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   May 2013     


career focus
What Makes a Good STEM Mentor?

By John R. Platt

Sometimes you just need somebody to talk to. "I came from a science background and I wasn't always comfortable going to my professors with questions," says Rebecca Searles, social community editor for the Huffington Post. "All I wanted was to talk to someone. I just wanted someone there who would not judge me and who was willing to share their experiences."

Today Searles has her own experiences to share as one of the managers of the Huffington Post's new STEM mentorship program for girls ages 14 to 21. The program, first announced last December, received more than 1,000 requests from young women seeking mentors and several hundred offers from professional women willing to serve as mentors. "We got flooded with emails as soon as our first post went up," Searles says. "I think this incredible response says a lot about the need for STEM mentorship."

Many people succeed without mentors, but for others, mentorship can play an important role not just in career success but also in how satisfied a person remains in their profession, according to a study published in the January 2013 issue of the journal Academic Medicine. The effects of mentorship are far-reaching. According to the National Mentoring Partnership, people with mentors have higher self-esteem, improved academic scores, and better links to professional resources. Other studies have shown that organizations with professional mentoring programs have higher employee retention rates, better knowledge flow, and improved channels of communication. Mentoring, it seems, is about sharing, but it is also a key avenue toward personal and organizational success.

The Varying Role of Mentors

The role a mentor plays in a mentee's life can vary dramatically depending on the circumstances. Some mentors work with kids, inspiring them to join their profession. Others work with college students, helping them to realize what the profession will be like when they eventually graduate. Still others are there for people at different points in their careers.

Linda Kekelis, one of HuffPost's mentors, devotes herself to inspiring young girls who could go on to study STEM fields. As the executive director of Techbridge in Okland, Calif., she prefers to think of the relationships as being "role models" rather than mentors. "Most of our girls don't have someone in their lives who work in technology or engineering," she says. "A role model can really help expand kids' ideas about possible careers in these fields." Most of their work focuses on hands-on activities that teach science lessons they would not otherwise receive in school. They also offer kids a chance to meet professionals and learn about what work is like in their fields.

The role of mentoring a college student can be a bit different. Cheryl Platz, a user experience designer for Microsoft and another Huffington Post mentor, says mentoring for that age group is more about exposing herself as a person, a woman and a professional. "I think the most valuable thing is creating a relationship," she says. She tries to "demystify" what it's like to be a professional woman in technology so her mentee can see how that may apply to her. People that age have a lot of questions and anxieties, she says, and a mentor is the best person to turn to for answers. "They're surrounded by pressure and a lot of stress and new information and it can be kind of hard to take a sanity check. Is it always going to be like this high-pressure college situation? Can I be myself? You need to define those questions."

Roy Foreman, an electrical engineering manager in Northrop Grumman's Information Systems Sector, established a mentorship program at his alma mater, Alabama A&M University, after he noticed a lack of minorities in the school's engineering program. "I decided to go to the source and build a corporate-to-school partnership," he says. He and his fellow mentors offer workshops on resume writing and job interviews, corporate tours, and a general introduction on how to succeed as an engineer.

Foreman points out that his Alabama A&M mentoring helps him to encourage potential engineering students and later to recruit them into Northrop Grumman, where he also mentors young professionals. There, he and his team of mentors offer coaching in specific skills, share resources and personal networks, focus on short- and long-term goals and challenge mentees to move beyond their comfort zones. He says he did not have a mentor when he first started out, as the engineers he worked with "were not open to taking an eager engineer or technician under their wings." Although that experience forced him to figure things out on his own, he acknowledges that "not everybody can handle that approach."

Platz also mentors fellow professionals at Microsoft, and she says the need for mentoring changes as employees develop. "You can have multiple mentors," she says. "You can have mentors for different goals and different relationships." She points out that some people come to her with project-focused challenges, where they're trying to apply certain principles to their work, while others are looking for career development. She also talks to a lot of women about work-life balance, "because I have a pretty healthy life outside of work and people are trying to figure out how to be successful without giving 80 hours a week to their employer."

No matter what age group they're helping, the Academic Medicine study, led by researcher Sharon Straus at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, found that good mentors were "honest, trustworthy, and active listeners." They gave of themselves, listened to their mentees, asked questions in return, helped mentees to set goals, and made themselves available either in person or by phone or email. On the other side of the equation, good mentees had clear expectations and goals, listened to their mentors' advice, shared similar values to their mentors, and committed to the mentee-mentor relationship.

A Two-Way Street

Mentoring isn't just about helping someone who's at a point where you were several years ago. Mentoring can also provide several direct benefits to the mentors themselves.

"Mentoring forces you sometimes to think through the things you've been doing instinctively or subconsciously all along," Platz says. "That can filter back into your work. You can be more intentional about those things you were doing but that you almost didn't realize you were doing."

Mentoring also helps you to connect with your peers and give you an outlet you might not have with your family, friends or other support groups who would not understand the stresses of your profession. It can also offer you a chance to talk through your own issues while helping someone else. Platz says one of her mentees recently came to her during a rough time and asked if that was unusual. It turned out that Platz was having a difficult week herself, something she freely admitted. "I felt like it helped us both," she says. "The point is not to show some magically polished picture of a human being. You can be successful and still find things extraordinarily stressful. And that's okay." She admits it can feel "weird" to be vulnerable and expose yourself, but "it sets up lasting relationships you can go back to even once the mentoring relationship has finished."

Getting Started

"Anyone can mentor anyone," says Foreman, something Platz echoes. "No one ever tells you you're ready to be a mentor, but there's always someone who's earlier in their career than you who you can help."

If your company has a formal mentoring or sponsorship program, that might be a great place to start. You can also try outside activities, like the FIRST robotics competition, or programs at your local schools. The IEEE Mentoring Connection also offers connections for anyone seeking to become a mentor or be mentored.

Kekelis recommends starting a mentor relationship by asking yourself, "what are you trying to accomplish by being a role model?" Being a mentor isn't about teaching every little thing you do she says many first-time mentors show up with detailed PowerPoint presentations and find themselves talking over students' heads but making a personal connection, so start off by telling personal stories and offer some of the academic or career advice you have picked up along the way.

It's also important to decide how much time you can devote to mentoring before you start. Maybe you can only commit to a couple of hours at a time, in which case short-term relationships might better serve the mentees. If you think you'll be available for occasional coffees, phone calls, emails or Skype chats, a long-term relationship might be more advantageous.

Finally, the Academic Medicine study suggests setting goals, which can help to guide both the mentor and the mentee through the relationship and what each person hopes to achieve. You might be helping someone for a short term, or develop a lifelong relationship. Either way, the effect of a good mentoring relationship should be felt by both parties for many years to come.


Comments on this story may be emailed directly to Today's Engineer or submitted through our online form.


John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to Today's Engineer, Scientific American, Mother Nature Network and other publications.


Copyright 2014 IEEE

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