Jo Atlee is a professor in the Cheriton School of Computer Science and the director of Women in Computer Science. She helped us prepare our faculty guide section on mentorship and has agreed to share here what she’s learned from her experiences—both positive and negative—with various mentoring models. Here’s Jo:
I’m not a big believer of the formal-mentor model of mentorship. Such a model of mentor and protégé makes sense for supervisor-student (or supervisor-postdoc) relationships, because there is an aspect of apprenticeship in the progression from student to faculty member. But outside of these relationships, I think that people have unrealistically high expectations of being able to find and establish a really strong relationship with some singular mentor or mentee. This is especially true with respect to finding a mentor within one’s department who is worth meeting with regularly.
I prefer a model of having a network of colleagues—peers, senior colleagues, junior colleagues, preferably at multiple institutions—that you can draw on for advice, feedback, or ideas on how to navigate a sticky problem. A wide network provides the obvious advantage of diversity in advice and expertise. I also like this model because the time commitments on mentors are relatively lightweight. Mentoring interactions tend to be a lunch, a phone call, or a quick email response that is purposeful, as opposed an expectation to meet regularly with a mentee. As a busy person, it is easier for me to say “yes” to an invitation to lunch with someone looking for advice than to a request to be a mentor, not knowing what kind of time commitment the requestor is expecting.
In my years of work with Women in Computer Science and Women in Math, one problem with the formal-mentoring model has always been that, while senior students recognize the value of mentoring and are interested in being mentors, junior students are not interested in being mentored. They believe that others have gotten by without this extra “help,” so they can as well. I’ve seen junior faculty take a similar view of formal mentoring programs within their departments; these pre-tenure faculty would prefer to be acknowledged as peers within their departments than as formal mentees or protégés.
An advantage of the network model of mentoring is that the vocabulary surrounding mentoring is devoid of this power differential. There is no notion of protégé. Best of all, the network model changes the vocabulary associated with “seeking advice”: by reaching out to members of your network for advice, you aren’t “asking for help”—you are simply “using your resources.”