Most universities these days follow good practice in assigning a ‘peer mentor’ to any newly appointed junior academic. While on the face of it this seems to be an unproblematic and beneficial arrangement, all too often it can get crowded out in the pressures of academic life, and opportunities for meaningful and genuinely helpful interactions are lost. But when done well, with commitment on both sides, mentoring can bring new insights to both parties.
- Be proactive
Expect most people who are appointed to a lectureship post for the first time to be overwhelmed by the amount of information they have to assimilate at the same time as they get to grips with writing lectures, dealing with students, and keeping up with their research. Even if they say that everything is going well, bear in mind it’s still a huge amount to be dealing with. So it’s not a given that they will remember to contact you on top of all that. It’s up to you to get in touch. If you haven’t heard from your mentee, don’t assume that that is because all is well – make sure you check that this is indeed the case, and follow through with regular meetings.
- It’s a stage of life thing
If you’re a mid-career or senior lecturer it’s likely that you will have long since passed the stage when preparing a lecture is a cause of great anxiety and takes at least a day to prepare, when handling assessments means burning the candle at both ends by marking as painstakingly as possible, and when working all hours and through weekends to keep on top of research is a routine matter. Remember that it will take most people several years to acclimatize to the job in all its demanding aspects – not least, it can take at least several years to build up a solid portfolio of teaching materials, most of which, of course, are written from scratch. And it could take several more years after that to do the job not just competently, but efficiently as well. Be reassuring about your mentee’s ability to manage their workload, and remind them that with time and practice many of the things they find daunting now will become automatic.
- Don’t make direct comparisons
The last thing your junior colleague needs to hear is that, when you were their age, you had already published a monograph or two and an impressive number of articles. Neither do they need to hear that in your day, things were more difficult, universities more selective, or jobs more competitive. In fact, junior colleagues really don’t need to hear what it was like for you at all – unless the situation they face is genuinely comparable with one you faced, and you have helpful and non-critical advice to dispense about how to resolve it.
- They face different challenges
Yes, of course, things really were different for you, at their age. But the corollary of this is that things really are different for them, now. Focus on the particular challenges a junior colleague might face in the present-day. Just some of the challenges facing new lecturers today might include probationary requirements to bring in grant income, placing research material with high-quality publishers when still relatively unknown, and dealing with student interactions in a way that responds to the increasingly student-centred university experience while maintaining professional boundaries. Your role as mentor is to recognize these challenges, and to put your colleague’s interests first, not those of the department or wider university.
- Change the scene
It can be helpful to arrange for your mentoring meetings to take place away from your immediate working environment, even if that means just in another building on campus. A simple change of scene can help conversation flow, and can facilitate interactions that are not coloured by day-to-day business.
Above all, remember that the mentoring relationship can bring fresh ideas and new perspectives on a profession you might think you know inside out. You might find your own assumptions or practices challenged by your younger colleague. Be prepared to learn, and enjoy the opportunities it can bring on both sides.