Mentoring

As Harvard sociologist Mario Luis Small notes in Someone to Talk To (Oxford, 2017), the kinds of mentoring relationships that develop in the context of research universities like Harvard—particularly those between graduate students and their advisors—can be complicated as well as rewarding, and require care and attention. They are, in certain key aspects, unlike almost any of the other relationships we experience as we move through life. For one thing, they are by their very nature asymmetrical, or not reciprocal in the conventional sense of that word. While just about all of our professional and personal relationships involve some element of reciprocity, with both parties clearly contributing to and deriving some benefit from the association, mentoring relationships seem to be governed by some other logic. (Can a mentee “repay” their mentor’s generosity? Should they?) One could also point to the great variety of organizational schemes under which academic mentoring is carried out—from intensely personal, one-on-one relationships, to the kind of diffuse, peer mentoring networks one fight find in a lab—as well as the subtle ways in which these relationships are both highly individuated and highly regulated by their institutional contexts as distinctive features of our university ecosystem that might benefit from more careful analysis. 

In our Bok Seminar on Mentoring, we emphasize five key things that mentors can do to create the conditions for healthy relationships with their mentees: (1) set expectations, (2) listen, (3) give feedback, (4) advocate, and (5) remove the scaffolding.

Set expectations

Much of what you’ll be able to achieve as a mentor (or, for that matter, as a mentee) is determined by the dynamics and the boundaries that you establish early in your relationship with your advisee/adviser. What, exactly, is your authority in your field, and what do you expect to be able to offer your student? What do you owe them—and what do they owe you? Above all else: how can you be as transparent as possible about the norms and obligations that will govern your relationship? How will you evaluate what is or isn’t working, and will you create space to discuss it?

In many academic mentoring relationships, the mentor and the student likely share some understanding of their mutual obligations and the kind of dynamics that are likely to be most effective for them. Presumably it is rather clear, for example, that a PhD supervisor will work together with their student to define an acceptable dissertation topic and make sure that the student’s research and writing are proceeding apace. But what about the cultivation of other sorts of academic skills, like teaching, or public speaking? While most advisers would regard these as integral to the kind of holistic mentoring relationship they would like to have with their students, it is not necessarily the case that students will know to ask for this support; they may assume that it is extrinsic to the research-oriented mentoring they typically receive.

While there are many helpful frameworks that can help mentors (and mentees) anticipate all of the elements they should consider when establishing their mentoring relationships, we’ve found some of the following resources to be especially useful:

Listen

Psychologists and sociologists alike have begun to notice something striking about the way we do (and don’t) pay attention to interlocutors—namely, that we often listen least well to the people to whom we are closest. The better we feel we know someone, the more quickly we attempt to fit whatever new question or concern they bring to our attention into the mental portrait we’ve formed of them. Yet as a mentor, isn’t the point to listen attentively to how your mentee is changing? Are there better and worse ways of listening to one’s academic mentees?

In her book You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters (Celadon, 2020), the journalist Kate Murphy distinguishes between “support responses” and “shift responses.” “Support responses” are, as the name suggests, ways of acknowledging that you have really heard what your interlocutor has told you, and that you are eager to provide the reassurance, advice, or assistance that they genuinely seek. Effective support responses include mirroring (“If I understand correctly, I hear you saying ___”) and asking follow up questions (“And how did that make you feel?”). In both cases, the focus remains on the interlocutor, allowing the mentor to learn more about what they might need. “Shift responses,” by contrast, happen when you shift attention away from what the interlocutor has shared and towards yourself. Murphy identifies eight typical shift responses, all of which may seem more familiar than we might wish from our own experiences of academia:

  • Focus the conversation on yourself. “I’ve also had that experience…”
  • Ask a leading question. “Don’t you agree that…?”
  • Assert your expertise. “I have a lot of qualifications on this topic. So…”
  • Suggest you know how someone feels. “That must have felt…”
  • Identify the cause of the problem. “Well that’s only happened because…”
  • Tell someone what to do about the problem. “All you have to do is…”
  • Bring perspective to a situation with forced positivity. “I know this will all work out well…”
  • Admire the person’s strength. “You must be so strong to endure this…”

One might almost say that academics are trained to deploy the shift response in most of the interactions in which they participate. Yet by definition these responses are designed to prevent you from learning any more about what your mentee is trying to tell you. You might be proud to have “solved” your student’s problem so quickly and authoritatively—but are you sure you’ve solved it after all?

Give feedback

No one loves giving a student critical feedback, and it’s not uncommon—particularly in an enduring relationship, as many mentoring relationships are—to soften or hedge critical feedback, or to offer it indirectly in the hope that a student will “get the hint.” Positive feedback, by contrast, may seem like the easiest part of the mentor’s role. Who doesn’t like saying “great job”? In fact, it's not so simple. Learning how to scope your feedback and moderate between different kinds and degrees of positive as well as critical feedback is crucially important.

