To mentor or not to mentor?

When I compare my mentoring experience with that of colleagues and friends with a different academic background, it seems like everyone who sets out to becoming a mentor should be prepared for a few existential doubts and general gravelling. What makes a good mentor? What if I cannot tackle an issue or answer a question effectively? Some questions will arise early on and will be beneficial – they will shape your mentoring style. Others you may never quite find a definitive answer to.

The mentor-mentee interaction is also one of constant exchange and assessment of progress. The feedback goes both ways, and this makes the experience all the more dynamic. Becoming a good mentor may then sound excessively arduous, but it is not so; the experience is worth the challenge that comes with it. And while I would be suspicious of any one universal manual on mentoring, some remarks are likely to apply to most (aspiring) mentors.

Do you believe you can be a mentor?

Forget about your mentees for a moment. Do you see yourself as a mentor? This question sounds more innocent than it is. Think of it this way: if the actor who plays Hamlet is doubtful about the quality of his acting when he goes on stage, will he deliver a convincing interpretation? Chances are that he will not. Of course mentoring is not about playing a role. But if you can build a mental picture of yourself as a mentor and acknowledge your skills, you will notice the difference when you meet your mentees – in the same way as that actor may find it helpful to believe that he is the Prince of Denmark.

Remember what it felt like to be a newbie

Test yourself: how distant are your recollections of your first week as an undergraduate student? Do you remember the first time you entered the laboratory where you developed your PhD project? If you see a blank page, it may be time to brush up your memories. The hesitations and questions that arose when you took up a new challenge are a valuable starting point for helping those who are in that same position now.

Get to know your mentees

This is a friendlier version of the famous piece of advice “Know your enemy”, and it is equally true! Take the time to form an idea of the characters of your mentees: how do they approach a given subject and/or their degree? How do they react to difficulties? Are they collaborative, or do they look like loners? Answering these questions does not mean becoming their friend (see next paragraph). This information is important to a mentor as it can facilitate greatly the communication with their mentees.

Ponder your words and actions

Your mentees are not your buddies. It is not wrong to be informal, for example to avoid a reverential behaviour on their end. However, if your mentees are in their twenties and you are not, refrain from acting as if you were their age. Similarly, harsh or bossy tones are rarely – if at all – helpful, as they risk to undermine trust and honesty.

Keep your mind open

Some initial level of self-confidence is necessary to be a successful mentor (remember Hamlet). On the other hand, being over-confident paves the way to narrow-mindedness. Youth can bring a fresh approach to problems and long-standing challenges. If one of your mentees comes up with a bold or unusual idea, you may want to think twice before answering “No, this is not correct!” unless it is very obviously so.

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