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News and Trends in the Geosciences

 May 2000

Geoscience Education

They Could Use Some Help: A Plea for Mentors

by Dean A. McManus

The role of mentors in academia used to be clear: Undergraduate students at liberal arts colleges needed mentors; graduate students at universities needed mentors; junior faculty needed teaching mentors at liberal arts colleges and research mentors at other institutions. That was about it. University undergraduates had a checklist of requirements for the degree; career decisions came after graduation. Graduate students from research universities (doctorate-granting universities that place a high priority on research) would be hired into faculty positions in other research universities and do research — Oh, yes! And teach. A junior university faculty member could, as a pastime, learn how to be a faculty member. Senior faculty who chose to enter administration could learn administrative duties as a pastime too.

Times have changed. These days, students and faculty are burdened by demands multiplying at an alarming rate. They must respond to the demands, but the consequences of their decisions weigh more heavily on their future successes even as their time for deciding diminishes. For instance, undergraduates are pressured by debt and the line of students behind them to get that degree in four years, if not three, and get out. Graduate students are tasked to cut the time to earn a degree. Junior faculty members are expected to go to all lengths to obtain research grants and attract students to the department as soon as possible. Administrators must do more with, at best, static levels of funding — while coping with more regulations.

These demands are not only multiplying but are increasing in complexity. For example, both students and faculty must now progress beyond amateur standings in any facet of their careers in which they wish to succeed. That is, they must progress beyond treating it as a pastime. They must attain proficiency in it. Often, they must attain that proficiency as soon as possible. Multiple demands! No room for the amateur! Little time for preparation! No wonder students and faculty are telling us, “I could use some help.” Mentors can provide that help.

We learn from The Chronicle of Higher Education (“Training Programs Help Professors Prepare for Posts as Administrators,” July 16, 1999) that senior faculty contemplating high administrative positions are seeking mentors in national or regional workshops. The days are vanishing when future deans, provosts and presidents can expect to enter these positions as amateurs and hope to succeed with matters of finance, management, politics and law. Department chairs are hearing that they will be required to take leadership workshops and to have experienced department chairs as mentors. The amateur department manager, particularly at a research university, often lacks the requisite interpersonal skills to lead.

Junior faculty, who as graduate students never received preparation to be future faculty, are asking for mentoring from senior faculty. They are amateur professors unsure of which career priorities they should attach to the demands placed on them. In particular, they are amateurs as teachers. The plight of those overlooked nonfaculty/nonstudents — the postdocs — speaks for itself.

As many departments offer little information on nonacademic careers, both graduate and undergraduate students’ requests for career information must go beyond their departments to the professional societies. One society after another has established a mentoring program of one type or another, commonly online, to assist students and young professionals in their career development.

National surveys, such as one the American Geophysical Union conducted in 1998, report that graduate students are generally satisfied with the research advice mentors offer and depend on their mentors as the main source of information about academic positions.

But these students criticize a lack of mentoring on teaching as a national failing of graduate education. They will be expected to teach as amateurs and to teach a population of students quite unlike the students their research advisers first taught. Here, the need for mentoring from current teachers is glaring.

Although undergraduate students who attend liberal arts colleges can expect to be well mentored, as is the tradition of such colleges, only one in five undergraduates now attend liberal arts colleges, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education (“The Struggle to Define a Niche for a Liberal-Arts Institution,” Dec. 17, 1999).

More than half of the Ph.D.-holders in the natural sciences, we learn from the National Science Foundation, receive their baccalaureate degrees from research universities. Mentoring of undergraduates in these institutions, however, is often found wanting.

The need for this mentoring grows ever more urgent as the demographics of undergraduates in this country change drastically.

Finally, if mentoring is reduced to the question, “What’s in it for me?,” then consider the ineffable gratification of seeing a novice’s growing confidence as he or she steps along the learner’s path to mastery. A budding pride, the mentor’s glow of joy — these are the returns on time invested as a mentor, and time most surely is required. One simply makes the time for mentoring. We always make time for what is important to us and that phrase, “I don’t have time,” is a self-justifying euphemism for, “It’s not important to me.” Being a mentor is not for every faculty member. But for professional geoscientists, particularly senior faculty in research universities, the opportunities to mentor are numerous. Many voices are pleading, “I could use some help.” Can you help them? As someone once said, mentoring means: You are there and you care.

McManus is a professor emeritus in the School of Oceanography and a faculty associate at the Center for Instructional Development and Research at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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