In their book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Penguin, 2014), Harvard Law lecturers Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen argue that “feedback” in fact comprises at least three different kinds of response: Appreciation, Coaching, and Evaluation. While everyone may have their own preferences as to the proper balance and sequencing of these three kinds of feedback, our experience working with students and early career academics (i.e. undergraduates, graduate students, and junior/non-tenure-track faculty) indicates that they probably receive (1) less appreciation than they need and (2) less evaluation than they want. If this last point seems counterintuitive, we would urge you to remember: one of the hardest things about these early stages of one’s own intellectual development is the anxiety produced by not knowing where one stands. So while we may not ask for copious evaluation from our mentors—evaluation can, after all, be the hardest kind of feedback to receive—we probably would like at least some of it at regular intervals.

Stone and Heen also identify and explain three “triggers” that can prevent the intended recipient of feedback from hearing or accepting it productively. These are the Truth trigger, the Relationship trigger, and the Identity trigger. If you find yourself in a situation in which your feedback cycle seems to have broken down—either the mentor or the mentee seems to have lost the ability to take onboard the praise, coaching, or constructive criticism offered by their counterpart—it may be worth exploring whether one of these three triggers is at the root of it. Could the student hear the same feedback if delivered by someone with a different kind of authority or credibility in that area? Is the mentor inadvertently unsettling the mentee’s identity in the act of attempting merely to critique their work product?

Advocate

One of the most important parts of being an effective mentor is learning to leverage your professional network, introduce your student to helpful people and experiences, and make the case for them to others—most especially, to admissions, fellowships, and search committees—in a way that complements and supports their own efforts to make themselves legible. This obviously requires an intimate acquaintance with your mentee’s work, as well as an appreciation for the contribution or contributions it makes to the relevant field(s). Selection committees—particularly those associated with large, interdisciplinary fellowship programs—may rely on letter writers to supply the context they need to assess a candidate’s originality, if not necessarily their overall quality.

There is more to advocating, however, than understanding your mentee’s distinctive contributions. It is also important to think intentionally about how your mentee will “read” to a given audience, something which requires an understanding of the processes of academic judgment and decision making that may be opaque to your mentee as they work on their own materials. Words like “excellence,” “rigor,” and “originality” can acquire distinctive, highly freighted meanings when deployed as part of committee deliberations. In their books How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment (Harvard, 2010) and Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping (Harvard, 2016), Michèle Lamont and Julie Posselt offer a behind-the-scenes look at how faculty attempt to differentiate between applications by deploying a mixture of explicit and implicit judgments and extrapolations about candidates’ “intelligence,” elegance, cultural capital, “hipness,” and (perhaps surprisingly) moral qualities, like authenticity and humility. We highly recommend that mentors read the accounts that Lamont, Posselt, and others provide about how committees evaluate applications in order to be able to advise their mentees more shrewdly about how they might best present themselves and their work—and, moreover, to take their advice to heart when composing their own letters of introduction and recommendation.

Remove the scaffolding

Though many academic mentoring relationships may last a lifetime—just wait and see how many letters of recommendation you’ll be writing!—it is, of course, important that your students learn to become (mostly) independent of your support. In large part, this means that they need to (1) develop their own powers of discernment, to become critics of their own work, and (2) learn how to construct their own, more expansive networks of people who can offer them feedback as they seek to advance their careers.

There is no single prescription as to how to do these things well, and (perhaps unsurprisingly) the responsibility to make oneself redundant tends to attract less attention in the advice literature than do the more hands-on responsibilities that predominate earlier in mentoring relationships. One of the most vital things a mentor can do in this regard is to militate against the notions that (1) struggle, or even failure, are fatal and (2) asking for help is a sign of weakness. It can be easy to forget that mentees who have experienced a great deal of success may not be self-assured—indeed, their exemplary track records may have made them more, rather than less, prone to impostor syndrome or perfectionism. Normalizing difficulty, and destigmatizing the act of reaching out for assistance, can make a world of difference to students—something illustrated by how quickly the concept of a “CV of Failures” went viral.

As a mentor, you should make a point of demystifying the way academics establish connections, share work, and collaborate to achieve their goals, ideally from the very start of your relationship. Don’t assume that your student knows any of the “unwritten rules.” If you would not admit a graduate student who had not established a personal line of communication before submitting their application, then tell your undergraduate advisee to do the same! In addition to the books cited under “Advocate” (above), there are many examples available—including this helpful webpage from Harvard’s Dean of Undergraduate Education explaining how she approaches letters of recommendation—of how you might demystify the world of academic networking and reciprocity for your student.