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July 23, 2013 | Posted By Zubin Master, PhD

Mentoring is critical to a successful and delightful academic career. It can make the difference between being passionate about your research, teaching and scholarship to dreading going to the laboratory or office. In my experience working in both academic and public service sectors, I have seen my share of good and bad mentors and mentoring practices. A good mentor can inspire the mentee to work harder and strive for the best while a bad mentor can create an unfriendly and unstable environment and demotivate even the brightest of people. If left unresolved, a poor environment or a bad relationship can escalate problems leading to personal feuds and unethical behaviors. I am sure everyone reading this post will remember one or more times, perhaps even currently, someone in their lab, school or workplace who was a poor mentor and leader. Personally, I have had several amazing mentors throughout my career and several mentors that still drudge up bad memories. From personal experience and from hearing stories of friends and colleagues, it almost seems that everyone has encountered a bad mentor at least once in their academic career. Perhaps this is because everyone talks about the bad apples and never the good ones. Regardless, it seems reasonable that there poor mentors are out there in academia.

The classic book Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering written by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine explains that ‘mentoring is a personal, as well as, professional relationship that develops over an extended period. Mentors take a special interest in helping another person develop into a successful professional.’ Mentoring permits someone with greater experience and knowledge to pass it on to the mentee and thus mentoring works at almost all levels from senior to junior students, post-doctoral fellows to graduate students, faculty to fellows and students, and senior faculty to junior faculty. There are many reasons why mentoring is important. A good mentor usually means a nurturing environment and a good mentor will serve to attract students, fellows and faculty, develop collaborations and strengthen their professional network, achieve self-satisfaction from mentoring, pass on knowledge and experience to the mentee, and advance the goals of academia – one of which is to educate and pass on knowledge and skills.

Different mentors can educate and pass on different knowledge and skills and thus a mentee can have several mentors. Perhaps a common understanding of mentors is as faculty advisors or supervisors who mentor undergrads, grads, and fellows. This can mean showing students how to peer review, run their first experiment, design a study, and review a paper or grant. Mentors can also develop and advance a student, fellow or junior faculty’s career by showing them how to prepare a CV, write a letter of recommendation, navigate through departmental politics, and structure and write a fellowship proposal or grant. As mentors become more senior, they have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share with junior colleagues. So why might there by poor mentors roaming in all disciplines of academia?

The first reason may surround the idea that there is little education and skills development in mentoring taught during academic training, especially in Master’s and doctoral level graduate programs where the main element is research and scholarship. Of all the classes that teach the responsible conduct of research (a.k.a. research integrity), we teach students about fabrication and falsification, plagiarism, good record keeping, conflicts of interest, ethical research involving animals and humans, and ethical authorship and publication practices, but less is taught about mentoring. Mentoring is actually a skill I find is usually learned through application – by mentoring or supervising others. Without the proper skills and training, it is no wonder that some mentors have poor mediation and conflict resolution skills, why they cannot confront issues they face with mentees, poor organization and listening skills, and why mentors can’t respect the values of their mentees and instead invoke their own.

Second, it seems that poor mentoring gets brushed off to the side and there is very little oversight and reprimands for bad mentors within universities and colleges. Academic institutions may be embarrassed to tackle on an established faculty member notorious for being a bad mentor to students or colleagues. It may also be difficult to demonstrate that it was poor mentoring that contributed to an issue done by a mentee. This is not to say that faculty cannot be barred from supervising students or sitting on student committees when egregious acts of poor mentoring are discovered, but these are difficult to prove and may go unnoticed by colleagues and department heads. Even when situations and tensions rise, departments and universities are not necessarily great at nipping the issue in the bud. The Mum’s the word approach kicks in and issues are dismissed rather than openly discussed.

Third, senior academics simply don’t make the time, especially those that are very busy with multiple commitments. Many don’t recognize that the trainees and staff they take on need to be quite self-sufficient. In cases where a mentee needs more one-on-one guidance, it is dismissed as hand-holding where the mentor doesn’t have time and won’t direct the mentee to other mentors who can help or provide other resources to the mentee.

I think there are ways to remedy poor mentoring which are pretty simple and straightforward. For starters, more education and skills need to be given to undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral and other fellows, and faculty. Being junior or senior faculty doesn’t absolve you from learning the skills and striving to be a better mentor. This can be done in the form of workshops, courses, and departmental meetings and retreats. Second, academic institutions and department heads can do their part. Creating an open atmosphere might help clear the air of built up tensions between students/fellows, students/fellows and faculty, and between faculty members. Academic institutions should also provide resources and programs that stimulate good mentorship. Lastly, the reward system of academia is too narrowly focused on publications and grants, with little recognition given to being a good supervisor or mentor. More emphasis from funding agencies and academic institutions in the form of awards and prizes could stimulate and recognize the outstanding achievements of mentors. In addition, good mentoring practices need to be better incorporated into tenure applications for faculty. This can be done through testimonials by mentees, staff and others.

Every academic I believe recognizes the issue of poor mentoring and thus greater efforts need to be made beyond merely acknowledging the problem. Steps at the personal, departmental, institutional and governance/funding levels need to take mentorship more seriously and develop strategies to improve it.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.
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