Navigating the Mentor-Mentee Relationship

Navigating the Mentor-Mentee Relationship
1 year ago

Navigating the Mentor-Mentee Relationship

Like any relationship, a mentor-mentee relationship (yes, it is a relationship) can make or break a person or their career trajectory. So, what is mentorship? If you search this question on Google you will get over 600,000,000 hits! To me, mentorship is a process where a person (the mentor) provides guidance (which can be in career or psychosocial development or both) to another (the mentee). Mentoring can be formal or informal, short-term or long-term. The guidance from a mentor can play a significant role in one’s career and self-actualization journey, regardless of age or career stage. The mentor can be a senior person or one’s peer. A mentor to one person can also be a mentee of someone else. Mentorship differs from supervision (project supervisor), although a mentor can agree to function in both roles. Mentorship is also different from sponsorship (a topic for another day). During my life science career, I have served as all three. Looking back, I realize that I began mentoring before I really knew what mentoring was, and I am sure that some of us can relate.

Interestingly, I recall an early leadership skill training fellowship I attended, and one of the topics was mentoring; I was disappointed because I had wrongly assumed that mentoring did not deserve to be a topic on its own. I thought…“there isn't much to know about mentoring; you just go ahead and mentor, right?” How wrong I was. Mentoring, especially in our fast-paced world and even more so in science and academia, is a relevant topic that should be offered as a course or at least part of a course in schools, including at graduate and postgraduate levels. The reality is we all need some form of mentoring at every stage of our lives. Good mentorship can help pull down barriers in science and academia, especially for underrepresented minorities. This can happen because mentors provide knowledge, resource access, networking, skill development and support, which would otherwise have been unattainable or difficult to attain. I am confident that I would have been further ahead in my career, and maybe also in my personal development goals, if I had had adequate mentorship in the earlier stages of my career.

Career mentorship is explicitly tailored to the mentee's career goals while psychosocial mentorship involves developing the individual's personality or identity. Some mentors provide both mentorship types. I have had mentees who, without discussion, expected that I play both positions and more. Such a situation arises when mentees have a misconception of what mentoring is. Therefore, it is highly important that both the mentor and the mentee’s expectations are addressed before the relationship starts, or at least very early on in the relationship. In addition, mentees should understand that a mentor may be unable to provide mentorship in every area they require and they should be ready to seek additional mentors to cover all areas.


How should we seek out mentors?

Choose your mentors carefully and wisely. I know that some institutions have formal programs that negate the need to select mentors personally. However, one can still seek other mentors outside their institution's program. Before seeking out mentors, ask yourself - what does success mean to you? For some, success could mean achieving a specific career goal. For others, it could be managing work-life balance. For some, it could be a combination of goals. When we have sincerely answered what success is to us, we should ask ourselves what we require from mentoring to help meet those goals. These questions seem easy, but if we try, we will find that it may take some of us a while to address them sincerely. This should be the first and most crucial step we take before seeking a mentor.

Now that we know what areas we need mentorship in, it is time to seek mentors. You may already have someone in mind, or you may need to spend some time researching different potential mentors. I suggest taking your time at this stage. If it is a work-life balance you seek, you can find out more about that successful person who manages their career and non-career activities well. I should use the term ‘seems to manage’ because things are not always what they appear to be, but at least these seemingly balanced individuals have navigated (or perhaps are still navigating) the waters of work-life balance and can provide solid advice and suggestions. If you require a particular skill, search for people with your skills of interest. One of my current reproductive science mentors is someone I reached out to for four years. It was not until the fifth year that I was finally accepted, and today we have a very good relationship. The person you contact may not accept or be available at first, but do not be discouraged. Do not take it personally when a prospective mentor turns down your request for mentorship. Mentors are busy people and may have their hands full at the time. If this is a mentor you really want, stay in touch with them, and when they free up (and get to know more about you), they will take on who is next in line, and that will be you (if you are still waiting patiently). I have come across people who think that mentors should seek them out, and my advice to anyone who feels this way has always been… “Closed mouths do not get fed” - Shabazz Muhammad.


We've got our mentors - what's next?

Now that you have secured a mentor, set goals and timelines and regularly reassess. Do all of these with your mentor, and do not make these decisions alone. Prospective mentees should make their requests clear and specific. For instance, can you please mentor me on grant applications and acquisitions? That is a clear request, and further discussions can follow. The mentor may want to know about the types of grants you are interested in, and the commitment expected of them. Mentees should be clear on their needs and expectations. When these early discussions are concluded, the mentor's acceptance should also be clear. In other words, the objectives of the relationship should be well-defined from the start. I have met people who expect mentors to be available 24/7, which is never the case. Mentees should understand and respect the value of the mentor’s time and vice-versa.


Developing a mentor-mentee relationship in today's busy world

We all lead busy lives, and mentoring can be time-consuming and mentally draining for the mentor. However, investment in a mentor–mentee relationship rewards both parties. Mentees should understand that investing in a mentor-mentee relationship is the same as investing in ourselves. We know the benefits of eating healthy and taking regular exercise, and everyone considers inculcating these habits as self-investment. Thus, we ought to change our mindset and see investment in a mentor-mentee relationship as a self-investment. When mentees begin to view the mentor-mentee relationship in this way, there will be better commitment to making the process work. 

