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Introduction  |  The Mentoring Relationship  |  The Mentor as Role Model
Providing Career Advice  |  Providing Skills Advice  |  Specific Mentoring Tips


When each of us starts our professional life, we begin with a dream (goal, vision, plan) and determination (ambition, perseverance, ability). Research has shown that a third ingredient can greatly increase success. That ingredient is someone who believes in them and can help them shape their dream into reality. These people are mentors.

A mentor(1) is someone who takes a special interest in helping another person develop into a successful professional. The task of "mentoring" refers to a recognized set of behaviors that some people have practiced to achieve success through a relationship with a more experienced facilitator, coach, or guide. One summary(2) of the task is : "Mentors are advisors, people with career experience willing to share their knowledge; supporters, people who give emotional and moral encouragement; tutors, people who give specific feedback on one's performance; masters, in the sense of employers to whom one is apprenticed; sponsors, sources of information about and aid in obtaining opportunities; models, of identity, of the kind of person one should be to be an academic." A good mentor seeks to help a student optimize an educational experience, to assist the student's socialization into a disciplinary culture, and to assist the student in his or her quest for suitable employment.

In general, an effective mentoring relationship is characterized by mutual respect, trust, understanding, and empathy. Good mentors are able to share life experiences and wisdom, as well as technical expertise. They are good listeners, good observers, and good problem-solvers. They make an effort to know, accept, and respect the goals and interests of a student. A mentoring relationship develops over an extended period, during which a proteges needs and the nature of the relationship tend to change. A mentor will try to be aware of these changes and vary the degree and type of attention, help, advice, information, and encouragement that he or she provides.

All of us have the potential to be a mentor because all of us have something to share. Simply said, mentors are people that have had real life experiences in the "Real World" and can share those experiences with others. Experiences can include things from working on $50 million dollar projects to just having the ability to work with others to achieve a goal. The best mentors are those that have a passion for what they do and can pass that enthusiasm on to others to inspire them to do what they want to do the most. The main objective of mentoring should be to encourage and assist students to achieve their goals. Each mentor and protégé will have a unique relationship. This "manual" is intended to provide you with some perspective and experience that we have developed over the years of running the program.

The discussion of mentoring provided here is broken into four sections: (a) what is a mentoring relationship; (b) how the mentor serves as a role model; (c) suggestions on providing career advice; and (d) suggestions on providing skills advice. The final section, entitled "Specific Mentoring Tips" represents exactly that -- tried and true ideas from participants in the MIS Mentoring Program that work.


The Mentoring Relationship  

The nature of a mentoring relationship varies with the level and activities of both protégé and mentor. In general, however, each relationship must be based on a common goal: to advance the educational and personal growth of the student. You as mentor can also benefit enormously.

There is no single formula for good mentoring; mentoring styles and activities are as varied as human relationships. Different students will require different amounts and kinds of attention, advice, information, and encouragement. Some students will feel comfortable approaching their mentors; others will be shy, intimidated, or reluctant to seek help. A good mentor is approachable and available.

Often students will not know what questions to ask, what information they need, or what options are available. A good mentor can lessen such confusion by getting to know students and being familiar with the kinds of suggestions and information that can be useful.

Effective mentoring need not always require large amounts of time. An experienced, perceptive mentor can provide great help in just a few minutes by making the right suggestion or asking the right question. This section seeks to describe the mentoring relationship by listing several aspects of good mentoring practice.

Careful listening. A good mentor is a good listener. Hear exactly what the student is trying to tell you--without first interpreting or judging. Pay attention to the "subtext" and undertones of the student's words, including tone, attitude, and body language. When you think you have understood a point, it might be helpful to repeat it to the student and ask whether you have understood correctly. Through careful listening, you convey your empathy for the student and your understanding of a student's challenges. When a student feels this empathy, the way is open for clear communication and more-effective mentoring.

