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Effective Mentoring

This piece was originally written by Dr. M. Francesca Cotrufo for the February issue of CSA News. This article has been reprinted with permission from CSA News magazine, please visit their website for the original article and many others.

M.F. Cotrufo, Professor and Associate Head, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, and Senior Scientist, Natural Resources Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University

Dr. Francesca Cotrufo mentoring
Mentoring can happen any time, such as when you’re in French Guiana traveling to a remote field site as shown here with Dr. M. Francesca Cotrufo (right) and her mentee Dr. Jenny Soong.

Curiosity to explore the unknown and drive to advance understanding typically motivate us pursuing a career in science. When I started my career, mentoring was not on my radar as an activity that I would spend much time on, and certainly, I did not expect mentoring to become a strong passion and source of highly meaningful rewards. However, after many years in this profession, I believe that effective mentoring brings the most profound and lasting benefits to science and society. A mentor should advise as a topic expert, help the mentees in managing a work–life balance, prepare them to advance to the next career stage, and help them to establish a professional network. How can mentors be effective across this diverse set of objectives?

Establish a Relationship

Proper mentorship establishes a unique relationship that helps mentees discover their own motivations, future expectations, personal life balance, and how to achieve professional independence. To foster these relationships, mentors must first listen but also share their own passions, goals, and experiences of both success and failure. Mutual respect and clear expectations are the key ingredients for the relationship’s success. Yet, we all have our own personalities, and some relationships are challenging. Mentors must recognize whom they can work with and try to attract these mentees to their lab. However, sometimes the best person for the work may not be the easiest to work with. With time and wisdom, using a good dose of self-knowledge of their own limits, effective mentors learn to establish productive relationships with a broad range of personalities.

Take the Time

Mentoring does not work through deadlines. Mentors should not only engage with their mentees a few hours before an abstract, manuscript, or proposal deadline. Effective mentoring occurs through frequent and regular one-on-one and lab group meetings. The world moves fast, and so do our mentees; they cannot wait days to receive an answer to their emails and weeks if not months for edits on their manuscripts. Surely, mentors also have limited time and are not always available to overly needy mentees. Effective mentors arrange their own time and adjust the size of the lab group to be productive in their own work, but also to stay fully engaged with the mentees and dedicate them the time they need. Time has both quantity and quality; mentees need both. Fortunately, any time works. My best mentoring experiences have been on long drives to field sites and during countless hours working side by side in remote research stations.

Sharing Your Passion, Ideas, and Network

The enthusiasm of our mentees undoubtedly motivates us to go to work in the morning. The reverse is true too. Our mentees need to feel our passion for research and be part of our thinking process. Brainstorm ideas with mentees, listen to their (often of out-of-the-box) thoughts, and incorporate them in the idea-refining process. All of these things enrich their experiences and help them mature as scientists. Similarly, invite mentees to participate in your class, engage in outreach activities, and come to conferences with you, where you should introduce them to your network of colleagues. Mentors are the door to their mentees’ academic career: make it wide-open and exciting to pass through!

Don’t Expect Your Mentees to be Like You

The most frustrated I have ever been with a mentee was with my first one. As I was complaining with my former mentor, she advised: “Don’t expect your mentees to be as you were.” This was the most useful mentoring tip I have ever received. Each mentee is different from his or her mentor and from other mentees and requires a specific mentoring approach. Effective mentors should make the effort to get to know each mentee as a person and target their mentoring approaches and expectations accordingly. This approach becomes even more important now that many mentees will pursue careers outside of academia. An effective mentor needs awareness of the different and changing mentoring needs and the flexibility to meet them.

Mentoring Never Ends

An effective mentor is for life. If there is a field where the wisdom of experience is still appreciated, it is in research and academia. As we have gone back for advice to our best mentors throughout our career, so our mentees will continue to need us. Being an effective mentor means staying in touch with your former mentees, making sure they know they can always count on you. It is a great joy for me to get together with my former mentees at meetings around the world, be there to support and advise them as they advance in their careers and lives, brainstorm with them new ideas, and continue working with them. Effective mentoring is passed on and improves through generations of academics.

Mentoring Individuals in a Lab Group

All academics maintain the goal to establish their own research programs and grow the size of the lab group. Mentoring proves more challenging in a larger group, not only because of the time demand, but also because of the more complex network of relationships. In the group, it is important to make each mentee feel unique, yet not “different” from the others. Effective mentors should set expectations for each to contribute to the progress of the group and allow mentees to share their experiences and learn from each other. In a well-functioning large group, mentoring efforts are distributed. This enriches everybody, with the junior lab members learning mentoring skills, and the seniors, including the principal investigator, refining their skills through the continued new influx of mentoring styles and approaches.

Leading by Example

As with parenting, words of wisdom fall short if they are not demonstrated by consistent behavior and actions. My mentors did not worry about mentoring because honestly, it just wasn’t a focus at the time! Some were amazing scientists and people, and others less so. Yet, I learned from all of them, watching them and reflecting on their actions. Our mentees do this too. Mentoring occurs all the time and sometimes is even most effective when we do not realize it. The most effective transfer of passion for research, work–life balance, collegiality and inclusiveness, respect, and work ethic occurs through everyday examples. As mentors advance in their careers and have fewer opportunities for all of the above, the effectiveness of leading by example, fortunately, grows stronger. In my experience as a mentee and a mentor, setting an example remains the most effective mentoring strategy.

Copyright © 2019 American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America