Mentoring involves an experienced practitioner guiding a novice or less experienced practitioner. The practice has evolved from the medieval master-apprentice approach to learning and has emerged in many different practices. With research supervision, the practice of mentoring mirrors the research supervision process which also evolved from the medieval master- apprentice.
Mentoring became a common form of providing professional development for research supervisors with the rise in popularity of the co-supervision research supervision model. Co-supervision was introduced to address problems of continuity in research supervision, as academics became more mobile in their university placements. In that co-supervision often involved an experienced supervisor working with a less experienced supervisor, the model also lent itself to opportunities of research supervision professional development.
Usually in a co-supervision model the mentor is also the Principal supervisor for the research student. The novice supervisor learns by observing the practice of the Principal supervisor, which is explained to the novice supervisor in additional discussions separate from the actual supervisory meeting. This dual role of mentoring and being the Principal supervisor highlights one of the dilemmas of mentoring within co-supervision. Although in theory there is potential for the more experienced supervisor to mentor a less experienced supervisor, in practice, the more experienced supervisor often spends the bulk of their time supervising the research student. This can leave the issue of professional development for the novice co-supervisor to, at best a ‘learn what you can’ experience, and at worst no professional development at all or modelling of poor research supervision.
When this dilemma is resolved, the provision of mentoring has advantages over other forms of professional development for research supervisors in that mentoring relies on the person being mentored also practicing the very practice they seek to learn. It celebrates learning from experience. The most effective way of learning research supervision is by actually doing it. The mentor provides an additional reflective edge to the professional development option of reflecting on your practice solo.
In an ideal mentoring situation the mentor provides a combination of high level challenge and high level support. In the support they provide listening and encouraging to their mentee and in the challenge they probe, question and confront with an aim to move the person to be independent in the particular skills set in which they are being mentored.
Good mentoring is based on effective listening. Encouraging the mentee to talk about their practice and through this, helping to affirm practice that has been effective and question practices that have not turned out as the mentee would have liked them to. This is where the challenging comes in. Rather than tell a mentee what you believe has not worked in their practice, the mentor helps them to raise their level of critical thinking to thus recognise where individual practices have not worked.
At its best, a mentoring relationship based on effective listening appears to be like a conversation between professional people, with the mentee realising aspects of their practice rather than being told what to do
In my own work I have devised a variation on the traditional mentoring within the co-supervision model of research supervision. I offer my services to research supervisors in my institute for research supervision coaching. This draws on my own experience of being an Executive Coach and applies the practices of Executive Coaching to the situation of research supervision. These meetings can be ongoing, in that a supervisor might meet with me on a regular basis across a period of time, or they could be one-of instances in which a research supervisor has sought the confidential input of another person who has knowledge of the practice.
The difference between this model and other forms of mentoring in co-supervision is that my role of research supervision coach is exclusively for the research supervisor. I am not taking responsibility for supervising the student as well, in fact, my research supervision coaching meetings are usually undertaken without the student being present, and based on the supervisor describing and reflecting on what has happened in the most recent engagement with their student.
In these meetings there are opportunities to expose the research supervisor to useful strategies and explore with them why some of their interventions failed to produced the outcomes they had expected. The coaching might be as limited as solving a particular problem that that research supervisor is experiencing at that time in their practice, or be as general as to help them address a range of issues in their practice and see signs of improvement.