My Ever-Evolving Approach to Mentoring

Every person has different needs and strengths – what does the research say and how might we apply it to foster constructive mentoring experiences?

Hey, thanks for clicking the link to be interested enough in this topic to read more. As a starting point for prospective mentees, I describe (1) what are aspects of mentorship, (2) building mentoring networks, (3) my approach to mentoring, and (4) additional research on mentoring in STEMM.

What are aspects of mentorship?

Finding a mentor is no easy task. One thing to consider is what kind of support is needed from mentoring. Dr. Mica Estrada et al. (2018) summarize different facets of mentoring as follows:

“First, mentors can provide instrumental support, providing resources and opportunity to the protégé to engage in goal attainment (Kram, 1985), which can include “the specific mentor behaviors of providing task-related assistance, sponsorship, exposure and visibility, and coaching” (Eby et al., 2013, p. 3). Second, psychosocial support occurs when a mentor enhances “an individual’s sense of competence, identity, and effectiveness in a professional role” (Kram, 1985, p. 32). This may also include facilitating emotional and personal development (Flaxman et al., 1988; Nakkula and Harris, 2013). A third, relationship quality (sometimes referred to as “relationship satisfaction”) is an affective assessment of liking, which may include feelings of trust, empathy, respect, and connectedness (Ragins, 2010). Most of the empirical research showing mentorship is important to positive outcomes emerges from studies of youth mentorship and the business world (meta-analyses by Allen et al., 2004), with the outcome of these studies typically being academic and career advancement. However, Eby et al.’s (2013) meta-analysis of mentorship research shows that there is robust evidence for instrumental and psychosocial support contributing to relationship quality in a self-enforcing cycle. And the combination of these mentorship qualities is positively related to performance, motivation, career outcomes, and health for protégés.” (bold added for emphasis)

It’s assumed that one’s advisor is de facto one’s mentor. Indeed, working in someone’s lab or interning with someone means you’re getting professional experience with that person and will likely ask them for a reference at some point. But there are plenty of people with whom you might not work directly that can also be sources of support and networking opportunities.

Building mentoring networks

Some people have connections within their friend and family circles that are in alignment with long-term professional skill building and career interests; however, many people – including first-generation college going students, students from working-class backgrounds, and/or international students – may not have those connections at the start of their college career.

So how do we build a mentoring network to support our long-term professional pursuits if we don’t have one to start?

Reaching out through professional networks (LinkedIn or email) and introducing yourself and asking if the person would be willing to connect for 15min to discuss your career interests is not an uncommon way to start. It makes a good impression to learn what you can about the person in advance from online bios and reading their posts and articles. Informational interviews to learn more about what a job entails day-day and what skills you might need to develop to prepare for such a position are a great way to make an introduction. And who knows - there might be a job opening down the road! Lastly, it might be useful to ask if there are other folks that the person would suggest you connect with based on your interests to build your network.

People might not respond to your invitation to connect. It’s ok to follow-up after a week or reach out to someone else.

From courses I’ve taught with mentoring as a key component, a lot of students worry about being a burden or wasting someone’s time. I try to remind students that it is important to prepare for informational interviews, and it is also good practice to have them. The more people we meet, the more we have a sense of what works and doesn’t work for supporting our short- and long-term success. Also, we start to get a sense of whom we can turn to for what purpose. Maybe one person gives thoughtful feedback on writing, while another person cheers us on when imposter syndrome weighs on us, while another person is a source of accountability that motivates us to stay on task…a mentoring network can fill all the different needs that arise in our professional pathways.

In the next section, I offer under/graduate students who might be interested in working with me a little background on my ever-evolving approach to mentoring.

My ever-evolving approach to mentoring

Here, I describe several examples about how I’ve adapted and grown as a mentor while working with students from a range of backgrounds in various contexts. For me, mentorship entails creating opportunities for mentees that might not otherwise be possible. Bringing a growth mindset and strengths-based approach, I listen for what matters to the students I mentor, and I work with students to find ways to fulfill on what matters to them.

