Mentoring is like parenting. Not to say you are being a parent, but rather, that the “training” you receive beforehand may be, “You’ll figure it out as you go along.” We have all seen movies or read books with classic mentorship roles—the coach of the football team, the cheerleader, and even the high-school counselor/gatekeeper that says, “You will never make it into that college with your grades.” These are all examples of mentors in the course taught by John Matsui, MCB15). This was the first course in which mentors were neatly categorized from their previously ambiguous roles. What is a mentor? Does being a good mentor require mentees with particular characteristics? Here are interesting perspectives I have heard from other mentors I greatly admire.
Framework for Success
What is the goal of a mentor? Is it to shape how mentees view the world, or how mentees view themselves? Ask the right questions of each other, and see possibilities where doubt may have been otherwise.** Build a bridge by understanding their starting point and where they want to finish. Ideally, the finishing point is somewhere in the terrain that the mentor well understands.
The Third Culture*
Let us refer to this bridge as the Third Culture, connecting brains with different understandings of language and experiences. By acknowledging differences and strengthening understanding through empathy, we can minimize the destabilizing act of subjectivity; however, this is subject to naïve universality. People are different, and it is a compromise for both mentors and mentees to understand the style and technique of one another to develop interpersonal skills while working towards accomplishing goals established through facilitation.
Strong Facilitation Skills
The mentor-mentee relationship should not be accidental or lucky if things work out. Mentors will work to draw out what the short-term goals are of the project(s) to complement the long-term training goals of the mentee. Let the possibility remain that the long-term goals of the mentee may shift through the interaction. Shape how you facilitate (i.e. make easier) the progress of the mentee to accommodate these changes, or just keep doing what your doing.
What do you value in a mentor?
Asking yourself (or asking your mentees) what previous mentors (or pop cultural references as mentioned in the introductory paragraph) did to help strengthen a particular sense of character. For me, I was surprised to realize the most beneficial mentoring I have received pushed me outside of my comfort zone. When learning about a territory with which I was unfamiliar, I was given permission to experiment by a mentor who was there to guide me through this terrain as a facilitator and decouple moments of failure from disappointment.** Mistakes are indeed a part of the learning process, and a mentor can use mistakes as tools for teaching in the future.
For other perspectives on this topic, Michael Kraus mentions mentoring as a faculty member, and Anna Goldstein describes the role of graduate student-driven leadership in science, both recently written articles surrounding the topics of research and mentoring.
*Thank you, John Matsui, for the “Third Culture” term, working towards bridging the separation of science of the humanities for over five decades
**Thank you, Aaron Culich from EECS, for the meta-mentoring
Also, there would be a long exhaustive list of all of the mentors over the course of my life and academic career, but let this sentence stand as acknowledgement to them all.