A Generational Perspective on Mentoring
By Daryl E. Chubin, Ph.D.
There is no more overworked concept in the STEM literature than “mentoring.” What it means, how to measure it, how to do it effectively, how it differs from “coaching,” and a host of other analytical issues abound. I will not resolve most of them in this essay. Rather, I offer the perspective of one mentor with 40 years of experience in mentoring relationships. My experience may not generalize, and some of those same colleagues might even dispute what I say. Nevertheless, I am eager to share, inform, and even defend what it has meant to me, and by unsolicited comments over the years, to them.
By way of context and disclosure…I am a social scientist by training, a policy scientist by experience, and a mentor by choice. But in such a relationship, the choice must be mutual and reciprocal. Consider:
I have been, and continue to be mentored by many, especially women and minority professionals who are all educators in their own ways. Some of these mentors are younger than me, but most are not. Some have also been negative role models, but most have not. A negative role model is one who, in retrospect, behaved in ways you would not like to emulate. My first encounter with such a mentor was as a research associate immediately after earning my Ph.D. He relished the hunt for grant funding, but lost interest in completing the project once the funding was awarded. That was left for graduate students and postdocs to “clean up” (though nobody was called “postdoc” back then).
My mentoring experiences have derived principally from my service as adjunct faculty teaching public policy for 19 years in Cornell University’s Washington Program. As a firm believer in multiple mentoring, simultaneously and sequentially, I can say that many of these students were proteges in an aspirational sense. They were third year undergraduates dipping toes in the waters of policy during a semester in DC. They considered me the “odd professor” who worked outside of academe: first in the federal government (legislative and executive branches), then in the nonprofit sector. I personified the “real world” of policy, so I had their attention.
I also worked with other DC-area universities - Virginia Tech, George Washington, and Maryland-Baltimore County to be specific - on programmatic issues, online and in the classroom, and on dissertation committees. This exposed me to undergraduate and graduate students. But a bona fide mentoring relationship only developed at their initiative. I signaled my availability and willingness to help, but never explicitly advertised that I wanted to mentor. Within these basic “ground rules,” the following emerged:
the career journey is not a “straight line”
1. I let the student take the lead. What does she want to discuss? I offer advice when asked. I share an experience, but most of all suggest options. There is no “correct” decision. I remind that life is full of tradeoffs. The idea is to engage in an exercise where she can weigh alternatives given what she wants to do, but may not yet have articulated. Talking aloud is both therapeutic and analytical. My role is more of coach and facilitator. My experience, born of a different era and stage of career, may or may not inform her decision. She is free to ignore my words or go another way. Oftentimes, I send emails to select others in my network introducing her, since they have relevant experiences to share. Their connection becomes mutually beneficial.
2. Over time, a career arc develops. A general principle I have come to communicate is that the career journey is not a “straight line.” If my relationship with the protege persists, I am able to observe her growth as a researcher, writer, and speaker. In a recent example, our relationship began at a conference, continued that way with intermittent emails and phone conversations, and resulted in my serving as an outside examiner on her dissertation committee. In the few years since then, she has consulted me on career transitions, fellowship opportunities, and risks of pursuing academic vs. nonacademic paths. Because I knew someone who was recruiting her, I did not hesitate to contact that person and elaborate beyond her curriculum vitae.
3. Rational career plans are routinely disrupted by unforeseen events - funding, family, the contingencies of life. Science needs high-achieving, dedicated, and humble practitioners, especially women and professionals of color. So does public policy (perhaps even more desperately). I am inspired by purposefulness and determination. Furthermore, I appreciate those who understand how colleagues “raise one’s game.” This is the essence of teamwork, which I stress relentlessly. I’ve performed best when surrounded by creative, energetic, and yes, competitive colleagues who recognize the virtues of “division of labor” - the convergence of differently talented team members on a common outcome. Junior members of such a team can benefit the most by striving for heights unimagined. The process demonstrates that the “right” colleagues can make you “better” while fixing all eyes on organizational goals.
4. I invested in many proteges because I see in their career aspirations some of myself. If their career trajectory distinguishes them from most of their contemporaries, I urge continued risk-taking. Such a stylistic inclination includes the appeal of experiences that traverse disciplines and afford work experiences cultivating new skills applicable to a variety of problems and workplaces.
As one with an activist/advocacy style, I am drawn to those committed to “making a difference.” This is not a cliche, as the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship Program has demonstrated. Knowing that I served in two branches of the federal government, proteges realize I have something to offer. They chose me. From a range of experience a small fraction passes for wisdom.
we must send the elevator back down
5. Proteges must make the mentor feel good - or at least useful. They do this by adding value to the mission, portfolio, and accomplishments of wherever they might go. They become exemplary colleagues and future leaders. As I look back on four decades of mentoring, I am reminded that one’s legacy is carried by those personally influenced (in contrast to one’s writings that may live for generations, but whose use usually remains unbeknown to the author). Google aside, the anonymity of citation is no substitute for the pride of beholding those whom one touched through mentoring. A protege’s excellence and contributions through their own career allow me to revel in the knowledge that I have touched lives.
Finally, you may have heard the actor-director Kevin Spacey describe the apt metaphor used by his mentor, Jack Lemmon: We must send the elevator back down for those who are coming up. I am pleased to be an “elevator operator.”
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Daryl E. Chubin, Ph.D. is a digital columnist and independent consultant living in Savannah, Georgia. His career has ranged from university teaching to federal service and nonprofit leadership (most recently at the American Association for the Advancement of Science). Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
Photo credit: D. Chubin
The citation for this article is:
D.E. Chubin (2014) A Generational Perspective on Mentoring.
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Originally published 5-Oct-2014,
Last updated 6-Oct-2014.