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On Tuesday 9 May 2023, the RGS-IBG Research Group Professional Development and Mentoring Series was launched with the first event entitled: ‘What is good mentoring?’. Over the coming year, there will be a series of online events, which will aim to provide new approaches to mentoring as well as professional development. Outputs from these events will be shared as resources through this platform.

The series arises from discussions between the Society’s Research Groups on the need for mentoring, but also awareness of some of the challenges it presents, including providing a space for some of the power dynamics that can arise from mentoring to be challenged and discussed. Furthermore, this series will bring people around shared goals, as well as build a community of mentors and mentees that is based on the principles of care and transparency. Lastly, it acknowledges that the labour required to set up mentoring could be shared across research groups. These events will provide opportunities to trial and experiment with different mentoring structures including spot mentoring as an approach whereby mentoring could take place ‘on the spot’ between colleagues and without long-term relationships necessarily being needed. These mentoring events will involve discussion on diverse topics including: what is mentoring; what makes a good mentor; promotion; how to make your CV and research profile coherent; and how to move into a different research area.

 

Collective endeavours and success stories within RGS-IBG Research Groups

This series is therefore a collective endeavour and has arisen from multiple and collective discussions over the past few years. For instance, within the Political Geography Research Group (PolGRG) there have been discussions regarding the need for a mentoring scheme but also awareness of the huge amount of work often required and the potential power dynamics. At the same time, other research groups of the RGS-IBG were having similar discussions, including the Gender and Feminist Geographies Research Group (GFGRG) and the Geographies of Health and Wellbeing Research Group (GHWRG). The Geographies of Health and Wellbeing Research Group, for instance, produced an excellent blog post about mentoring in academia during and beyond Covid-19. Here, they highlight the need for mentoring but lack of time, challenges of hero mentoring schemes, redefinitions of mentoring and alternative models, good practice on mentoring, mentoring outside of institutions, acknowledgement that people need help with different things at different times, and that most mentoring schemes are focused on standard topics ‘promotion’ etc.

This event series is therefore something that has been collectively created across research groups, and sits alongside other work already being done by Research Groups. This includes mentorship schemes by the Race, Culture, and Equality Working Group (RACE) and the report by Victoria Okoye on ‘Supervising Black Geography PhD Researchers in the UK’ (PDF). GHWRG and the Geographies of Children, Youth, and Families Research Group (GCYFRG) have also run mentorship schemes that fit other models and are successful. There are lots of excellent initiatives by all Research Groups including online and in person writing retreats, coffee and chat sessions, and other social events. We imagine this mentoring series will sit alongside these.

 

First mentoring event: ‘What is good mentoring?’

In the first online event, organised by PolGRG, the focus centred around what good mentoring looks like and how different mentoring approaches might be utilised. The session began with two introductory talks from Dr Martina Angela Caretta and Professor Kate Dashper on research they have undertaken on mentoring and their own experiences of mentoring. 

The main focus of the session, however, was devoted to breakout room discussions. Within these discussions three questions were centred:

  1. What is good mentoring?

  2. What are we not getting from our institutions regarding mentoring?

  3. What would you like covered in a mentoring series?

Members of PolGRG acted as scribes within these sessions and the discussions within each breakout room were then shared at the end.

We have summarised these discussions here:

 

1. What is good mentoring?

Importance of the interpersonal relationship:

  • Whatever the mentee/mentor wants it to be

  • Sometimes just friendship

  • Sometimes to find others with shared experiences

  • Someone who listens

  • Power dynamics – friendship and mentorship can be a two way thing

  • Importance of who you are paired with

  • Mentor needs to be prepared to give and the mentee needs to be prepared to give.

Expectations and accountability

  • Having someone to simply look at things as another eye – offers accountability

  • Need to set expectations early and build trust ad have a set of shared principles

  • Clear expectations about the relationship and what it is for on both sides

  • Knowing specifically what the needs of the mentee are.

  • What is the breadth of mentoring? What is included within a mentoring role?

  • Structured but also flexible to meet needs of both sides

  • Enjoyment

  • Understanding diversity

  • Ability to see what is not working

  • Advocacy – someone who can speak up for you

  • Mentor must be a good fit for circumstances

  • Importance of good training for both sides

  • Needs to be rooted in a ‘duty’ of care and self care with clear and respected boundaries

Qualities

  • Someone who is vulnerable, honest and enthusiastic

  • Awareness of power dynamics and institutional cultures/structures that can cause harm

  • Inspiring

  • Approachable, available

  • Provide food for thought

  • Be enthusiastic and energised on both practical and emotional levels

  • Can offer targeted support and guidance

  • Provide recognition and discussion of academia as a journey (with its successes and failures)

  • Good listener and respectful engagement.

