Tips from the top: Mentoring is really, super important to help people succeed.

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgi-e0d0df0df6ead96923a46fbb00cbdb7d-2009PictureGail Cassell.JPGRecently I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Gail Cassell, a member of the National Academies' Institute of Medicine, and one of the authors of the NAS report Rising Above the Gathering Storm. Dr. Cassell is currently Vice President of Infectious Diseases for Eli Lilly. She was previously the chair of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Alabama Schools of Medicine and Dentistry at Birmingham.

Dr. Cassell has also done a great deal of thinking about the importance of mentoring, networking, and professional development opportunities in academia and industry. Here are some snippets of what she had to say in the opening part of her remarks, advice for navigating the new environment faced by junior scientists:

â¢There is no substitute for tenaciousness and perseverance.
â¢Always be open to new opportunities.
â¢Treat your colleagues well.
â¢Establish integrity of institutions. What you do is important, but how you do it is more important.

Dr. Cassell also talked about the characteristics of a good mentor, qualities that included accessibility, empathy, honesty, savvy, humility (most important), consistency, open-mindedness, and understanding of the current/new research/academic/professional environment. Mentors should be providing networking opportunities, offering moral support, and encouraging creative thinking. In turn, good mentees are proactive, probing, gracious, and humble in accepting critical feedback.

Of course, you are not going to meet all of your mentoring needs in a single relationship, so Cassell suggests to never let go of old mentors, establish both official and informal mentors and also find a set of confidants. She urges mentees to keep meetings professional.

Cassell also spoke about the differences in the way mentoring and professional development occurs in industry versus academia. She thinks they used to be quite different, but maybe not so much anymore. In her view, strengths in industry include: constant feedback and peer review; objective [and clearly defined?] performance measures; yearly development plans, treating human capital as the greatest asset; considering the sum of team and individual performance in evaluating success; and doing good succession planning. She talked about specific programs aimed at supporting scientists at Eli Lilly, including a women's network, on-site childcare, generous maternity leave, job sharing, flex time, remote sites of work, and a VP of Diversity. By the time she was done, I was almost ready to ask for a job application.

Dr. Cassell suggested that to make mentoring meaningful is to make it part of the institution's culture. To do that, it needs to be factored into performance evaluations, because the organization needs to put its money where its mouth is. She told us that bad mentors at Lilly get sent to "charm school." In my mind, this making mentoring part of the institutional culture, by rewarding good mentoring, is one of the biggest challenges to mentoring programs aimed at young faculty at universities. Most universities already place low value on service, and if mentoring is just one tiny component of a low value activity, then there's little way to provide incentives and rewards to good mentors. Of course, some would argue that seeing junior faculty succeed is its own reward. But over the course of busy work days, weeks, semesters, years... is that enough of a reward to actually motivate senior faculty to devote significant time and energy to mentoring those climbing the tenure ladder? Or will it only be enough to provide a twinge of regret when some young faculty are denied tenure?

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Great post! I have been junior faculty for a few years now, and just manage to recruit my first grad student. I was also recently assigned as a mentor to a few people more junior to me in the department. Even though I have always had strong opinions about what makes a good mentor (partly as a result of some toxic mentoring I unfortunately experienced), I am now feeling totally overwhelmed and inadequate. This mentoring business is really hard! So I appreciate the post.

(I also love the idea of mentoring charm school, though I wonder how the people who need it are identified. I have never dared report my miserable experiences with some of my mentors).

By Anonymous (not verified) on 18 Nov 2009 #permalink

I'm recently tenured, and while I agree with all of what was said, I don't have any problem with doing those things. I LIKE mentoring, being supportive, leading by example, etc. My mentoring problems have to do with "How long do I let you spin wheels?" and "Now that you've missed three deadlines in a row on your proposal, am I doing you any favors by not showing mild displeasure?" and " You know, people that are going to end up successful in science like to work in the lab for more than three hours a day" and "We've done this together ten times - you need to take the responsibility to learn it for yourself" and "Where have you been the past month and a half?"

Part of mentoring is also deciding that a mentee is not making it. Sometimes firing a mentee is the best thing you can do for them. Sometimes firing a mentee now is the best thing that you can do for the company or agency or school that will eventually have to fire them if you don't now. And while yes, some people are late bloomers or slow to warm or what have you, the reality is that some people seem more enamored of the IDEA of being a scientist than actually being a scientist. Some people want to accumulate credentials more than they want to work. Some people are pursuing avenues they aren't suited for out of momentum or a desire to please parents or to get out of some bad situation, etc. Some people need to take care of drinking or drug or mental health issues. For whatever reason, they aren't ready for the kind of mentoring you are describing, the rewarding kind of mentoring.

That unrewarding-but necessary part of the mentoring is what I need help with.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 19 Nov 2009 #permalink

Thanks for sharing, SciWo! I love the idea of "charm school", though without an incentive to actually do good mentoring, I'm afraid it wouldn't help so much...