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Specific Challenges and Problem-Solving Strategies

▼ Providing inadequate direction

Problem: Providing inadequate direction. There are two errors a mentor can make with respect to providing direction. Providing too much help can stall a mentee's movement toward independence and encourage dependence. Providing too little help could leave the mentee to flounder and, again, inhibit progress toward independence.

Strategy: While it is important for the mentor to stay vigilant about his or her actions, this is probably a time when the mentee has to step up and take action. It may be useful for the mentee to talk to peers to get a better picture of the extent of direction they are receiving. When the mentee has a good understanding of the situation and is prepared to discuss it with the mentor, the mentee should do so. Assuming that the mentee has a relationship of trust and uses good communication skills, the mentor will be responsive to the mentee's concerns.

▼ Taking advantage of greater power

Problem: Taking advantage of greater power. It is important that mentors be careful about the requests they make of their mentees, since mentees are inclined to please their mentors and may perceive a request as a demand. In some cases, mentors inadvertently take advantage of their power and have a mentee take on the work of the mentor. In addition to leading to fear and resentment on the part of the mentee, this could increase the mentee's workload and stall progress in his or her career development.

Strategy: It may be that the mentor is unaware of his or her use of power and that a simple conversation will solve the problem; however, it is likely that a third party will be needed to mediate the situation. If possible, the third party should be someone who is senior to both the mentee and the mentor (perhaps a division chief or department chair). A meeting of the mentor, mentee, and mediator will often lead to a positive conclusion.

▼ Dealing with conflicting demands

Problem: Dealing with conflicting demands. Individuals at the beginning of their career have a great deal of difficulty saying "no." Junior faculty, fellows, and postdocs with multiple mentors or supervisors sometimes become inundated with demands for work. Since they don't have the experience to know how to prioritize these demands, their workloads can become burdensome and a threat to their career development.

Strategy: When different mentors simultaneously want to make use of your time, it is hard to decide how to prioritize the workload. The problem is often made harder because you don't want to disappoint anyone. One way to resolve this dilemma is to take the list of assignments to your mentors individually and ask them to help prioritize your tasks. Better yet, call a team meeting so your mentors can negotiate with one another about the priority of tasks.

▼ Dealing with conflicting advice

Problem: Dealing with conflicting advice. It is inevitable that mentees with multiple mentors and advisors receive conflicting advice with respect to research or teaching plans, writing manuscripts, and other aspects of their career development. This is worth repeating: it is inevitable. Conflicting advice also inevitably leads to confusion, fear, and other negative emotions and reactions.

Strategy: Your mentors are wise and knowledgeable, but they are not infallible. When you get conflicting advice, think about what you want to do. Ask friends for their opinions. Speak to other colleagues. Everyone has been in this situation, so people will be supportive as you work out how to handle it.

▼ Lacking commitment

Problem: Lacking commitment. On the one hand, a mentor may find that his or her mentee lacks the motivation and commitment to carry out the considerable work required to develop a successful career in academia. This situation is difficult for both the mentor and mentee because the mentee has a real chance of failing and because the mentor may believe that he or she has wasted a great deal of valuable time working with the mentee. On the other hand, it is also possible that the mentee feels that the mentor lacks commitment (e.g., the mentor misses meetings or does not respond to a mentee's e-mails). The mentee's frustrations and lack of guidance can inhibit his or her movement toward independence. Because of the differential in power between the mentor and mentee, this problem is difficult to resolve while maintaining a productive and amiable relationship.

Strategy: If a mentee is viewed as lacking commitment, it is important for the mentor to try to discern the cause. It may be that the mentee-mentor match is not working well, or it may be that the mentee has discovered that his or her career focus is no longer appealing. The junior people here tend to be highly motivated and committed to academic careers, so while there may be an occasional case in which there is a real lack of commitment, there is usually another issue underlying the problem and it is the mentor's job to identify it and help resolve it. Conversely, if a mentor is viewed as lacking commitment and is missing meetings and not responding to e-mails, the mentee needs to do something about it. It may be that the mentor is unaware that the mentee is feeling neglected, or it may be that the mentor is so busy with other responsibilities that there is an unfortunate lapse in mentoring. Remembering that individuals who have agreed to be mentors already have a strong commitment to the process, the mentee should raise the issue with the mentor. If it is an especially busy time for the mentor, the mentee can ask if the mentor wants to touch base or have meetings by phone for a few weeks. When discussing a problem such as this, it is helpful to have some solutions to propose.

▼ Neglecting the mentee or the mentor

Problem: Neglecting the mentee or the mentor. It is important to pay appropriate attention to both the mentee and the mentor. Mentees need to respond in a timely fashion to requests and recommendations from their mentors. Mentors need to be available to their mentees on a regular basis but should also be sensitive to the times when their mentees need extra support or feedback.

Strategy: Try to maintain awareness of the other individual and what he or she is experiencing. By being vigilant, you will know when something is up, and you may be able to offer a hand.

▼ Crossing boundaries

Problem: Crossing boundaries. Boundaries—both professional and personal—tend to be sensitive. Crossing boundaries has the unfortunate effect of making both parties uncomfortable and has the potential for creating tension in the mentee-mentor relationship.

Strategy: To avoid this problem, the mentee and mentor should discuss boundaries at the onset of the relationship. Different people may have different ideas about what the boundaries should be. For instance, is it appropriate for a mentor to ask a mentee to babysit? This crosses the line because the power differential between mentee and mentor could result in a perception of coercion. If the issue is work-related (e.g., a mentor asks a mentee to give a talk that the mentor agreed to give), the extent to which a boundary has been crossed is less clear. Being prepared will help avoid problems down the line. It may also be useful for mentees to talk to a peer or a peer's mentors to ask for their perspectives on the issue. As in most other challenges, honest and direct communication can solve a number of problems. However, some boundaries—especially those of a sexual nature—should never be crossed.

▼ Discovering a mismatch between mentor and mentee

Problem: Discovering a mismatch between mentor and mentee. Unfortunately, a mismatch between a mentor and mentee can occur. The mismatch may result from conflicting personalities, differing career goals or areas of scientific expertise, differences in work ethic, or any number of other reasons. Fortunately, the mismatch is usually discovered early in the relationship by the mentor, the mentee, or both. The longer the mismatch continues, the more difficult it is to resolve.

Strategy: While finding a mismatch is regrettable, it is a problem that is relatively simple to correct. If both the mentor and the mentee believe that a switch is desirable, the mentee can work with his or her division chief, department chair, and even the current mentor to help identify a more appropriate mentor.

▼ Breaching confidentiality

Problem: Breaching confidentiality. Confidentiality is sacrosanct in the mentee-mentor relationship. A breach of confidentiality has the potential for irrevocably rupturing the mentee-mentor relationship. At a minimum, breaching confidentiality will cause considerable damage to the trust established between the mentor and mentee.

Strategy: This is a difficult problem to resolve, so it is best to avoid it altogether. At the onset of the relationship, mentees and mentors need to identify the kinds of things that should be confidential, and they need to be up-front about what is acceptable and what is not. When one party thinks there is a reason for disclosing confidential information, he or she should talk with the other to obtain permission in advance. If, however, a breach of confidentiality has occurred and you want to preserve the relationship despite the lapse in confidentiality, you can try to rectify the situation. The mentor and mentee should make clear what they thought happened and what they can do to avoid the situation in the future. It is vital not to assume intentionality, and the mentee and mentor should try to rebuild the relationship through communication and negotiation. Rebuilding can occur only if both the mentee and the mentor want to preserve the relationship.