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Over the last 12 days of 2018, we want to discuss various aspects, and release details about, our meeting to Put Mentoring at the Heart of Academia in Chicago, June 14th 2019. You can read more details about the meeting here, and we’ll be updating the page as we go along! We are continuing to fundraise through the end of the year – at time of writing, we have raised just under $11,000 towards the meeting from our Giving Tuesday efforts, so please continue to share our GoFundMe and join the conversation online at #FoRmentors!

The first discussion we want to kick off is a key component of our mentoring project: the lack of recognition for good mentors.

This post is written by our Executive Director, Gary McDowell.

On one of my recent trips, I was sitting in an airport eating dinner with a professor. We got to talking about mentorship in academia, and the professor mentioned one of their personal training activities. This professor would encourage a postdoc to write a grant application, would then edit it and work with them to improve it, and then submit it under the professor’s name, because postdocs can’t apply for these kinds of grants themselves. If the grant was awarded, the professor would then write in the postdoc’s letters of support for faculty positions that the grant was the postdoc’s in all but name, and that the postdoc was capable of getting independent funding, both by virtue of having been trained to do it, and being critical to the award being made. It may not be an ideal situation, but certainly worked to the best of everyone’s advantage under the current system.

I replied that I had only recently truly appreciated how much effort my PhD supervisor in the UK had made with my writing. For every paper I authored, I wrote the first draft, and at the beginning she had to essentially re-write it again, heavily editing it until I learned how to write a paper. This carried on through to one of my last thesis chapters, when she handed it back to me, smiling, and said, “Finally! You’ve learned to write.”

At the time, I hadn’t truly appreciated just how much work it required on her part, and I had only recently realized just how lucky I was. Increasingly I meet graduate students and postdocs who have never written their own papers. The PIs write the papers themselves, while the grad or postdoc goes back to the bench to get more data. It makes a kind of sense in the hypercompetitive environment we are in – maximize the labor to get more data while using the practiced author to write up as quickly as possible – but it undermines the whole concept of academic training. I mentioned to the professor that I realized my supervisor had mentored me through the writing process mostly, it seemed, because she thought it the right thing to do.

I then asked the professor if they got frustrated with their colleagues who didn’t actually provide mentorship for development of skills like writing. Who maybe even get a competitive advantage from this behavior, in the absence of any incentive to mentor.

“Frustrating…isn’t the right word.” They replied. “But it is in that region.”

I was recently at another meeting discussing mentorship, and chatted over breakfast with a professor who mentioned that grads and postdocs from other labs would go to them for mentorship, knowing that this is where they could get help. It was frustrating to hear that everyone knew this was happening – even the other “mentors” from whose labs the mentees were coming – and the professor was in a bind, feeling an increasing burden of work, but also a desire to ensure mentoring was provided.

This is one of the drives for our project towards incentivizing mentoring and accountability at institutions for mentoring: recognizing the people who are currently good mentors. And by recognition, I don’t mean prizes and awards; I mean the actual acceptance by departments and institutions that this is valid, essential labor, and that good mentors should be supported; provided with opportunities to improve their mentorship; and recognized for mentorship in tenure and promotion.

We are not currently aware of any departments or institutions who include mentorship in tenure and promotion – but that may just be our ignorance, and we would certainly love to hear if there are any. But it is just as important to ensure that not only are we tackling egregious behavior and exploitation; but also ensuring that to be a good mentor does not come at a cost, but is actually supported and encouraged by institutions.

This is especially important for ensuring that mentoring is culturally appropriate, and able to provide an inclusive environment. Good mentors who are able to assist in the retention of those who may otherwise leave research should in particular be supported and recognized for their efforts. Instead we often talk about a “minority tax” on faculty, that is also experienced by students, having to provide the labor of supporting those from underrepresented populations in academia, with little support and recognition.

So, on this “First day of #FoRmentors”, please let us know your thoughts about positive mentoring experiences, and how you think they could or should be recognized.

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