Community Acuity (11): small group mentoring, coffee, and cake

‘Community Acuity’ blog posts are from supervisors, to supervisors. They share the thoughts, experiences and reflection of the highs and the challenges of supervising doctoral students.

This is a guest post from Dr Jonathan Ellis, Reader in the School of English at the University of Sheffield.

mentoringIn June this year I co-ordinated an informal group mentoring event with academics and PhD researchers from the Depts of English and History. I follow lots of PhD researchers and early career academics online and am aware of the immense pressures under which people are finishing their theses and looking for posts. I was intrigued by several schemes I saw, that essentially paid for academic staff and PhD researchers to have lunch together three or four times a year.

There were three principles each scheme shares: 1. The academic was not part of the supervisory team; 2. The conversation was confidential; and 3. No topics were off-limit. PhD researchers who took part in the scheme valued the opportunity to discuss subjects that they wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable talking about with their supervisor(s): How long does it take to get a permanent job? How do you get your first book contract? What happens if I can’t or don’t want to turn my thesis into a book? How do academics juggle teaching, research, and administration? How many conferences should you go to per year? Does writing ever get easier?

I contacted Kay Guccione (our Mentoring Consultant) to discuss a version of this, there’d around Balance in an Academic Career (chosen to fit with our annual Researcher Wellbeing Week). I thought it was important for our event be close to campus but not in university buildings, so we booked a lovely sun-filled room at Roco Cafe in Sheffield who do good strong coffee and excellent cake. In order to ensure students felt free to ask whatever question they wanted I sought volunteers from two different but related departments, in this case English and History. This allowed me to pair English students with History staff and vice versa. I recruited 12 staff volunteers, 8 from English and 4 from History, and I divided staff into 6 pairs and invited groups of 2-3 students to circulate round the room, moving to a different pair of staff every 15-20 minutes. In this way each group of students had the chance to seek the perspectives of 3 different pairs of academics. I made clear that everything discussed was confidential and that there were no stupid questions to set the expectations for the event and to enable people to talk openly. For one hour the room was full of conversation and laughter. There was little coffee or cake left at the end.

Talking to participants after, I think most of the topics of discussion were about the transition from PhD to postdoctoral fellowships or early career posts. But perhaps that could have reflected the particular cohort of students that day, the majority of whom were close to handing in their theses. For future events it might be useful for staff to offer brief overviews of their own career paths at the beginning of the session to set the scene and avoid repetition. There was also a clear gender imbalance of staff volunteering their time. We had just 1 male academic out of 12 staff offering mentoring; men also need to see mentoring as part of their role and we will seek to balance this for next time. We ran the event in the afternoon at a time that may not be convenient for students with caring responsibilities or part-time jobs and so ideally we will organise a second event to take place in the early evening.

Overall the model of small group mentoring worked well, and could I think be easily adapted to other departments. The key to the event’s success was pairing two cognate departments and emphasising the importance of both confidentiality and freedom to discuss any topic. And of course the cake & coffee.

Author: Dr Kay Guccione

I design researcher mentoring and coaching programmes, partnering researchers at all career stages with academic and non-academic mentors. I use research data to ensure programmes are aligned to the researcher voice, are situated in academic development, and fit with the current researcher career landscape.

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