Are you seeking a promotion? For most early career researchers, the first step is to look at the promotions process to get an understanding of the criteria. Once you have a look, you’ll see that the criteria are elusive by design. What does it mean to be a “world-leading” researcher? How can you define a “significant contribution” to your field? What in the world does “excellence in teaching” mean? How can you demonstrate “outstanding leadership” in your role as an academic? In short, the formal criteria, the “written rules” of the game, aren’t usually all that helpful.
If you really want a promotion, you absolutely need a mentor. You need someone who can pull back the curtains and reveal to you the “unwritten rules” of the game. These criteria are implicit; you won’t find them on the HR website. They’re never written down. Getting a mentor is a lot like joining a secret society. You are granted access to a sacred realm.
“Getting a mentor is a lot like joining a secret society. You are granted access to a sacred realm.”
When I was an early career researcher at the University of Manchester, I had the benefit of two outstanding mentors: Mick Marchington and Fang Lee Cooke. Sadly, Mick passed away this year, but I still regularly seek out Fang’s advice. She has become more than a mentor to me: she’s a family friend (my daughter is always asking me when we’re next going to have lunch with Fang). She is everything a mentor should be: generous with her time, a fountain of insight, unafraid to tell me things I might not want to hear, and unconditionally supportive when I’m struggling personally and professionally. The truth is that I would not be who I am today as an academic had it not been for her guidance.
Now, as a Full Professor, I find myself increasingly enthusiastic about mentoring ECRs. It’s like the circle of life. I benefitted from mentorship, so I have an obligation to offer mentorship to the next generation of scholars. We recently went through an exercise in my School where everyone who expressed an interest in getting a mentor was paired with one. This is the difference between institutional success and institutional failure.
My first order of business with my mentees is to set up Chatham House rules. This means, simply, that whatever we speak about stays between us. Again, the analogy of the secret society comes into play. They need to feel comfortable that they can tell me anything, and that I won’t violate that trust. Although mentorship is largely about career development, it is not unusual for mentees to share personal struggles, most of which must be kept private.
Once this circle of trust is established, we can then talk openly and honestly about your career and how to make the most of it. Are you facing barriers to advancement? I did, too, and this is how I overcame them. More importantly, these were the mistakes I made, so you can avoid them. Did your Head of School just tell you that you’re not ready for promotion? I’ll tell you whether or not that’s really true. Have you had a string of rejections recently? Let me take a look at your most recent manuscript and authors’ note so I can give you some feedback. Are you looking for some good overseas collaborators? Let me introduce you to a few of my friends.
The benefits of mentorship accrue swiftly. If you’re toiling through this minefield that we call academia all on your own, then you’re making a huge mistake. No one is an island unto themselves. Everyone needs a mentor.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
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