Develop a career - not a clone

July 8, 2005

As a mentor, don't look for adoration or for someone to follow in your footsteps, says Harriet Swain. You need to guide, support and listen to your student to help them find their own way in academe.

You thought being a mentor would mean sharing your wisdom with youngsters eager to follow in your footsteps. Instead, they expect you to be available at the drop of a hat to listen to their mad ideas and never take your advice. If they want to be more like you, they are going to have to learn to listen.

Perhaps you need to learn to listen first. You may then realise that they don't want to be like you at all. Instead, they want someone to support and guide them, to act as a sounding board rather than to offer advice.

"If what you are looking for is adulation and 'gosh what a clever chap you are', then forget it," says David Clutterbuck, a senior partner in Clutterbuck Associates, a leading provider of mentoring programmes.

Tom Kibble, emeritus professor of physics at Imperial College London, who received a Nature/National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts lifetime award for mentoring earlier this year, says the important thing is to be available. "I always adopted an open-door policy towards my students," he says. He also tried to encourage them to find their own research ideas and to learn to collaborate.

Sean Rands, a postdoctoral research associate at Cambridge University, nominated the other winning mentor, Innes Cuthill. He praised Cuthill for "making you feel that you are important, and that what you have to say and contribute are important", and for his respect for individuals' different ways of working.

"I think what makes a good mentor really does differ from person to person - in the same way that what makes a good teacher or a good manager differs," he says. "It's not so much the depth of knowledge they can impart (although that does help), but rather how they engage you as a person." He says students need room to develop their own work and the ability to fall back on someone who can offer advice when it all goes wrong.

Getting the right mentor and student together is vital, Clutterbuck says. A relationship that starts with a mentor advising someone because they remind them of themselves 20 years ago can often become suffocating, he warns.

"The mentor ends up trying to relive their career." Instead, he advises that students receive help in thinking of what they are looking for in a mentor and then interview likely candidates.

Once mentor and student have got together, you need to agree ground rules.

Confidentiality is crucial, says Dorrie Weeks, staff development adviser at City University. She advises discussing at your first meeting what you are going to talk about and what will be off limits.

"Do this at the beginning when there is no attachment and no history to the relationship," she says. She suggests defining at this early stage what the rules of the relationship will be, including thinking about situations where confidentiality might become an issue and how you will deal with them.

At the same time, you need to discuss how often you intend to meet - Clutterbuck advises a mixture of online and face-to-face contact every four to six weeks - the expectations you have of one another, what you both hope to achieve and how you will make yourselves stay on track.

Weeks advises against taking on the role of counsellor, and suggests instead referring your student to those with the proper counselling qualifications. Clutterbuck concurs but says it is often useful to agree that personal issues will have to be taken into consideration when discussing other matters.

Both advise getting some sort of training in effective mentoring.

Clutterbuck says the best mentors he has seen in action take time to build rapport, then get the student to define the issue for discussion and try to achieve a shared understanding. They will then summarise and help the student to find solutions before offering ideas themselves and suggesting other people to contact. Finally, it is important to set a deadline for resolving the issue and to get the student to sum up the agreed solution.

"An effective mentor probes and pushes so both get clarity," he says. "An ineffective mentor goes straight from 'you have a problem with such and such' to 'that used to happen to me'." Students are more likely to be committed to a solution that they have been helped to work out themselves, he says.

He says one important element of mentoring is to open your networks to your students and help them to develop their own, which in turn may be useful to you.

Bryan Cunningham, lecturer in post-compulsory education at the Institute of Education, University of London, and author of a forthcoming book on mentoring in higher education, says you should also make use of mentoring networks, making contact with people who are more experienced as mentors, either in your institution or elsewhere. He advises finding out what institutional support is available to you as a mentor, in terms of meeting rooms and relevant documents.

However, he warns against getting too carried away. You should not agree to take on responsibility for mentoring while in the early stages of your professional development, he says. Nor should you agree to act as mentor to more than a few students at a time. And you also have to realise that there are limits to a mentor's powers. "There will only be so much you will be able to do on your student's behalf," he says. "Yet frequently you will be viewed by them as a figure who can always successfully 'campaign' with them." Sadly, you'll have to reject that chance for adulation too.

Further information  - Clutterbuck Associates, providers of mentoring programme support.

Mentoring Teachers in Post-Compulsory Education by Bryan Cunningham will be published by David Fulton in September.


  • Listen. Agree ground rules
  • Don't try to relive your career through your student.
  • Be available.
  • Avoid confusing mentoring with supervision or appraisal

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