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Mentoring Conversations

Day two of the LERU Summer School has come to a close and we’ve got a lot closer to achieving the faintly ridiculous goal of getting 50+ researchers to write a book collaboratively in a week! Today we were working on five sections of the guide to research collaboration that we’ll publish on Friday and have sections on challenges, partnership agreements, support, key messages and getting started ready to hand to our designer, Sarah.

We also spent the morning listening to a range of experts from The University of Edinburgh. We first heard from four research leaders who shared insights from their projects, partnerships and interactions. Then a panel of professional services staff explained the roles they play in supporting research collaborations.

It was a struggle to decide what to cover on today’s blog – we’ve covered a vast amount today and I could have written a dozen blogs using the material that hasn’t made it into each section of the final draft of the guide. However, the unifying theme of everything we’ve thought about and heard today is that it was advice freely shared. Towards the end of the afternoon, when the groups that had been distilling wisdom from over 50 interviews came up with their final list of ten pieces of advice for doctoral researchers they insisted that the guide also include a prominent message to readers to seek out their own advice through mentoring conversations.

Most institutions encourage mentoring but it can be daunting for both junior and senior staff to enter a formal mentoring relationship. I’ve always encouraged people to think in broader terms and to either build a “board of directors” who they get advice from on specific and general aspects of their career development or just to have one-off mentoring conversations where needed. The interviews which we structured for our participants took this form – a set of questions to extract advice and relevant information about a specific topic.

This approach obviously doesn’t deliver the full benefits of a mentor. The person you approach is less likely to know you and your specific career goals or values, so the advice will be less filtered and refined for your needs. The advantage is that it gives you the opportunity to access a greater range of ideas so that you can work out which advice fits your needs, and what needs to be quietly set aside. One of our speakers started their talk by giving everyone permission to ignore her advice, acknowledging that her perspective would not be the same as the doctoral researchers in the room.

Another benefit of this “mini-mentoring” is that you can consciously seek out more diverse voices who have experienced the world in a different way to you. During the day we constantly heard about the importance of diversity in collaboration, but most of our opportunities to meet people come from shared experiences and opportunities. We only asked our researchers to interview one person, but I hope that when they go back to their home environments, that they feel empowered to keep talking to people and to listening to those with different views.

Our researchers started with these questions:

  1. Please can you briefly describe your current research focus (up to 100 words)
  2. Briefly describe whether your collaborations were with other disciplines (interdisciplinary), researchers in other countries (international), or with non-university partners (intersectoral).
    1. Whilst collaborations are often a mix of these models, we want to structure the guide so that researchers can find advice that is most relevant to their situation.
  3. What has been the value of collaboration to your career and your research?
  4. What has been challenging about collaborating with others?
  5. What did you do to help your collaborations be successful?
    1. These could include examples around trusting partnerships, shared goals and visions, communication, management systems, handling of conflicts or use of support services within your university.
  6. What did you learn from your experiences?
  7. Any particular advice you have for PhD students on how to get started?

With very few exceptions, they found the people they spoke to very open about their work and generous with their time and advice.

Later this week we’ll be asking our group to come up with the questions they wish they had asked their interviewees and we’ll be adding these to the guide to encourage the researchers who read it to have their own mentoring conversations and learn from the experiences of people around them, but also reach out to those with other views.


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