role of the scheme coordinators to find suitable matches for as many mentees as possible, consistent with the 'core' criteria. If participants love their mentoring partner and tell us that it is "the best match ever!" (as they sometimes do), then that is great and very gratifying to hear, but it is a bonus. From our point of view, we just need to know that the mentoring partnership is working and delivering some benefit.
We encourage matched mentoring partners to meet and see how things go. We are very happy to re-match if the mentee doesn’t feel that they will be able to achieve their objectives with their current mentor and there is no stigma attached to that for either participant. Having said that, once the match has been accepted by the mentee, this is not something that happens often.

In an effort to continue looking for ways to make the scheme as effective as possible we have reviewed the 'core' matching criteria. As a result of this we do now ask applicants for more information about themselves and their preferences, but these are largely 'soft' preferences
which inform the more discursive element of the matching process, rather than 'hard' preferences which produce the shortlist of potential mentors.
We are now in the process, with the help of Jordan and Andrew (see previous posts) of creating a database which will use the hard preferences to automatically generate a shortlist of suitable and available mentors, and which will present all the other relevant information to help the scheme coordinators to make a decision. Will this work? We certainly hope so, but looking at progress so far, we are certain that it will make the job of matching mentoring partners a lot quicker and easier - especially when there are 100 or so participants to match!

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