Keeping in touch. The amount of attention that a mentor gives will vary widely. Some protégés might require only "check-ins" or brief meetings, while others require more effort. Try, through regular contact, to keep all of your protégés on the "radar screen." Don't assume that the only students who need help are those who ask for it.

Multiple mentors. No mentor can know everything a given student might need to learn in order to succeed. Everyone benefits from multiple mentors of diverse talents, ages, and personalities. Encourage your protégés to speak with others participating in the program, and to seek mentors in the University and in their workplaces.

Join Forces. Coordinate activities with other mentors. This takes the pressure off of you -- and the protégés.

Building networks. You can be a powerful ally for students by helping them build their network of contacts and potential mentors. Advise them to begin with you, other acquaintances, and off-campus people met through jobs, internships, or chapter meetings of professional societies. Building a professional network is a lifelong process that can be crucial in finding a satisfying position and career.

Cultural issues. You could find yourself mentoring protégés of different cultural backgrounds (including those with disabilities) or gender who have different communication and learning styles. If you are not familiar with a particular culture, it is of great importance to demonstrate your willingness to communicate with and to understand each student as a unique individual. Are you baffled by a student's behavior? Remember that a cultural difference could be the reason. Don't hesitate to ask other mentors and the protégés themselves for help. The confidence of female and/or minority students might be low, especially where they are isolated and have few female and/or minority role models.


The Mentor as Role Model  

In a good mentoring relationship, you, as the senior partner, can be a role model through both your words and your actions. By who you are, you provide a personal window for the student on a possible future. Your ethical, scientific, and professional behavior all leave a strong impression on students, as does your attitude toward your work.

Communicate your feelings about your professional career. Share your frustrations as well as your enthusiasms. When something excites you, tell your students why. Communicate the importance of mentoring and your hope that students will some day be mentors themselves.

A student might see or understand only a part of what you do--probably your IS/IT activities. Take the time to raise other topics that you are comfortable in discussing with your students. What is a typical day, week, or weekend like for you? What does it feel like to do what you do? You might want to talk about administrative, entrepreneurial, or civic activities; family obligations or the challenge of a dual-career partnership; and your goal of balancing the professional and personal aspects of life.

The sum of all those activities--of all your actions as a mentor--is what students take with them after graduation. The image of you as a person will last longer than your words or professional achievements. The power and value of the image will depend on the efforts you have made in building honesty, trust, and good communication throughout your mentoring relationship.


Providing Career Advice  

Many students, especially undergraduates, have little idea what kind of career they can anticipate. Encourage students to explore the field and see what options might best serve him or her. Many students lack sufficient experience to imagine what kind of work they might do as professionals. Don't assume that students know something just because it is obvious to you. One of your goals for students is to provide a "map" to the terrain and a "travelers' guide" to the professional universe that they might some day encounter.

Students might have difficulty selecting a focus within the Information Systems Field. You can help by posing fundamental questions: What have you most enjoyed in life? What are you good at? Do you like abstract problems or hands-on activities? Suggest early exposure to a range of courses, summer jobs or internships, and work-study experiences. Encourage them to explore many options by talking to other students at all levels and to professionals about their careers.

Advise a balance between breadth and specialization. Too much breath in education might not provide the specific skills needed to land a job. Conversely, over specialization can be perilous; today's hot technology could be outmoded in 5 years.

Encourage students to find out what recent graduates have done. Help them recognize fields that are likely to be expanding when they graduate. Many "hot" fields involve cross-disciplinary efforts and therefore a combination of educational backgrounds and skills. Be aware, however, that a popular field might attract more students than there are jobs.

Urge the student to seek practical experience. Eventual hiring decisions are often influenced more by students' accumulated laboratory experiences, computer skills, or industrial training than by the courses they have taken. A reference from someone who has worked with the student in a practical context carries additional weight. A volunteer summer position with a good teacher or laboratory might be worth more than a summer job that pays well but teaches little, even if this involves short-term financial sacrifice.

