Guest post by Liz Haswell (@ehaswell)
Mentoring programs are believed to be essential to a successful career in science and are considered a critical step in improving the retention of women and under-represented minorities in science, engineering and technology fields*. Traditional mentoring matches a junior or inexperienced person—the mentee—with someone senior or more experienced—the mentor. The topic of today’s post is a different kind of mentoring, which I am calling “peer mentoring**”. In this case, each participant is both a mentor and a mentee. Over the last 15 years, I have been involved in several different peer-mentoring groups, and in every case they have been a powerful source of personal and professional growth. Here, I explain what I mean by peer mentoring, describe my own experiences, and list some suggestions for starting your own group.
One possible format for a peer-mentoring group is laid out in the book Every Other Thursday: Stories and Strategies from Successful Women Scientists. Ellen Daniell describes her experience as part of a group of women faculty—including beloved University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) professors Carol Gross and Christine Guthrie—as they meet every two weeks to set goals and troubleshoot challenges. Though this book is more memoir than instruction manual, it explains in detail how the group members established a rigorous yet supportive framework that helped them to be as productive as possible during their meetings, and how the work they did in “group” improved their personal and professional lives.
My Peer Mentoring Experiences
My first peer-mentoring group was one of several that were organized for graduate and medical students at UCSF, and we followed the Daniell model pretty closely. Five or six of us met monthly for a weekend brunch at one of our apartments. We started with a quick roundtable, where each of us would say what we needed from the group that day, both in terms of time and type of response (feedback/support/troubleshooting). The host kept things on time and made sure that we didn’t get sidetracked. This is where I first experienced the power of honest talk with one’s peers. Hearing a different viewpoint can help you see a problem in a different light, while hearing validation for your position can help you feel confident in your response.
A few years and a PhD later, I was invited into a women’s goal-getting group made up of current and past postdocs from Caltech. The fabulous Hester Van de Rhoer lead us through a set of neuro-linguistic programming worksheets to help us envision the lives we wanted and to delineate the steps it would take to get there. It was in this group that I internalized the process of setting small, quantifiable goals that were in my power to accomplish. For example, “write a first draft of a manuscript by the end of the month” is a SMART*** goal, while “publish a lot of high impact factor papers and get famous” is not. Hester left town at the end of her husband’s postdoc, and while the rest of us continued to meet, the group meetings became more informal.
I’m now part of a small group of women faculty from different institutions in St. Louis. We meet once a month to share our successes from the past month, report on progress towards our goals, set new ones for the next month, and (of course) talk through any challenges. This group helped me through the tenure process a few years ago, and in late 2014 inspired me both to set a 5-year goal list AND to systematically take steps towards accomplishing them. I have already reached 4 of these 8 goals (which is either a testament to the power of peer-mentoring groups, or an indication that I should have reached higher).
I am hoping to start a series of these groups for graduate students and postdocs at Washington University in St. Louis and Donald Danforth Plant Sciences next year; contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.
You can also start your own group! My advice follows, but of course this is just one perspective and you should set things up according to your own inclination. I would LOVE to hear about other people’s experiences with this type of group so please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or email/tweet me directly.
- Start with a larger group (> 5). It will eventually shrink to include only those who are really interested, regularly make time in their schedule for the meetings, and are simpatico.
- Don’t let things devolve into venting too often. When you do vent, label it and then move on to something productive.
- Let the group’s personality evolve over time and set the tone of the meetings. All of the groups I’ve been in have been amazing and different in their own ways. Some were more about personal issues and others more career-oriented; all were useful.
- Meet at least once a month. Figure out the best time—weekend brunch, weekday breakfast, or weekday evening—and location (public coffee shop, meeting room on campus, group member’s home) and stick to it.
- Make sure the last month’s goals are reviewed so that you can track progress.
- Keep everyone’s role as a mentor and a mentee balanced by setting time limits and making sure everyone has a chance to comment/advise on each other person’s presentation. Rules may seem weird at first but they can help establish a respectful and professional atmosphere.
- A group with different people and different points of view is best. Try not to have a group that serves simply as an echo chamber. Some of the biggest progress I made as a graduate student came from hearing someone else say what I wasn’t ready to admit to myself.
- It’s best if the people in the group are from different lab group, or if possible, different departments. This allows each person to tell their story from their own point of view and without fear of repercussions.
Being in peer mentoring groups has held me accountable for progress on my goals, and forced me to articulate clearly what I want to accomplish. Through these groups I have also met and drawn inspiration from some AMAZING women; many I consider to be life-long friends. Give it a try, and see how it works for you! And please, do contact me with any questions, comments, or ideas.
About the author: Liz Haswell is an Associate Professor of Biology at Washington University in Saint Louis, currently serving out her sabbatical on the South Island of New Zealand. She tweets under the handle @ehaswell and blogs at A Force of Nature.
* I’m inclined to agree based on my own experiences, but should mention that I was unable to identify any published, peer-reviewed empirical data to support these claims. If you can point me to any literature on the topic, I’d appreciate it!
**Other definitions of peer mentoring (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peer_mentoring) still rely on the experienced/inexperienced pairing.
***Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound