Professors are not (born) mentors

What beats working on a quiet train with fast internet? Not much, unless that work is evaluating applications of aspiring professors that tick all the boxes. 

The curriculum vitae I have in front of me is typical of most star professors in Europe: big grants, networking, conferences, and publications. There is no doubt that they will be promoted. Yet I notice that this person has received zero training in mentoring. How do they mentor their team members? How do they provide early-career researchers support to grow and thrive in complex institutions? How many of their team members have filed complaints about them, left, or were driven to burnout?

Most professors have taken a couple of those one-size-fits-all leadership courses that briefly and superficially touch upon mentoring. When it comes to their mentoring philosophies, they tend to do things that worked for them twenty or so years ago. Yet mentoring a team is equally important, if not more important than the research itself, because it relies so heavily on collaborative work. ‘Not in my discipline’, some might be quick to answer. But is any professor really an island? 

Why do we pay so little attention to mentoring? Currently, there are no funding agencies that require a mentoring statement or a research-informed strategy on how a professor would mentor a team of young researchers. There are no accountability structures in place to evaluate mentoring that goes beyond metrics and performance measures at university. 

Mentoring a team is as important as the research itself, because it relies so heavily on collaborative work

A bilateral system that could evaluate mentoring practices, for example through letters from current and former team members or letters from early-career researchers outside the team, is also missing. Unsurprisingly, there are no awards recognizing and celebrating mentoring that is evidence-based and intentional.

A trained professor does not make an effective mentor. Untrained mentors equal mentoring that is not merely ineffective, but also potentially harmful, as evident in the very high number of PhD students experiencing mental health issues and early-career researchers leaving academia. 

Universities cannot afford to keep losing brilliant young researchers because of bad mentoring. Leaving mentoring up to professors’ good intentions is not enough. We’ve put up with this status quo for way too long.

What’s needed is a bold decision to make concrete structural changes. A first step could be to provide a mandatory ‘mentoring qualification course’. This, combined with resources that incentivize, evaluate, and recognize effective mentoring, could really start moving things in the right direction. 



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