 

2. What are we not getting from our institutions?

Advocacy and support

  • Someone to take on your fight for you

  • More cross-interdisciplinary mentoring is needed

  • Need better support when things don’t work

  • Mentoring from non-academics

  • Need for support that is tailored to current needs and that goes beyond paper-checking (i.e. learning the “craft of being a scholar”).

  • Having someone who is willing to offer you some work opportunities and introducing you to others.

Independence

  • Someone who does not monitor your progress to be involved in mentoring

  • Assigned mentors through institutions can be awkward

  • Mentoring needs to be outside of institutional structures

Structural challenges

  • Mentoring needs to be considered within wider structural change

  • Some mentors can be too senior or a line manager – therefore unable to understand what it is like to be an ECR in the present neoliberal academic system

  • Need more awareness of institutional harms and how these might affect mentoring in home institutions and beyond.

  • Need more commitment from institutions for mentoring (workloading etc)

Imbalances

  • Mentoring is often not focused on development over time

  • Need a system to check and report misconduct

  • Need to systems to check-in and see if the mentoring relationship is working regularly

  • Some institutions have several mentoring structures (REF, teaching etc) and some have none

  • Who gets left out from mentoring? Independent scholars? Mid-career scholars?

  • Space to ensure those who ‘don’t fit’ still feel valued

  • Lack of support for post-docs, especially those frequently changing institutions

 

3. What do we want from a mentoring series?

Skills

  • How to demystify the ‘academic superhero’

  • How to respond to difficult academic situation

  • How to read between the lines and fill information gaps

  • ‘Cultural fluency’ to academia that is learnt over time

  • Training for mentoring

Confidence

  • For those from underrepresented groups

  • How to cope with rejection – mentor should share their failures too

  • How to respond to difficult academic situations – dealing with peer review comments

Feeling of being part of a wider community/ building networks

  • Enabling individuals to extend beyond their institution so as not to feel alone

  • Creating a database that allows you to find the right person – a network of both mentors and mentees

  • Building a pool of people who can be potential mentors – with matching of expertise, need etc

  • Finding networks without cultural capital

 

RGS-IBG role

  • Encouraging a mentoring representative on each RGS-IBG Research Group committee

  • RGS-IBG to encourage and support geography Heads of Department (HoDs) to ensure that each department provides mentoring

  • Support for how to set up a mentoring scheme in institutions

 

Suggestions for types of mentoring series

  • Need for ‘usual’ topics among more unconventional ones, i.e. promotion, applying for grants, writing a book, returning to work after a break, how to be a good mentor, speaking openly about precarity, grant writing, writing cover letters, writing responses to manuscript revisions.

  • Group based mentoring - in which a few mentors work with a pool of mentees on items like grant applications and papers – part of a ‘rising tide’ mentality.

  • Level mentoring: see how a mid-career researcher has reached that stage as an ECR.

  • Possibilities for inter/cross disciplinary mentoring

  • Need to be careful of novel mentoring approaches such as reverse mentoring – need to navigate power dynamics very carefully.

  • Sessions on being a good mentor

 

Moving forward with the mentoring series 

We hope that this session represents the first in series that could potentially rethink how to bring people together in a difficult time during both the current cost of living crisis and COVID-recovery period. In shifting traditional power dynamics, relationships built around extraction rather than care, and recognising experience beyond traditional academia, we hope this series will bring about real change in academia.

From the discussions it is clear there is a need for a mentoring scheme that is attentive to power dynamics, is accountable, and has clear expectations. The RGS-IBG and its Research Groups could provide an important space that is independent from institutional structures, provides crucial means of support, and addresses potential imbalances in mentoring schemes. Yet, it is crucial mentoring schemes do not reproduce imbalances and are understood in relation to wider structural challenges.

In moving forward to thinking through how an RGS-IBG mentoring series might look, it was clear that there is a real sense that people want to feel part of a wider community outside of their institutions and to build networks within that. The suggestions for different ways a mentoring series could work demonstrate that novel mentoring approaches could be challenging and therefore group-based mentoring, including spot mentoring, could be trailed. We anticipate therefore over the next year, different Research Groups take on the organisation of session approximately once a month. These will enable different Research Groups to be discussed and organisational work to be spread across the Research Groups.

This ‘spot mentoring’ scheme is something that could take place every year. We hope, over the coming year too that we can produce some guidance/a handbook on how this mentoring scheme has worked and lessons we’ve learnt.

Finally, the RGS-IBG mentoring series would not have been possible without the support of Sarah Evans and Catherine Souch at the RGS-IBG and the work of numerous individuals across research groups. This particular first session was supported by the work of the PolGRG committee, especially Cordelia Freeman and Anil Sindhwani.