I love this statement from J. Julie Kim Ph.D. (Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology) “Sometimes we don’t realize it, but we dig for knowledge with a spoon, so progress is slow. If we took 5 minutes to talk with someone who has gone through what we are going through, perhaps they could suggest that we use a shovel or, better yet, a bulldozer”. Mentees should engage their mentors and make an effort to sustain the relationship. Do not wait for your mentor to reach out to you, remember, you are the one with the need. Mentees should accept input and criticisms (of course, constructive criticisms) and understand that mentors are humans and are not infallible. If the mentor-mentee relationship were like driving a car, the mentee sits in the driver's seat, and the mentor sits in the passenger's seat and not the other way around. Mentoring is about suggesting and not instructing, guiding, and definitely not cloning.

Mentors should equally understand that being a mentor takes time, and as much as they want to, they cannot mentor everyone who comes their way. I have been guilty of that, and I learned the hard way. As a mentor, it is tempting to want to take in everyone who reaches out to you, particularly when the people seeking you out are minorities. However, when mentors take on more mentees than they can handle, they stretch themselves too thin and end up doing more harm than good and risk unpleasant fallout.


When mentoring goes south

I never like to talk about failed mentor-mentee relationships, but it is a reality, and they do happen. Of the many causes of failed relationships, the most common, in my experience, is the misunderstanding of expectations and unacceptable behavior from either party. This emphasizes the need for mentees to take some time at the beginning and know more about the prospective mentor before requesting mentorship and the need to know each other's perspectives and goals. Unacceptable behavior from mentors can range from derogatory or negative comments to actions based on bias towards mentees. Mentors could try giving their mentees the benefit of the doubt before reacting, it has worked for me. If a mentor observes an attitude or hears (or reads) a comment from the mentee that appears negative, calmly ask your mentee about the situation before acting or drawing conclusions. When mentoring someone with a different background from yours, it is easy to misunderstand or misinterpret situations and the same holds true for mentees. Mentors and mentees should have some perspective of situations before reacting.

When a mentorship ends on poor terms it can negatively impact the mentee much more than the mentor, regardless of who is to blame. On the part of the mentor, it may prevent the mentor from taking on mentees of a particular race, gender, or religion. Mentees can become traumatized from such negative experiences which can go down several ways. Therefore, as much as possible, aim for an amicable parting without burning bridges. Developing one’s emotional intelligence (EI) competencies can prove extremely useful in managing mentor-mentee relationships. People who are successful in managing behaviors of self and others (emotional intelligence) have greater professional and personal success than people good at academics (cognitive intelligence).

On a personal note, I experienced one such mentor relationship that for a brief moment made me consider leaving active research after years of investment, sacrifice, and hard work. However, I quickly brushed away that thought by reaffirming my belief in myself, my accomplishments, and what I believe the future has for me (it was not an easy process). I also received support from other mentors, colleagues, and family. The painful truth, though, is that not everyone is as lucky as I was to recover from such negative mentorships and continue in their career or self-development path. It can only take that one negative mentor-mentee relationship to break that career trajectory or belief in oneself. That said, I have also benefited from highly supportive mentorship that has contributed to my current career status and achievements. Mentorship can indeed be positive or negative, and positive mentorship benefits both the mentor and mentee, though mostly the mentee.


Mentoring women and minorities

We all come from different walks of life and different cultures. Mentors should take time to understand their mentees' background and possibly culture in addition to the goals of the relationship. Understand what drives them, what motivates them, and what their challenges and perhaps shortcomings are. I know this is a tall ask (trust me, I know) from already busy individuals, but you do not have to grasp it all at once. Instead, be prepared to keep an open mind and absorb what you can when you can. Doing so, allows mentors to be more appreciative of their mentee’s needs, more understanding of their behaviors and to be of more help to the mentees. For instance, women face numerous challenges, especially those who seek to pursue a career while raising a family. Sometimes, these women have had to make tough decisions beyond their control. In addition, they have had to contend with enormous responsibilities (domestic and otherwise), which take a toll on their health (mentally, emotionally, and physically). Yet these women and people from minority populations strive on. They are sometimes hesitant to discuss their shortcomings or challenges with their mentors for fear of losing them or being perceived in a negative light. Mentors should understand that this is a possibility and create the space, when possible, for their mentees to be open about their struggles and to be heard. Like Pat Mitchell (author of ‘Becoming a Dangerous Woman: Embracing Risk to Change the World’) once said, “mentoring women is not a rescue mission”. Women and minorities do not need to be rescued; instead, they need empowerment from mentors and sponsors who can provide them with the required tools, point them in the right direction, and help them create themselves.


To summarize, I have mentored people from different religions and races. I have mentored single women and women with families who want to push on with their careers and dreams despite the odds. I have mentored people of different personalities. One of the many joys I have found in mentoring is seeing people’s lives and careers turned around for good and being a part of their success story. For me, mentoring is about helping people re-center, re-align and chart a course to success. It is not about the huge wins but the little successes, taking each day one step at a time and pressing on through the storm and the rain.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author and should not be considered the views of the NCI, NIH, or the DHHS.


About the author

Enitome Bafor is a postdoctoral fellow under Dr. Howard Young at the National Cancer Institute, MD, USA. She received her PhD from the University of Strathclyde, UK, and did a short postdoctoral fellowship under Prof. Susan Wray at the University of Liverpool, UK. Before moving to the NCI, she was an Associate Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Benin, Nigeria. She currently leads a project investigating reproductive failure in the context of autoimmunity and cancer. Her long-term goals are to develop targeted cell therapies for autoimmune reproductive failure and ovarian cancer. She has published 61 research articles and has contributed to 5 book publications. In addition, she has served as a peer reviewer for the Office of Chief Scientist Intramural Grant Office of Women's Health in the Food and Drug Administration (US-FDA). She is also a reviewer for several research journals and is currently an Associate Editor on the BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine editorial board.

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