Community-Based Mentoring: The Importance of a Well-Stocked Mentor Cabinet

Today, new PA educators do more than teach — they are also expected to build their scholarship portfolio. Unfortunately, scholarship demands occur simultaneously with a barrage of new responsibilities: teaching, curriculum development, committee work, and mentoring students. This is where an experienced hand, or two or three, can help guide and support emerging scholars.

Educators like us struggle to establish balance in this chaos. To help, I offer 10 practical ideas for promoting a community-based philosophy for supportive mentoring.

1. Put an emphasis on community building.

I want to challenge the model of a single person who serves as a capital “M” “Mentor.” These traditional mentoring relationships typically establish boundaries and expectations — more apprenticeship or coaching than collaborative. I worry this formality prevents scholars from receiving the full breadth of educated, professional, and engaged support needed to advance. I support small “m” “mentoring.” This is where mentoring involves many people and emphasizes equal parts passion, commitment, mutual respect, and flexibility. It becomes an exercise in community building that serves to advance scholarship and nurture professional growth.

My own community includes educators, researchers, staff, PAs, physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and friends. Some help me navigate academic political mazes. Senior researchers and scholars generously aid me in understanding the nuances of research and education, offering insight and often providing new opportunities. A couple of them steadied me through long and painful depressions, providing either professional guidance or emotional support.

My community is flexible, has built-in redundancy, and is sufficiently dynamic to provide targeted support when most needed. I’ve known some mentors for decades, others I’ve encountered more recently. A mentoring community needs only to share the goal of wanting you to achieve success.

2. Turn someone you respect into a mentor.

Most educators, researchers, and practitioners I’ve known truly enjoy working with junior faculty scholars. When first approaching someone about mentoring you should:

  • Be respectful in requesting time.
  • Come prepared by being able to explain why you’ve approached him or her and what you hope to achieve with their guidance.
  • Be ready to suggest a preliminary and moderate early commitment: “Can I email you questions and meet with you again next month?”
  • State your personal challenges and the areas where you’d like assistance. You’re building a long-term relationship. Start slowly with reasonable requests and work to build respect.

I don’t recommend asking someone to be a “mentor.” The term can sound overpowering. Instead, approach people with more specific needs or questions. Demonstrate that you’re passionate and invested. Ask questions and be an active listener. If you leave an encounter feeling your ideas have been expanded, your thoughts are clearer, your next steps are illuminated, then you’ve achieved success. If you feel foolish, cornered, or turned around, then you may want to reconsider the relationship. Walk away early from relationships that don’t feel supportive.

3. Show curiosity and enthusiasm.

Don’t be the person who doesn’t care! The best mentors are interested because you’re interested. Find scholarly work that you truly love. Senior faculty love enthusiasm and in its presence will forgive naiveté or poorly defined ideas. Enthusiasm will wax and wane, hurdles will arise, and the “real work” behind your project may become deflating. Fight to keep your enthusiasm, strive to hold onto your curiosity. Fortunately, good mentors tend to be enthusiastic and curious and can buoy you up when you are struggling.

4. Getting started in scholarship

It is surprising how often I hear “I need to come up with a research study” or “I need a publication for my promotion.” Fear can sweep away creativity, so don’t start by worrying about “research” and “publications.”

You are more than likely already doing work that can be translated into scholarship. Are you teaching something new in your program or teaching it in a novel way? Perhaps you can share your curriculum with others? Are you a less than perfect teacher, struggling to be better but always trying new things? Our imperfections, lessons learned, and challenges can be shared with others (e.g., faculty workshops). Let your community of supportive mentors help you turn existing work into scholarly products.

5. Don’t be invisible.

It is common for junior scholars to approach me after months — even years — of not connecting. It’s lazy on my part to believe these folks are simply not invested in their own success. There’s always a second side to the story. Regardless, success in a mentoring relationship relies on being seen. Whether establishing a new relationship or reinforcing an existing one, mentors appreciate the occasional, “I’m still alive, just swamped.” Think ahead, keep in close, even if brief, communication but be flexible regarding expectations for what needs to be achieved and when.

 6. Ask for help early.

I spend a lot of time providing support for faculty research and scholarship projects. While I enjoy this time, an unfortunate theme often emerges. When first approached, a large amount of incorrectly done work has often been completed — confidential data was collected without IRB approval, a curriculum was designed without obtaining program support, or critical variables were neglected. Newer scholars often produce work without having key stakeholders review the materials. I’ve received unusable spreadsheets, and worse yet, long handwritten tabulated lists of data. Mentors are more valuable in helping plan strong projects and establish proper data management practices up-front than massaging poor work into scholarship. Good mentors can steer you away from mistakes, provide constructive review, and save you considerable time.

 7. Mentors aren’t perfect — self interest.

Academics of all levels can seem self-centered and overly impressed with their own expertise. They can nit-pick, nudge you away from your ideas, and offer opportunities that seem more self-serving than supportive. I’ve been in meetings where insightful ideas were downplayed with someone seeking to fill out his/her own academic portfolio with someone else’s sweat equity.

Learn to comfortably say, “Thanks, that’s great feedback, but I want to stick with my idea.” I believe most academics, given the chance, will step up and do their best to understand and support your interests. If they can’t take that step, talk to different people. Send me an email! Your ideas may benefit from restructuring, expanding, or narrowing, but hold on to the essence of what interests you.

 8. Mentors aren’t perfect — compressed time.

Early in my academic life, I was told to “produce scholarship” and received the name of a possible mentor. In a quick phone conversation, she suggested we set up a “20–30 minute phone meeting” about two months out. I politely declined, stating I needed more up-front time. I then contacted a former University of Washington colleague and another colleague from across the hall and got the time, support, and experience I needed. You have to commit the time, but you also need to find people who are able and willing to commit time to you. It is critical that the people you rely on most be available when you need them. Your time-impaired colleagues can still be part of your mentoring community, but you need to establish different expectations for different people.

 9. Mentoring takes collaboration.

Successful mentoring is a synergistic process — a collaboration creating products greater than could be produced individually. I continually collaborate with and learn from junior scholars. When I discuss a research project or talk about evaluating a new curriculum, I am learning while I’m mentoring. Seek out people who want to share and want to learn. You’ll be rewarded. Respond to your colleague mentors in a timely fashion and establish what work you can reasonably contribute early in any collaborative process. Also, as you mentor others, please remember the value of sharing your work.

 10. Don’t give up. Keep at it.

Talk to your colleagues. Who were their mentors? What worked for them? Become a connoisseur and glutton for good advice, but remember, you alone need to decide what works best for you. Listen, think, talk, disagree, and agree. Don’t make snap decisions, and be open to changing your mind.

Constantly seek ways to grow your community of mentors. I continue to maintain contact with older mentors, publishing and presenting work together. I also publish and present work with junior scholars with whom I’m honored to collaborate. The nature of all mentoring relationships will change with time —always seek ways to keep your community fresh and engaged.