From Homer to Edinburgh: Mentoring among postgraduate students

By Alex Wright (Editor)

The wisdom, guidance, and support of others are critical in our personal and professional development. This support often comes from friends, families or colleagues in the enactment of their particular role in one’s life. But support can also come from a person whose primary role in our lives is to provide guidance. Whether this type of relationship develops purposefully or informally, it has been discussed at length in the scientific and grey literature as ‘mentoring’.

As the new postgraduate student representatives for the University of Edinburgh’s Social Policy programme, my colleague Dominique Green and I are initiating a new peer-mentoring programme for the Social Policy postgrads. For my first blog post as an IANS editor, I thought I’d reflect on my own experiences with mentoring and explore the academic literature to learn about the potential benefits and challenges of mentoring in a university context.

The concept of mentoring has long historical roots – the first records of the concept emerge from storytelling in Ancient Greece. In Homer’s Odyssey, the character Mentor is a guide, advisor, model, educator, and even surrogate parent figure for Odysseus’ son Telemachus.[i] While Odysseus spends two decades fighting mythical creatures and the God of the Sea in his quest to return home, Mentor maintains a trusting, respectful relationship with the growing boy, guiding him towards his ‘true potential’.  Although Mentor’s character is male, Homer wisely also describes the role of Athena, goddess of wisdom, who often assumes the form of Mentor in order to interact with and further teach the young man. The story astutely suggests that mentoring relationships are extraordinary in that they transcend time, gender, and culture.[ii] Beyond ancient Greece, mentoring relationships have been doing extraordinary things in people’s daily lives for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

My personal experiences with mentoring have also transcended the same characteristics exhibited in the Odyssey. Over the years, male and female mentors have played different, but equally important roles in guiding my academic, professional, and personal lives. The functions of the relationships have fluctuated with time and distance, but their consistency and value has never waned. As a peer mentor myself, currently in the new Social Policy mentoring programme and previously in another university, the experience has been surprisingly rewarding, and its own learning experience. The value of these experiences has convinced me of the importance of this type of relationship to a person’s educational and professional development. Writing now in the capacity of a PhD researcher and student representative in a university context, I would argue that all academic departments and research units should establish a mentoring programme for their students and early-career researchers.

In a seminal text on mentoring from 1985, Kathy Kram helped to define the academic construct of mentoring and bring the concept into the public mainstream. The early definition of mentoring was a “relationship between an older, more experienced mentor and a young, less experienced protégé for the purpose of helping and developing the protégé’s career.”2 Writing again in 2007, Kram and her colleague Belle Ragins noted the plethora of related research that has been conducted since Kram’s earlier publication. Although the definition of mentoring has evolved as research progressed, at its core mentoring continues to be meant as a developmental relationship embedded in a career-related context.2 Research on mentoring has sprung up in many different disciplines and professions, with researchers continuing to grapple with understanding this complex, decisive relationship. As Ragins and Kram note: “we know it works; we are still grappling with why, when, and how.”2

While drawing on a sample of articles from the academic literature, the sentiments of Ragins and Kram play out. Overall, it seems that research consistently shows positive effects of mentoring on health-, education-, and wellbeing-related outcomes for young people and early-career workers. For example, a meta-analysis of mentoring programmes with young people found a significant, although modest, positive effect of mentoring on the emotional, behavioural, and educational functioning of participants.[iii] Another research project with senior female medical students found that the best mentoring relationships were highly interactive, with shared values, trust, and a personal connection.[iv] With regards to graduate students more generally, faculty mentorship is often cited as a keystone in student development.[v],[vi]

These findings are consistent with my own experiences - most of my mentoring relationships evolved organically on the basis of a personal connection, and grew stronger as trust and mutual respect bloomed. Mentors provided invaluable assistance with major decisions about my paths of study, fostered confidence to take advantage of new opportunities, and provided emotional support when (perceived) crises led to bouts of hysteria and hand-wringing. Their solidity and consistency was a rock from which scary decisions and uncertainty felt less like a jump off a cliff and more like learning to fly (or at least being given a boost and a parachute).

At the postgraduate level, these experiences are more important than ever. Postgraduate students are apprenticing for the working world, often for a career in research. This is a critical time for developing career-related skills and networks. Now, I realize that PhD students already have academic supervisors, who play their own critical role. However, peer mentoring programmes are particularly appropriate in contexts where senior-level staff are already engaged in more formal guidance relationships with the selected ‘mentees’ (e.g. PhD supervision), or if few are available because of personnel or time constraints.

With regards to the functions of peer mentoring relationships, researchers state that peer mentoring provides the same psychosocial support functions as traditional mentorship, but provide less career-related guidance.[vii] Thus, peer mentoring relationships may be best utilized when the mentee already has a senior-level formal guidance relationship. A further difference is that while traditional, non-peer mentoring seems to be particularly important during early career stages, peer mentoring is important across different stages. For example, peer mentoring seems particularly important during late career stages, in which it provides a forum to talk about work and life transitions. Often the final stage of an educational career, a PhD is also the time when budding researchers are undergoing major transitions in their career and life aspirations.