I am committed to engaging in self-reflection, training in implicit bias, active listening, and lifelong learning in cross-cultural communication to be the best mentor possible for students from diverse backgrounds. My experiences as a mentor in graduate school continue to shape how I mentor students from diverse backgrounds today. As a graduate student, I served as a mentor for the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF REU) program. On the first day, my mentee and I were guided through a facilitated conversation on an array of topics, from what we hoped to learn from each other to how we each liked to receive feedback. I have integrated several of these conversation-starters in subsequent mentoring opportunities. To support my own and my colleagues’ professional development in inclusive mentorship, I organized the inaugural Graduate Student Inclusivity Training and Certificate Program with the Multicultural Education Program and Restorative Justice Center at UC Berkeley. This three-day workshop provided activities that continue to shape how I mentor students from marginalized backgrounds.

As a mentor, I will continue to create opportunities for students to apply their expertise to include people from shared backgrounds in meaningful engagement with science learning. My experiences in mentoring as a director at an environmental education non-profit remind me how much I learn while working with students from marginalized backgrounds. For example, I had the opportunity to mentor high school interns from another non-profit, Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Although I knew people who were visually impaired, I never worked with people who were blind before, let alone been asked to directly mentor students with visual impairments. I started off by asking mentees about their experiences in outdoor learning and environmental education. Informed by their experiences, the students generated science-based curricula for people with visual impairments and their families, which we later implemented. Well after our summer project together, I have provided letters of recommendation for college and continue to serve as a reference for job applications. This is just one example of the many ways I have learned from students’ expertise, informed by experiences that are different from mine.

As a biology education professor, I will continue to practice listening for what people need, so I can offer mentorship, guidance, and recommendations that align with each person’s goals. Within my role a postdoctoral scholar at San Francisco State, I have learned about mentoring people in a range of academic positions, from undergraduates to master’s students to postdocs and early-career faculty. Time and time again, I have learned that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to academic mentorship.

I look forward to mentoring graduate and undergraduate students in full support of their short-term needs and long-term career pursuits. From these experiences, I have grown to appreciate how mentoring takes many forms. I am considerate to how to facilitate lab meetings, how to learn what matters to mentees in our one-on-one meetings, how to convey each student’s strengths in a letter of recommendation, and how to find and share opportunities for funding and networking with students. I see mentorship as a lifelong endeavor that starts in the day-to-day interactions and can culminate to career transitions all throughout an individual’s life.

This is a short blurb on a complex topic that I care about a lot. I’ve benefitted so much from mentoring in my life, and I’m committed to paying it forward.

Additional research on mentoring

It’s kind of surprising that we don’t require statements of mentoring philosophies in faculty job applications, given what an integral component this is to how faculty impact students’ lives – for better or for worst. So, it’s on us to be self-motivated and learn more about these topics.

A resources I just found from the National Academies is a podcast on The Science of Effective Mentoring in STEMM. I think it’s important for us to take initiative in engaging with these resources and the research behind mentoring – not only to be the best mentors we can be but to become the best mentors we need to become for students from backgrounds excluded from the sciences. Other resources that have made a lasting impact on me are listed below:

  • “The Science of Effective Mentoring in STEMM” NASEM, 2019
  • ““Where’s My Mentor?!” Characterizing Negative Mentoring Experiences in Undergraduate Life Science Research” Limeri et al., 2019
  • “Measuring Research Mentors’ Cultural Diversity Awareness for Race/Ethnicity in STEM: Validity Evidence for a New Scale” Byars-Winston & Butz, 2021
  • “The Dark Side of Development: A Systems Characterization of the Negative Mentoring Experiences of Doctoral Students” Trevor Tuma et al. (2021)
  • “Evaluation of a Culturally Responsive Mentorship Education Program for the Advisers of Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam Program Graduate Students” Pfund et al., 2022

What resources have shaped how you approach mentoring? Please feel welcome to share them!

Dax Ovid, Ph.D.
Dax Ovid, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Discipline-Based Education Research

My research includes qualitative/quantitative methods to explore students’ relatedness and sense of belonging in STEM.