Ask Sciencewomen: What sort of mentoring to do first year faculty need?

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgTime to move hairy Ethan off the top of the page. Fortunately, there's a couple of great questions from readers qued up in my email account. And maybe by the time they get posted, I'll be ready to get back to my course design series. First up, loyal commenter GymLabRab wonders how to mentor a new colleague. GLR writes:

Hi ScienceWoman,

Thanks for your blog!

I just became department chair on July 1. Too bad it means more work but no more pay!

I'm wondering...what makes a good department chair? It seems from your conversation about your review, your chair is fairly hands-off and doesn't do much mentoring on a regular basis with you. We have a new faculty member this year, and I wonder...what would actually be useful? His office is next door, and we'll be team teaching together. I'd be interested in both your thoughts and your readers....and any advice from those who have done it would be helpful! I'm at a SLAC and the only tenured female in the sciences, so there aren't a lot of mentoring possibilities here...



Hi GymLabRat,

Congratulations on becoming departmental chair. Hope you get some sort of perk for your efforts.

Thanks so much for asking this question, because mentoring is one of my favorite topics and it is one that I am engaged with in my real-life service responsibilities. When I arrived at Mystery University, mentoring within the department was non-existent, but we are in the process of building and codifying a new mentoring program, and our new hire has already been given an official mentor before zie even arrives on campus. So I can say from experience that mentoring is really important, and that I'm glad you are thinking about it.

First of all, I think you've got a tricky tightrope to walk to be team-teaching, chairing his department, and mentoring him. That's a lot of different hats to wear all in one relationship. Is there another faculty member who might make a good mentor? Maybe it's different at SLACs or in small departments, but I feel like the chair's office can be an intimidating place, and the dual role of colleague and administrator has always made me a little hesitant about bringing problems to the chair if I think I can find help elsewhere or solve them on my own.

Second, mentoring has to be a two way street. You should make sure he knows he can come to you any time he needs advice or help, and that you will try to help him or at least figure out what resources can help him. But you should also initiate mentoring too, because there may be times when he is afraid to ask for help (again!) or times when he doesn't even know what to ask. I'd suggest regular meetings, maybe once a month, over coffee or lunch or at least some place on neutral ground.

Third, in my opinion, one of the biggest sources of stress for first year faculty is time management and prioritization, so that may be where mentoring is most useful. As I recall female science professor once saying, the time stress never really goes away in the faculty life, it's just that other sorts of stress supplant it. But effective time management, prioritization, and learning what is reasonable can go a long way to reducing the stress load of a new faculty member. Think about what helps you balance everything you need to do in a work-week. Is it leaving a morning or afternoon free from classes and office hours so that you can get an uninterrupted block of work time? Is it effective use of rubrics or of student peer review so that your grading goes more quickly? Have you found a way to integrate your research interests with your teaching? Since you are team teaching, you'll have a ready made opportunity for mentoring on teaching (mentoring, not criticism, though), but maybe you can offer to look over his other syllabi or assignments and provide some suggestions. Is it reasonable to grade 10 page papers from a 50 person class in the same week he is giving an essay exam in another class? You already know that you need to protect new faculty from excessive service, but I'd add that it might be really helpful to talk with your new colleague about what sort of service is valued by the university (community, professional, departmental, collegiate) so that he can make wise choices over the next several years.

Finally, I'd encourage you to think about providing some mentoring on work-life balance, because ultimately a happy faculty member is one who gets out of her office once in a while. Probably the best things to do on this front are to set a good example (are you?) and work to create a departmental and university culture that doesn't penalize people for a life outside of work. You might also consider inviting your colleague to some social gatherings or along with you to a cultural or sporting event, or at least point out that those opportunities exist and that people within the university participate in them.

I'm sure you'll make a great chair. Best of luck to you and please let us know how it goes. :)


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Great advice. From the perspective of someone who's been in small departments and SLACs, I would say that it's pretty typical for the department chair to simultaneously play the roles of mentor, administrator, collaborator (in research, in classes, and in advising senior thesis students), and ultimately, judge (for tenure and reappointment). It can make the relationship awkward, and it might help to have a good second opinion about advice. (As an example from my own experience, I had a problem class had been designed by my department chair, and I don't think he was ever able to step far enough back to give me good advice about how to handle it.) So it might be worthwhile to find another tenured faculty member - maybe even someone in a different science department - to be a second source of advice.

Thanks for the suggestions! If anyone is interested in
mentoring me in the dept chair role, please post or e-mail me...