What else does the literature say about peer mentoring? McDaugall and Beattie (1997) conducted a qualitative study with informal postgraduate peer mentor pairs,[viii] where they defined peer mentoring as “a process where there is mutual involvement in encouraging and enhancing learning and development between two peers, where peers are people of similar hierarchical status or who perceive themselves as equals”.[ix] The study results revealed different typologies of peer mentoring. These fall on a continuum from relationships that are for basic information sharing, collaboration, explanation, and advising, to more nuanced interactions that are characterized by greater freedom to express vulnerability, as well as increased authenticity, constructive criticism, and a focus on both work- and career-related development. The authors also noted that benefits exist for the mentor in a peer mentoring relationship; these relationships are often perceived as mutually beneficial and more equitable, with both mentor and mentee contributing to the other’s development.

It’s important to note the significant changes that have occurred in our personal and professional lives since Kram’s Mentoring at Work was published in 1985.2 Changes in technology, workplace demographics and structures, globalization, and other changes have led to different professional environments and institutions. In response, mentoring relationships must also be adaptable if they are to continue providing life-altering experiences to early career workers. A peer mentoring relationship is one example of this, and can be used to complement more traditional programmes of senior-junior mentoring pairings, or be instituted as a stand-alone initiative. For example, alternative professional support like peer mentoring is associated with higher levels of organizational commitment, work satisfaction, career expectations, and both actual and perceived career success[x].

With a view to inform our new programme in Social Policy, the literature contains some recommendations. We should be trying to match up mentors and mentees who hold similar attitudes, beliefs, values and other personal characteristics, as this is associated with higher mentee perceptions of instrumental and psychosocial support and relationship quality.[xi] In keeping with this recommendation, we recently paired up the Social Policy mentors and mentees, and did so by attempting to match people primarily on the basis of similar research interests and methodological approaches. The literature also suggests that informal mentoring relationships, which develop organically, are perceived to create higher quality relationships than those formed from formal pairing.11 This is a potential challenge of our programme, since we had to pair people in a formal process. However, it is possible that these pairings will naturally develop into relationships that are high-quality, highly supportive, and beneficial to both mentees and mentors.

The literature also has suggestions for the institutional supports from university departments that can facilitate mentoring programmes. Examples include: providing institutional recognition and support of mentors’ contributions to the programme; providing financial resources for mentoring activities and events; incorporating discussions about mentoring into regular faculty meetings or events; supporting the development of guidelines which outline expectations for the mentoring relationships; providing institutional oversight to ensure the ethical execution of the mentoring relationships; and supporting both mentors and mentees to develop strong professional networks and research skills.[xii] I would encourage university departments to be aware of how they can facilitate and support these types of programmes.

I’m optimistic about this new programme and hope the participants experience all the benefits that this type of relationship has to offer. I anticipate that having postgraduate peer mentors to complement the traditional supervision relationship will likely smooth the transition into postgraduate studies, create a tighter knit community, and help to develop more successful, supported students.

Read more about our experiences with new Social Policy mentoring programme soon here at IANS!

[i] Homer. Fagles, R. (1996) *The Odyssey*[Italics]. New York: Viking

[ii] Ragins, B & Kram, K. (2007). Chapter 1: The Roots and Meaning of Mentoring. In *The handbook of mentoring at work: Theory, research, and practice*[italics] (pp. 3-17). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.

[iii] DuBois, D., Holloway, B., Valentine, J. et al. (2002). Effectiveness of mentoring programs for youth: a meta-analytic review. *American Journal of Community Psychology, 30*[italics](2), 157-107.

[iv] Levine, Mechaber, Reddy et al. (2013). “A good career choice for women”: Female medical students’ mentoring experiences: A multi-institutional qualitative study. *Academic Medicine, 88* [italics](4), 527-534

[v] Lechuga, V. (2011). Faculty-graduate student mentoring relationships: mentors’ perceived roles and responsibilities. *Higher Education*[Italics], 62, pp.757-771.

[vi] Holley, K. & Caldwell, M. (2012). The challenges of designing and implementing a doctoral student mentoring program. *Innovative Higher Education*[Italics], 37(3), pp. 243-253.

[vii] McManus, S & Russell, J. (2007). *Chapter 11: Peer mentoring relationships*[italics]. In Ragins & Kram (2007). *The Handbook of Mentoring at Work: Theory, Research, and Practice*[italics], pp. 273-299. California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

[viii] As cited in: McManus, S & Russell, J. (2007). *Chapter 11: Peer mentoring relationships*[italics]. In Ragins & Kram (2007). *The Handbook of Mentoring at Work: Theory, Research, and Practice*[italics], pp. 273-299. California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

[ix] McDaugall, M & Beattie, R. (1997). Peer mentoring at work: The nature and outcomes of non-hierarchical developmental relationships. *Management Learning*[italics], 28(4), pp. 423-437.

[x] McManus, S & Russell, J. (2007). *Chapter 11: Peer mentoring relationships*[italics]. In Ragins & Kram (2007). *The Handbook of Mentoring at Work: Theory, Research, and Practice*[italics], pp. 273-299. California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

[xi] Eby, L., Allen, T., Hoffman, B., et al. (2013). An interdisciplinary meta-analysis of the potential antecedents, correlates, and consequences of protégé perceptions of mentoring. *Psychological Bulletin*[italics], 139(2), 441-476

[xii] Keyser, D., Lakoski, J., Sandraluz, L. (2008). Advancing institutional efforts to support research mentorship: A conceptual framework and self-assessment tool. *Acad Med*[italics], 83, 217-225.