You are hereCEO Corner: I'm a Mentor! (Or Maybe it ain't that Easy)
CEO Corner: I'm a Mentor! (Or Maybe it ain't that Easy)
"When Rensselaer asked us faculty to become mentors," he said, "I signed up for it immediately. But you know what? Without getting into details, I believe I failed as a mentor. I wish I knew about your program then. I learned you can't just declare yourself a mentor. It's a serious skill that requires training."
I was talking to Hal Richtol at the NSF. Dr. Richtol is currently in charge of the National Science Digital Library initiative (a brilliant mission which I really urge you to delve into – www.nsdl.org). He was also a dear colleague of mine at RPI (although he had a bad habit of beating me at squash). We were talking about the NSF's protocol to include a mentoring component in every grant involving postdocs. I was telling Hal about my new job at MentorNet and how excited I was by its reach and its efficacy and how it worked. Then he told me about his experience trying to be a mentor at RPI.
Some background: In 2007, Congress passed an omnibus bill, the America Competes Act, allocating funds to the NSF, the Departments of Education and Energy, NASA, the NIH, NOAA, government labs, and other agencies to stimulate America's competitiveness on an increasingly dynamic global stage by investing in science, education and basic research. The bill funded the NSF with a three-year mandate (through 2010) to provide, among other requirements, mentoring of postdocs by senior researchers. It even defines specifically what that mentoring may include:
"Career counseling, training in preparing grants applications, guidance on ways to improve teaching skills, and training in research ethics."
– Public Law 110-69, 110th Congress, Section 7008 (a)
I was speaking to Hal about whether there was an official NSF program for fulfilling the mentoring provision of the Competes Act. I was surprised to learn that the NSF doesn't have a prescription to satisfy the mandate of PL 110-69, and it didn't seem to be aiming at one. So the rest of my conversation with Dr. Richtol went something like this: Shouldn't the NSF apply scientific principles to its mentoring programs as well as to the research it funds? What is the curriculum for ethics in research, let alone career counseling. How do we know it works? Is this just a matter of communicating a set of rules and regs that the mentor will communicate to the mentee, or will the relationship require a dialogue, an engagement, something personal and nuanced and mindfully adapted to the individual needs of the protégé? How can senior researchers coach the junior mentee on how to be a better teacher if they haven't had any pedagogical training themselves?
I believe there should be a way for MentorNet's hard-won lessons and wisdom to inform the NSF's programs. Here are just four:
- Mentoring is a quasi-formal relationship. A good mentor is in part a coach, teacher, friend, confidante, guide, and parent while being none of these altogether.
- Mentoring can be studied, refined, and improved – scientifically.
- E-mentoring, by matching mentors from one institution with protégés from another, provides dispassionate advice so that the entanglements of power within an institution and between someone junior and someone senior, do not create noise in the mentoring channel.
- And to paraphrase Dr. Richtol, mentoring is a learned skill. It can – and should – be guided.
These four principles are among the foundations of MentorNet. I'm going back to the NSF this week. I hope to continue the dialogue with some of Dr. Richtols' colleagues. I'll let you know how I make out.
David Porush - President & CEO
Next time: "Ask me about Brenda Buck."