Mentoring in Research: Improving research performance and culture

In a guest blog for CREST, Lachlan Smith, Director of Cloud Chamber, reflects on the role of mentoring in researcher development in the context of small and specialist universities, building on the outcomes of a training session led for CREST in 2016. Lachlan is also joining the CREST Sandpit as a mentor on the 9-10 November 2017.

Many universities and departments are starting research mentoring schemes with the aim of improving the ability of their staff to deliver high quality research and contribute to the growth of their research culture. This growth continues to accelerate as we move closer to the REF2021 guidance publication date. In order to help universities design and deliver an effective scheme Cloud Chamber have recently run workshops exploring best practice and issues in research mentoring for CREST and their members.

The first decision that needs to be made is what does the university want a mentoring scheme for and what will the aim be? Do you want the focus to be specifically on boosting research funding applications or perhaps looking more holistically at the research culture and ethos within a department, school or university? After deciding on your scheme aim you can start to put the building blocks in place to set the scheme up in the right way.

As outlined above a well implemented mentoring scheme can offer researchers support and guidance in a variety of ways ranging from career advice and planning through to specific task based work including the writing of academic articles for publication and the development of research funding proposals. But setting up a scheme is not as simple as letting people volunteer to be a mentor or to be mentored. Getting the right scheme in place and making sure that both mentors and mentees understand how mentoring works, what effective mentoring looks like and how the mentor/mentee relationship is managed is critically important. Alongside this is the challenge of matching mentors and mentees together and ensuring that mentors have the right experience, knowledge and attitude to make mentoring work. So, all in all there is lots to think about!

In our most recent workshop we explored these issues and themes with a set of new mentors at Bishop Grosseteste University. We looked at what mentoring is (including research mentoring), the characteristics of a good mentor and different tips, techniques and approaches to mentoring including active listening and good questioning. It was important to contextualise these discussions and share some of the issues that are specific to research mentoring. Following this there was an opportunity for participants to try out mentoring in a mock exercise that used the GROW model (explained further below). The structure of the session gave the opportunity for new mentors to understand better how to approach the task and to give them an appreciation that this isn’t just a coffee and chat and open-ended relationship.

What is Mentoring and Research Mentoring?

One of the classic and enduring definitions of mentoring is “off-line help from one person to another in making significant transitions in knowledge, work or thinking” (Megginson and Clutterbuck, 1995) This definition has been developed by Levesley et al (2015) to encompass research mentoring, defined as “ The process through which early career researchers learn the norms and rules of their academic settings, develop and strengthen research skills and acquire the values and behaviours necessary to further enhance their careers” This definition highlights the importance of three areas in particular that a mentor can help with, these are the norms and rules of the academy, skills required to do the day to day job and the values and behaviours required to navigate both their institution and the wider academy.

Thinking through these definitions in a research context highlighted some of the types of questions, queries and concerns that a mentee may bring to a mentoring relationship. These included:

  • Confidence issues relating to research, grant development and delivery
  • Support to help navigate research processes and procedures (both institutional and funder)
  • Support to think through research careers and planning
  • Advice regarding the writing of grant applications
  • Support required around academic writing and journal publication
  • Confidence issues and advice re: networking and / or conference presentations
  • New to university and looking to understand culture / landscape of research

This list is not exhaustive but gives a flavour of some of the issues raised in our experience and draws upon the growing literature that has been published on academic research mentoring.

The GROW model

Understanding the issues faced in a mentoring relationship is crucial background and context but mentors also need to approach the sessions with a structure in mind. There are numerous models available to support this including the GROW model which is one we think is easy to understand and implement. Grow stands for Goal, Reality, Options and Will and is best explained graphically below:

Establishing clear goals is important from the outset as it helps to clarify expectations from both parties. Understanding the current situation places the problems or issues into context. It is worth noting that for an initial mentoring session this part of the process may take longer as mentees often need to ‘get things off their chest’, an important step early in the mentoring process. Looking at options and solutions, generated by the mentee with guidance from the mentor, will enable the mentee to set some SMART objectives to help them take positive action. This process can then be repeated at each session with progress reviewed by both parties until the end goal is reached.

Implementing a mentoring programme takes some time and requires a clear understanding of what the institutions expectations are. This then requires a good support programme for mentors to be established, building on the themes outlined in this blog. Other issues to consider may include the internal resources required to set up a scheme, providing guidance and ongoing support to mentors, exploring whether group mentoring may work better in some situations and whether mentoring is made available to all or for specific researchers with specific needs.

Whatever it might look like, we at Cloud Chamber would be happy to support the development of a bespoke scheme. For more information please contact Lachlan.smith@cloud-chamber.co.uk