For the many women in education research careers, mentors and sponsors represent some of the most important supports for guiding their careers. I am a mid-career education researcher who is incredibly grateful for the senior women who saw potential in me as a young researcher and for the peer mentors who have walked alongside me across many ups and downs of conducting education research. Their influence leads me to believe mentorship is critical to the success of females in academia. For example, my senior mentors have done the most generous things that range from opening up their troves of data for me to publish my earliest papers, funding portions of my salary, nominating me for awards, and spending face-to-face time listening to my questions, concerns, and giving advice and encouragement. Senior mentors advocate for you, push you to think about the rigor of your research, and tend to be fantastic when it comes to polishing your scholarly writing.
Although traditional mentoring from more senior academics is not a new idea, there is increased awareness of the value of peer mentors (Darwin & Palmer, 2009). My peer mentors, meaning individuals at similar levels in their career (such as my colleagues in POWER), are essential for me as well. Peer mentors are unique in that they can keep you accountable for what really matters, provide emotional support, and give you substantive feedback on your scholarship in what can feel like a more safe space. Imagine that you have a new grant or paper idea that you know is still in that inevitable “half baked” state; a peer mentor might be a great person to help you think aloud about what you’re trying to accomplish to allow you to refine your early drafted ideas before you seek input from more senior mentors or a broader intellectual community. Another benefit of your peer mentors is that they can be collaborators for the duration of your career, potentially leading to a series of scholarly endeavors that cultivate an even more rich, supportive relationship.
Formal and informal mentoring can provide important supports for navigating careers in education research. The bar for promotion and tenure is ever rising, as are expectations for conducting increasingly rigorous and transparent research. All academic faculty face these demands, but they can be particularly challenging for women. If you are a woman conducting education research, mentors at your institution can be key to career advancement because they can help you navigate the promotion and tenure system within your university. For example, you can meet with your mentor to set goals and expectations around what is required for promotion/tenure. Mentors can also make the often opaque written requirements for promotion more clear by explaining informal rules of thumb for what it takes to move to the next level. They can help you balance work life challenges while staying on track toward your career goals.
Yet the success of mentoring relationships often depends on the extent to which the mentees apply the principle of “managing up” (Zerzan et al., 2009). This is a term that comes from the corporate world and referees to the concept of the mentee carrying the burden of organizing and directing the relationship with their mentor in ways such as planning and setting an agenda for meetings with their mentor or communicating needs and requesting feedback from the mentor. Part of cultivating a strong relationship with all levels of mentors is understanding the objectives of the relationship and following through on your assigned tasks.
Thus far, I have described my female mentors, yet it is clear that some of my most important daily mentors within my institution are men. Just this week, I met with a male mentor who clearly assessed an uncomfortable situation in a project I am leading and helped me understand what would be a more helpful direction to take the group. As I write this post amidst the #MeToo movement that is making great strides to reduce sexual harassment, an unintended consequence may be that men are uncomfortable to work alone with women. That would be a step in the wrong direction for mentoring. Advocacy groups are calling for more men to step up and mentor women. Indeed, this is a critical juncture for men to mentor women and for women to seek mentorship from men. I’m grateful for not only the safe workplace I work in, but that there are men there who are comfortable supporting me and giving me advice.
I am sure many readers have powerful mentoring stories of their own. The POWER group seeks to support formal and informal mentoring because it is key to successful, productive education research and can be gratifying for both the mentor and mentee. Do you have a mentor? Do you have senior and peer mentors? Are you avoiding mentoring? What are the reasons you’re not seeking out opportunities to mentor or be mentored? If you’re not in a mentoring relationship, get started today. If you’re a senior researcher, consider finding a women in education research to mentor. If you more junior or mid career, you should not only seek out senior mentors but also develop relationships with your peers and look for relationships where peer mentoring may be beneficial.
Darwin, A., & Palmer, E. (2009). Mentoring circles in higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 28(2), 125-136.
Zerzan, J. T., Hess, R., Schur, E., Phillips, R. S., & Rigotti, N. (2009). Making the most of mentors: a guide for mentees. Academic Medicine, 84(1), 140-144.