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Mentoring in Astronomy and Geophysics

Compiled by Stephen Serjeant

 23 May 2018

 

How to find a mentor

Finding a mentor is an important step for new faculty members. Here are some resources that include broad advice for finding mentors in academia:

Many institutions have their own databases where one can search for faculty mentors. For early-career astronomers in the UK, the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) will soon have a searchable online database of fellows, at which point it will be possible to use prospective mentees to search for prospective mentors, then use the guidance on this page to help set things up. This guidance should also be useful for mentoring relationships set up outside the RAS.

Sources for this guidance

In writing this we have been guided by (read: liberally plagiarised from) the following reference material:

Definition of mentoring

Following an Oxford example, we define mentoring as: ‘a professional relationship in which an experienced person (the mentor) assists another (the mentee) in developing specific skills and knowledge that will enhance the mentee’s career and personal growth’, noting that this "can include peer mentoring, where participants are at the same level of seniority but have differing experience".

The objective of this guidance is to offer early-career researchers the opportunity to explore with a senior astronomer or geophysicist or astronomy/geophysics-trained professional what they would like to do next in their academic or professional lives and how to set about that.

Principles for mentoring

These principles are taken from Oxford University's list of best practices:

  • A developmental mentor should not normally work closely with or supervise his or her mentee, or have other vested interests in the mentee's development (e.g. working in the same university department). This is because a mentee needs to feel free to discuss problems with a mentor without feeling that there may be an adverse impact if he or she reveals vulnerabilities.

  • Mentors and mentees should be encouraged to take their approach beyond normal, polite conversation, for example accepting that tough forthrightness can sometimes be more helpful than tea and sympathy.

Duration and frequency

A mentoring relationship should have a fixed initial duration, e.g. by default one year, and involve at least two meetings/interactions (e.g. at the start and end of the year as a minimum), which could be (in order of decreasing preference) face-to-face, videocon, telephone, or by email.

Guidance for conducting mentoring meetings

  • The objective is to offer early-career researchers the opportunity to explore with a senior astronomer or geophysicist or astronomy/geophysics-trained professional what they would like to do next in their academic or professional lives and how to set about that.

  • Mentoring meetings are strictly confidential.

  • The mentoring relationship lasts by default one year (though this can be varied if the mentor and mentee both wish), involving at least two meetings.

  • Mentors should ordinarily be outside the mentee's institutional line management structure (e.g. working in a different university) and not working in the same research area.

  • It is helpful if mentees and mentors agree a series of meeting dates. This helps to avoid other work preventing the arrangement of a meeting at shorter notice.

  • Records from meetings can be kept by the mutual agreement of mentor and mentee, but any records are strictly confidential.

  • The mentor/mentee relationship can be brought to an end at any time by either party with no reason given and with no recriminations. This flexibility is needed because (among other things) the practicalities can sometimes prove more difficult than anticipated, or there is not a good mix of personalities, or the goals of mentor and mentee are incompatible, and so on. Should the partnership prove unsuccessful, this should not be seen as a failure on the part of either member.

  • For the specific case of the RAS in the UK, if the mentee or mentor has concerns about the partnership, they can raise this problem with a nominated member of the Committee for Diversity in Astronomy and Geophysics (CDAG) for resolution, who will discuss it under the same rules of confidentiality. For non-RAS-facilitated mentoring, I recommend establishing another appropriate third party at the outset, such as the department’s ombudsperson or an appropriate American Astronomical Society contact, if in the US.

  • Part-way through, the mentors and mentees would be well advised to take stock of the partnership, asking whether the practical arrangements work, whether the mentee is progressing, whether the mentor's style and approach is working well for the mentee, and/or whether the partnership is coming to a natural end.

Intervention procedures

If a mentoring relationship is not proving beneficial to either the mentor or mentee, intervention may be necessary. The following suggestions in such a case are based on the mentoring recommendations of the University of Sussex.

  • Both mentor and mentee must be clear from the outset that the partnership can be brought to an end at any time by either party, with no recriminations and without any need for either party to specify any reason.  This flexibility is needed because (among other things) the practicalities can sometimes prove more difficult than anticipated.

  • If the mentee feels that the quality of mentoring is poor and/or the relationship is manipulative or harassing, then the mentee should be able to take this problem to the third party nominated at the outset for resolution.

  • If the mentor feels that the mentee is incompetent or misguided, or behaving in a way that is professionally dangerous: the mentor should be able to talk in confidence to other mentors for advice; the mentor must be prepared to tell the mentee frankly that the mentee needs to stop the dangerous or destructive behaviour.

Page last modified on Tuesday 08 of January, 2019 05:05:23 EST