Re-thinking mentoring (Maria Platt and James Burford)

Mentoring is a word of our time. 

Blogs and newspaper articles are awash with accounts of mentoring programs, narratives about inspirational mentors, and top tips on to prevent mentoring relationships from going pear shaped. This is true across universities too, with many institutions now offering multiple mentoring programs for staff, undergraduate students and graduate researchers.

As colleagues in the GRS who coordinate mentoring opportunities for graduate researchers, we (Maria and James) have been reflecting on what mentoring might be, as well as the ways different people might orient themselves to the opportunities it offers.  In this blog post we thought we’d share some key ideas that we have found helpful in our ongoing process of learning about mentoring.

Questioning definitions

According to some dictionary definitions, a mentor is a ‘an experienced and trusted adviser’ and a mentee is ‘a person who is advised, trained, or counselled by a mentor’. These common-sense definitions make mentoring sound easy, right?  A mentor is the person with the experience, and the mentee is the one who lacks experience and engages with someone who has more of it in order to get advice. But is mentoring really that simple?

For some of us these ideas of mentoring sit uncomfortably. We might see ourselves neither as totally lacking knowledge/experience, nor as the kind of person who fully ‘owns’ expertise either. As mentors, we also might not feel like a hero-figure who is well positioned to solve someone else’s problems! This can make many of us suspicious about engaging in mentoring programs because we don’t see ourselves as clearly sitting on either side of an expert/non-expert binary.

Other people might be a bit suss about mentoring because they see it as a way of pressuring people to ‘gain new skills’ or help people who ‘don’t know enough’. For some of us this framing feels pretty daunting. The thought of engaging with someone who appears to have more expertise can bring up feelings of inadequacy. This is often compounded by the fact that the times we often feel like we need mentoring or career guidance, are also the times we are often the most vulnerable – either looking to make a transition, or having a vague sense of where we are going but being not quite sure to get there, or even the right questions to ask about how to get there.

However, there are other definitions of mentoring.

According to mentoring guru, Kay Guccione, mentoring:

can be accessed by mentees, on their terms, to enable them to make sense of the demands of their role and workload, to understand their experiences, and to move forward feeling supported.

We find ourselves thinking along similar lines.

Rather than a process whereby a heroic mentor aims to plug deficits or gaps identified by the mentee, we see mentoring as ideally a developmental process.

Re-defining mentoring as a relationship where two capable people are learning together has been a helpful way in for us. It helps us see that lots of us can benefit from mentoring, we don’t have to be ‘lacking’ in order to engage with it.

Being a mentor

The question of how to be a mentor has no easy ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers. Like lots of other roles,  the judgements we make as mentors are up to us, and each mentor will have their own approach, style and practices. Indeed, the ways we are with some mentees might very given their needs and contexts.

Nevertheless, there are some ways of thinking about being a mentor that have been helpful for us that we would like to share.

We like what Kay Guccione says about being a mentor. She reckons that it is possible to conceive of mentoring as something other than a transactional Q&A session where the mentees bring all the questions and mentors offer all the answers. Instead, Guccione asks mentors to try and re-frame meetings from being all about the mentors.

While advice may be given and anecdotes may be shared, being a mentor is much more about being a sounding board or ‘a listener who amplifies the mentee’s voice, not their own’.

For mentors, this means helping the mentee to articulate their needs and recognising that even the process of getting things off our chest – whether there is advice supplied in return or not – can be as beneficial as the ‘advice’ itself. Rather than giving advice, the goal of the mentor can be to help to keep the mentee talking, and processing their thoughts out loud.

Being a mentee

In approaching any mentoring relationship as a mentee, we’ve also found it important to think about expectations. What do you expect from the relationship? This helps answer another question: who can you realistically hope your mentor to be?

Getting the questions and topics you want to explore clear can be a valuable first step. Are you seeking information about how to make the transition from academia to a private company or community organisation? In this case, would it be helpful to find a mentor who has taken a similar path?

Or are you looking to drill down into other questions. For example,  you might also have questions about how to manage your professional role alongside that of a parent or carer, or how to be an effective leader in your industry context.

Getting really clear about what it is you are hoping to discuss with your mentor is vital.
However, it’s also important not to get too specific!

One of the challenges we have seen when researchers anticipate mentoring is the challenge of very narrow expectations. If you set out to find a mentor who is the head of a Fortune 500 company, has previously worked in academia, is a member of the LGBTIQ community and is balancing parenting with their busy role – this is likely to be too prescriptive and may leave you disappointed when you are unable to find your ideal mentor.

When you go to your first meeting with your mentor, it is often up to the mentee to prepare a list of questions you would like to ask or topics you would like to discuss (you may like to email this to your mentor in advance). This helps the mentor to know what you would like to get out of the session. Having a structured approach is also likely to ensure the quality conversations and to help the mentor feel like they are assisting you to achieve your goals.

Bumps along the way

Mentoring relationships, like all human interactions, are often bumpy and negotiated. Sometimes expectations are not met, people don’t click, or other factors get in the way.

One of the key bumps that can occur is that mentoring is not actually what the mentee needs right now. Sometimes the mentee doesn’t have time, other times their need is more specialised than what the mentor can offer. In this case referring on to another person is the right thing to do.

Other times what can be perceived as ‘bumps’ are actually successes. Sometimes the mentee gets what they need out of the relationship much quicker than anticipated. This is a positive outcome, no need to string a mentoring relationship along if the questions that prompted it have been answered!
It is also OK to recognise when things don’t work. It may be that your mentor is just not a good fit and the match is not helping you achieve what you had hoped. In this case, you have permission to leave the mentoring relationship! However, when we exit relationships, part of the learning is figuring out how to do this with grace and generosity.

Interested to know more?

The GRS is running a mentoring program for graduate researchers. It is open to all graduate researchers who have passed confirmation and wish to explore how mentoring can help you maximise your potential.

Sign up for the mentoring program here

In order to be eligible to join the program, you must take part in GRS’ Networking and Mentoring Workshop. For 2020 this is running on 31st March.


Dr Maria Platt is a Senior Coordinator at the Graduate Research School. She graduated with a PhD from La Trobe University in 2011. Her work has been published in a number of journals including  Ethnos: Journal of AnthropologyThe Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology (TAPJA) and Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific.

Dr James Burford is a Lecturer in the RED team. His research focuses on doctoral education, gender and sexuality in education, global education and international development, and academic mobilities. With Emily Henderson, he edits the academic blog, Conference Inference. He tweets as @jiaburford