What makes a good mentor?

Categories: Instruction, Other, Research Methods, Research Skills, Supervising and Teaching Research Skills and Roles

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The MethodSpace focus for August was on teaching research methods, and we’re continuing in September with resources on mentoring, supervising, and guiding researchers. You can find the whole series here.

Learning from experience.

Working on this series, I can’t help but reflect on my experiences as both a mentor and a mentee. Oddly, the best descriptor of my mentee story comes from the old movie: three weddings and a funeral.

With three mentors I had transformational learning experiences. One was a mentor for the thesis stage of my Masters program, one mentor was an expert in a field I was studying, and the third was associated with a professional leadership development program.

Thanks to each of them, I learned as much about myself as I did about the topics I was studying. All three, in their own unique ways, offered me insights into the work at hand, affirmed my strengths, and pointed out ways to improve. At times when I was forming a concept of what I wanted to achieve, they helped me think through life and career goals and aim in new directions. 

In contrast, the fourth got mad at the academic institution where he was assigned to guide me. I paid the price, even though the issues were unrelated to me. He stopped communicating or moving the process forward, and left me in a precarious situation. It was a kind of funeral, because all hope for a meaningful learning experience died. It took a long time to put this terrible situation into a larger context, and take constructive lessons from it.

These four experiences shaped my sense of what makes a good mentor. When it was my turn to take the role of mentor, the term used for the dissertation supervisor at the institution where I served on the faculty, I aspired to be like the ones who influenced me in positive ways (and avoid any funerals.)

What does it mean to be a transformational mentor?

What are the characteristics of mentors who successfully motivate and guide student or novice researchers? I often brainstorm with mind maps, so that is where I began. You can see the initial map in an earlier post about conceptualizing the role of mentor. At that point I wanted to discern between having relevant knowledge, what I thought of as a cognitive side, and the affective and “people skills” side. To gain more insight on the elements to include, I consulted colleagues whose mentoring abilities I’ve seen in action, and my former mentees, now professionals and academics. Here is the latest iteration. 

Core Characteristics

At the most fundamental level, it is not enough to have adequate knowledge, unless we have the attitudes and actions that allow us to relate to mentees and their journeys. This map illustrates this point with three core characteristics for good mentors: knowing, being, and doing.

Next Level

At this level, the mentor characteristics are specifically related to the research context.

I suggest that we need to know the subject matter being studied and research methodologies and methods appropriate for the mentee’s inquiry. We also need awareness of how our work fits within a larger intellectual context. We need the characteristics associated with doing, which are practical and skills-oriented. Without being able to do the work of mentoring, our knowledge is not helpful to anyone else. The dimension of being describes the personal, human qualities that allow us to connect with mentees in ways that have the potential to make a real difference.

The Big Picture

At this stage I’ve fleshed out the map, with the help of those who gave feedback.

Mindmap of the characteristics of mentors

Details will undoubtedly vary depending on circumstances of the mentoring relationship, and the needs and preferences of mentor and mentee. Those serving in a formal role in an academic program, such as dissertation or thesis supervisors, might focus more on the doing side because their mentees need to meet program requirements. Mentors in a more informal setting might focus more on being present and encouraging to their mentees. On a large research project, team members might mentor one another given that each has unique strengths. But I would argue that in most situations where the mentoring involves research, the three dimensions of knowing, doing, and being, are inter-related. If one is missing, the mentee is not fully served and the potential for the relationship is not met.

Over to you…

No one has all the knowledge and all the abilities associated with good mentoring. When you think about your own role as a mentor, or the role you aspire to take, which characteristics do you feel are your strengths? What will you need to learn or develop? If you are looking for a mentor, what characteristics are most important to you?

Finally, if you have suggestions to help refine this map, please the comment area to share your ideas!

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