NESI Blog: Making the most of mentoring

By Brittany Johnson, Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Caring Futures Institute, Flinders University (Australia)

Mentoring is a professional relationship that promotes growth, learning and career development, commonly with a more senior mentor providing a sounding board to a more junior mentee. I’ve had several mentors throughout my PhD training and early post-doc years (I’m currently 3 years post-PhD conferral), both formal and informal, within and outside my discipline. My PhD supervisor and line manager has been a constant informal mentor throughout my career to date. She knows my track record and skills well, will support my career development goals and hold me to them if I get distracted by a shinny opportunity.

Last year, I was selected to take part in our University wide early career researcher mentoring program. This program is specifically designed to carefully pair mentees with mentors in a different college within the university (so extremely different disciplines), but with aligned goals. Prior to the program you completed a survey, as a mentee about the types of things you wanted to get out of the 12-month partnership, and as a mentor areas they best felt they could provide advice and guidance. Given I’d previously had mentors within my discipline or at least broad area of research, I found it extremely valuable to discuss my career planning with someone completely objective, and forced me to work on communicating my research with those outside of my field (a key skill in grant writing and communicating with the public). Although we were from different fields and apply to completely different national funding schemes, the process and challenges of grant writing and academia were the same.  

Regardless of whether you are taking part in such a structured matching process this is a useful process to be clear on what you want out from a mentoring arrangement and finding a mentor that can support that goal.

Another form of mentoring that perhaps draws less attention is peer mentoring. Peer mentoring is the same concept as mentoring, just with both people being at similar career stages. I’ve had both informal and formal peer mentors. You may already have peer mentors in your current support networks, researchers at a similar career stage you go to for advice, to debrief, or to hold you to certain career goals. Formal peer mentoring can be very similar to that of other mentoring arrangements, just that you act as both the mentee and the mentor. You can read more about peer mentoring in this paper co-written with my previous peer mentor here.   

I wanted to share a few tips for students and ECRs when approaching mentoring

1. You get out what you put in

  • Take the time to be clear on what you want to achieve during the mentoring sessions and document what the goals are for the arrangement.
  • It can be helpful to have a brief agenda or focus of each meeting.
  • Document actions at the end of each meeting and schedule time in your diary to actively work on them before the next meeting.
  • Be honest, make you establish the mentoring sessions are confidential.

2. Choose the right type of mentor for your goals and career stage

  • Do you need a peer mentor, ECR or senior researcher?
  • Do you need someone inside or outside your discipline?
  • Is it going to be a formal or informal arrangement?

3. Know when to close the mentoring arrangement   

  • Formal mentoring programs often come with a fixed term for the mentoring, this might be 12 months, after which you generally part ways. You may both choose to keep in touch following this.
  • However, for self-established mentoring arrangements you will need to think about how to review the mentoring partnership and when is the right time to say goodbye. This can also be true in the early stages of a mentoring agreement if you feel the match isn’t right and its not the best use of time for anyone.

ISBNPA currently offer a mentoring program, find out more here

Dr Johnson’s research focuses on supporting families to establish positive child health behaviours in the early years. She has a passion for supporting early career researcher development and has been a NESI committee member since 2018.  

Twitter: @brittanyjayne8