What does a good mentor look like?

Dr Susie Candy, Director of Biomedical Grants and Policy, on the key values that good mentors share.

Every mentor is different but there are some key values that they share.

First is the neutrality – a mentor should have no agenda but to support the mentee and to look in with fresh eyes. The neutrality should mean that the mentor is non-directional, and rather listens to the direction the mentee is going in. They also provide the right balance of high support and high challenge, to help the mentee to ask the right questions, to find their own answers. A good mentor should guide, not advise, to get to the right solution. A good mentor would also be responsive to the follow-up – it may be the case that the mentee does something different to what you discussed, but being accessible and open for follow-up conversations is important.

Also essential is having clarity on the boundaries of your relationship: some mentors and mentees will be happy incorporating their personal life into the conversations, and some will not, but both should have clarity about where the conversations should centre.

A good mentor is able to share their experiences without suggesting their mentee does the same. As well as positive experiences and success, good mentors share failures, too – careers are not just about the glory, they’re about the hard times too.

It’s always important to have openness, trust, and confidentiality.

There also must be some chemistry between the two people – if this doesn’t happen, the Academy is happy to facilitate a “no blame divorce” and re-pairing.

A mentor shouldn’t be the final destination– a good mentor will know when to signpost their mentee to people in the field, and even signpost them to their next mentor. The Academy scheme helps mentees to realise their knowledge gaps and fill them, and throughout careers, it is normal to have multiple mentors for different aspects of life. Mentoring is intended to teach a life skill, and as mentees evolve, it is important that both parties acknowledge the end of the relationship, celebrate it, and move on.

Speaking to the mentors on the scheme, they say that it is high value for them, and that they get lots out of the experience. Being an independent mentor allows exposure to what’s honestly happening closer to home, and it’s a chance to hear about issues that junior colleagues in their own department might be having but not sharing. That helps them to be better mentors and supervisors in their own department, as lots of issues turn out to be universal. It also gives the mentor a space to reflect on their own behaviours and practices.

The Fellowship invest an immeasurable amount of time in this scheme. The Academy have matched over 700 pairs in the last 15 years, and as each hour of each Fellow’s time is so valuable, that represents a huge investment of voluntary time. The Fellowship are generous with their time and expertise because of their passion for nurturing the next generation of biomedical researchers. It has been possible to do what we have done with modest resource, due to the commitment and energy of the Fellows.

For mentees, having someone so senior give them dedicated time is incredibly valuable. It helps to build their self-confidence, knowing that a senior mentor is there to support them, and that the team in our office is here to support them, too. This can act like a safety net of support to trainees. We see this in the mentoring evaluation – we often hear things like, “if it wasn’t for my mentor, I wouldn’t be here today”. Even if that happens for only a small number of people, retaining that talent is so important, that we consider it a huge success.

Pressures are constantly changing and evolving, and people want to work in lots of different ways and settings – we now need to evolve and better support cross sector working, and team science working. It is important that we provide recognition and support for innovative people.

This article is part of a fifteen day social media campaign celebrating our Mentoring programme, follow the Academy on Twitter @acmedsci and check #mentoringat15 for further updates.

For more information about our Mentoring programme, please visit the mentoring pages of our website.

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