Cutting the cord

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Recently a colleague who is a new faculty member at another institution told me that she has been communicating with her former graduate adviser too much. She contacts her advisor frequently to ask for input on articles and grant proposals she is working on. "I just realized that I'm relying on him too much," she said. "It's time to cut the cord". She was referring to the umbilical cord that joins a newborn to its mother. Of course the umbilical cord is essential to the growth and development of a baby before birth, but afterward it is no longer needed.

At Penn State we are at the beginning of a new academic year, a time when hundreds of new faculty members are beginning another stage of their careers. Where do they get the information they need to successfully navigate this transition? I chatted recently with a senior faculty member who has many years of experience in working with new faculty as a department head, a dean, and a member of promotion and tenure committees. He told me he has seen several instances where new faculty members, unsure of their departmental/college expectations for tenure, consult a source who cannot necessarily give them useful information: their graduate advisor. Why is the information not useful? Each institution has its own particular expectations regarding promotion and tenure, so a faculty member who has gone through the process at another institution may have had a very different experience.

I certainly do not mean to suggest through these anecdotes that new faculty should sever all ties to their graduate advisors. But what we do know from scholars who have studied the mentoring process (not quite like advising but close enough for my purposes here) is that the relationship between mentor and mentee is just that--a relationship. And like any kind of relationship, it has phases. New faculty may find themselves negotiating not just a physical but a psychological separation from their graduate advisors. This separation phase marks the end of the formal mentoring relationship, where both parties review what has been accomplished and how successful the relationship has been.

This transition is not always an easy one for a new faculty member, who may feel less than confident in his or her readiness to take on a new role. And mentors who have really engaged in and enjoyed the mentoring process may be reluctant to separate from the mentee. A successful separation is not the end of the relationship. Once they work through the separation process, mentor and mentee can redefine their relationship as one of friends or colleagues.
During the separation and redefinition phases, a new faculty member still needs sources of useful information and support germane to his/her new role--in other words, another mentor.

As an instructional developer who works with new faculty concerning their new teaching roles, I realize that new faculty need support as they take on not just teaching, but research and service.

We are a large university with many mentoring resources, some of them informal or not well-known. Do you have experiences or resources on mentoring new faculty you would like others to know about? Or perhaps you are a new faculty member looking for resources? Let me know about it, either via the blog or email:

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1 Comment

Working within a couple colleges in the past, I witnessed both formal and informal approaches to mentoring. Both seemed to work...for some faculty. It was mostly the approach of the mentor that led to the ultimate success or failure of the process.

Mentor programs within colleges appear to be topics that faculty show interest. Do you think SITE can somehow play a role here? I'm wondering if something like "How to be a good mentor" makes sense? If we somehow were able to do a 30 minute primer on this in, say, a faculty department meeting...could be interesting.

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