Last week I participated in a mentoring briefing session for our Early Career Academics’ Mentoring Scheme, which we run cross-institutionally with the University of Dundee.
This year our mentor pool has been under pressure from REF, retirements and relocations – resulting in a reduction in the number of available mentors. As the number of researchers looking for mentors has remained at around the same level as last year, this leaves us struggling to make suitable matches and the 2012-13 cycle is therefore getting off to a slow start.
Once of the effects of this is that our scheduled briefing sessions have had much smaller numbers of participants than in the past. The session I attended last week, for example had just 5 participants, compared to the 15 or so attending each of our sessions last year.
Nevertheless it was a great session. As is usual with these sessions, we had invited existing mentors and mentees along to talk about their experience with mentoring, address any concerns and answer any questions from the new participants joining the scheme.
On this occasion we had two mentors attending. On the face of it they had a lot in common, both being from the same institution and the same school. However, everything else about their respective mentoring experiences was different.
One of the pair, Linda, had quite a formal arrangement with her mentor. Meetings were planned and scheduled in advance. They always took place in her mentor’s office. They ran strictly to time. An agenda was agreed in advance of each meeting, and a set of summary notes exchanged afterwards. Very organised. And very successful. Outcomes included collaborative working, grant funding and joint supervision of PhD students.
The other mentee, Oliver, approached things with his mentor differently. Meetings were set up when Oliver felt he needed one. They always met in a café. No agenda was agreed and Oliver decided what he wanted to discuss and announced this at the start of each meeting. No notes or minutes were made. Very informal. Also, very successful.
Both of them were so pleased with the experience that when we asked for volunteers to talk at the briefing session they both said they felt it was something they must do, and they really communicated their enthusiasm for the scheme.
The theme of mentoring being a flexible and adaptive relationship, based around the needs of the mentee was reinforced by the mentor in attendance – a very senior academic and an experienced mentor. He talked about the half-dozen or so mentees he had supported, and how each one of them was different in terms of their objectives, the kind of support they were looking for and the nature of the mentoring relationship that developed.
Although successful mentoring does respect some fundamental features, mentoring is not a prescriptive process based on a set of rigid principles, and the experiences expressed at the briefing session last week was a powerful demonstration of how varied different mentoring partnerships can be and yet how well mentoring can work.