The student should learn to look at academic and professional activities as parts of a single or branching continuum. As the student views course work, summer jobs, and practical experience as part of a single journey, the transition from student to professional activities can be smooth and satisfying. Each student activity is best regarded as a long-term investment in a life's work.


Providing Skills Advice  

Students must augment their field-specific knowledge and experience with a variety of other skills if they are to make the best use of their talents. Beyond learning to communicate about technology and business processes, many students need to develop informal communication skills in general, such as the ability to express themselves clearly and understand others' responses. Encourage your protégé's experience in these areas.

Planning and organization. Many undergraduates have little experience in organizing tasks and making good use of time. You can help them acquire this skill, beginning with simple scheduling.

Writing ability. Clear writing is essential to most careers, especially those in administration and management. Engage your students in writing tasks and emphasize its importance.

Oral communication.Speaking is at least as important as writing. Students must be able to present ideas and results to other scientists and engineers, as well as to the lay public and specialists in other fields.

Communication skills. Rather than withdraw into the isolation of coding, students should continue to develop their writing ability and oral expression after graduation.

People skills. Discourage students from working in isolation from others. People skills--the abilities to listen, to share ideas, and to express oneself--are indispensable for most positions. Look for opportunities to include shy or withdrawn students at mentoring meetings. (Please note that excessive shyness could be a symptom of more-serious personal problems, for which you might want to suggest counseling.)

Leadership. Advise students to join and take a leadership role in disciplinary societies, journal clubs, student government, class exercises, and volunteer activities.

Teamwork. Learning is often most effective within a community of scholars. Cooperative problem-solving skills can be developed through group exercises, collaborative laboratory work, and other team projects. Team skills have gained importance with the trend toward multidisciplinary work.

Creative thinking. A productive IS/IT Professional is one who approaches problems with an open mind. Give students permission to move beyond timid or conventional solutions and remind them that original thinking carries some risk. Provide an environment where it is safe to take intellectual risks.


Specific Mentoring Tips  

While the guidelines in this document provide a philosophical basis for interacting with your protégé, here are some specific ideas that have worked for some of our mentors. Please share your ideas with us, so we can build upon this list.

Make initial contact with your protégé. Send your protégé an e-mail or give him or her a phone call and try to find a common interest. Invite your protégé to lunch or the next program to meet them and discuss what you can do for him or her.

Send reminders about upcoming MIS Mentoring Program events.

Encourage your student to attend relevant activities, such as career fairs, tours, programs, etc. Resources need not be on campus for you to recommend them.

Volunteer to review your protégé's resume. Help him or her to develop a resume and cover letters.

Help the student prepare for an interview or career fair. Remind the student of the need to do his or her homework, and share the kinds of questions interviewers are likely to ask.

Comment on mentoring programs or other topics on which you have something to share. For example, if you have some really constructive and/or innovative ideas about career fairs, share those ideas with your protégé before the next career fair. Or, if your protégé is about to begin interviewing, share some hints with him or her about what to do and what not to do.

Help the student to identify resources that he or she can use to prepare for a career in IS/IT.

Help the student to identify resources and methods to improve study, problem solving and time management skills.

Advise your protégé on career selection or internship selection and career goals. Share your experience in selecting a job.

Help the student understand an appropriate mechanism for approaching faculty or staff to address coursework problems and/or to provide letters of recommendations.

Guide your protégé in the selection of courses that not only meet graduation requirements, but also that will help him or her in the pursuit of a career.

If your environment allows it, invite your student to tour your work facilities. Further, you can invite your student to "shadow" your activities for a few hours. If you do that, though, try to make them "instructive" or "interesting" hours.

Share experiences from the "real world".

Provide advice for selecting and applying to graduate programs and taking entrance exams.

Communication between you and your protégé should be clear and specific about needs. You should always recognize that you might both see things from a different point of view. Accept and respect each other's opinions. LISTEN! Allow time to talk with your protégé without interruption. Show an interest in what they have to say. Ask questions!

Have fun!

Most important, share your success strategies with us!