What makes for a good academic mentor?

I was asked to write up what I thought made someone a good academic mentor, in less than a page. Since I had to write it up quickly, here it is for further thought. This list is partial and based on my own experience, but here is what I’ve observed from watching the good mentors that I have had.

  1. What got you here is not what will get them there. Too much of mentorship is the mentor describing their own career path. While there is value in hearing other people’s stories as a quick route for understanding how the academy works, the chances that someone else will follow the same career path are nil. A good mentor helps someone else find their own way forward, based on their values, interests, and goals, as well as the changing circumstances in the academy.
  2. Where you wanted to go is not where they want to go. Too much of mentorship is the mentor trying to reproduce him- or herself via the person being mentored. But other people’s career goals—not to mention how their career fits into their personal life—can and should be very different than your own.
  3. People can find their own answers. Generally speaking, almost all of the time people can work out what their own values, interests, priorities, strengths, and so forth are. They seldom need suggestions of what to do or even how to do it. What they need is someone to talk to who genuinely listens and can help them figure those things out for themselves. Occasionally they need someone they trust to give them “permission” to do what they’ve already figured out.
  4. Explain the boring stuff. Many things about an academic career are not hard: they are hard to learn. For instance, the mechanics of grant writing are not so difficult, but they are completely opaque the first time someone does it. One of the few times when a mentor should talk more than listen or ask questions is in explaining the routine, boring things that are hidden knowledge that block people (especially women and minorities) from success.
  5. Share failures as well as successes. When I was in grad school, I got a “revise and resubmit” from a journal then never resubmitted, because I thought that was just a polite way for the editor to say, “Get lost.” I’ve used this example to illustrate how the “pipeline” of academic research works … and to show grad students how much smarter they are than me!
  6. Open doors. Whenever possible, make introductions that benefit the person being mentored.
  7. Informal mentorship trumps formal mentorship. I have had good formal mentors, but their significance was secondary to some truly generous and wise informal mentors. My point is not to critique the idea of formal mentorship. But I do think that formal mentorship is a temporary relationship to help people until they find informal mentors for themselves—which is a great outcome.
  8. Never take credit. The successes of the person being mentored belong only to them, never to the mentor. However, some bragging on their behalf is allowed.
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