Dr Bill Dunn, Oxford Learning Institute
One way of thinking about a mentor is that they are basically someone who helps someone else understand ‘how things work around here’, where ‘around here’ might refer to the University, or to a discipline or to any area of academic activity. A good mentor is respected (by the mentee, at least), is generous with their thoughts and with their time, and is a catalyst, acting to move the mentee on in their thinking and in their capability to make decisions and act. They do this by offering insights into their own experience, or by helping the person they are mentoring to clarify what they think. They help others explore their options and tease out the criteria that are important when making decisions. And if they can’t do this, they act as a signpost, pointing to someone else who can help. A mentor is not there to teach something specific such as how to read a budget or understand Full Economic Costing – we’d normally think of that kind of help as direct coaching. Their role is as a critical friend, lending a more experienced eye to help someone see things differently.
In some departments – and explicitly in the US – the PI is expected to mentor those in their group. I haven’t come across this arrangement anywhere else other than in the academy. It is, after all, a challenge to both ensure that the work gets done and also the next day (or even the next breath) to be the person who can step back from the requirement to grind out results and provide unbiased advice to someone whose challenges might well arise from the daily grind. Part of me thinks that if this display of supreme objectivity can be done anywhere at all it is within a university setting, where there is often a precedent for this split role in the student-supervisor relationship. But another part of me says that, with the increasing pressure on researchers to produce results, and with decreasing levels of job security, such an act of altruism is a lot to ask of the average PI. So I would lean towards the view that you not be the mentor for your staff.
That is not to say that you should abandon any attempt to provide objective career and personal development advice and guidance. A PI has three overarching functions in relation to staff: to manage them (mainly, to make sure the work is done to the required standards); to educate them (in terms of developing their research capability and supporting their development towards wider career goals); and, finally, to support them, which means recognising that they are more than a cog in the wheel and there will be times when they need help to overcome obstacles in their work or personal life. So, the ethos of a good mentor is still part of the mix needed to be a good boss. However, it is a wise boss who recognises that they cannot be all things to all people, given the relentless drivers they have as PIs, and who therefore encourages their staff to find independent mentors who can provide that important, impartial perspective and guidance.
For information and guidance on mentoring for research staff offered by the University, please see the mentoring page on the Support for researchers website.