It’s not about you, Jacob! Supervisors as mentors

Mentorship is a word that is regularly used as a catchphrase to describe the provision of guidance to a more junior colleague. Unfortunately, it is often greatly misused. Many universities are assigning mentors to new academics in an effort to assist their career development. This is a laudable intention, but does it work in practice? Possibly, but only if the mentor is truly engaged with the real work of mentoring.

A mentor can assist an individual in their consideration of life and career choices by offering unbiased insights and richer assessments of the options that might be available. In some cases, they may suggest new and unconsidered perspectives that encourage the mentee to think more laterally about how their skills might be deployed. It is sometimes the case that the mentor will also suggest it is time to move on from the existing situation.

In my visits to universities across many nations, there has been a strong push to appoint academic heads or senior discipline colleagues as mentors. The assumption is that they can offer good advice to get the mentee on track. Unfortunately, this assumption can be very wrong. Take Jacob, for example, who attended one of my workshops last year. He had been given very clear guidance by his “mentor” that he should not bother with focusing on his academic writing, despite the fact that he was pre-tenure. Instead, his professor was encouraging him to focus on administration, arguing that his responsibility was to support the department’s immediate needs. In fact, he had tersely instructed his protege that “It’s not about you, Jacob!” indicating that focusing on one’s career was selfish and self-serving. Jacob felt highly conflicted and confused. He could see that he was losing traction and was worried about his competitiveness – with good reason. My advice? Get a real mentor! Someone who will help you identify your long term priorities and assist you in opening up career opportunities.

Can heads, senior colleagues or supervisors also be mentors? Of course they can. But they must be aware of the need to step away from immediate pragmatic management concerns and think more clearly about their protege’s profile, ambitions, capabilities and potential. This may lead to very different advice on possible choices to consider.

(For more information on academic mentoring, see Debowski, S. (2012). The New Academic: A Strategic Handbook, Open University Press: Chapter 5.)