Mentorship Training: The Importance of Being Able to Hit ‘Pause’ on Cringe-Worthy Conversations

February 15, 2017

“Did you plan this pregnancy?” the academic mentor demanded of his post-doctoral researcher. “What about our project timeline?” His mentee blinked in surprise. She’d just announced exciting news, but the reaction she received was not what she’d expected.


How would you respond to a similar comment from a mentor? How would you respond to your own mentees in this scenario? These were the questions Theater Delta performers posed to a group of about sixty academics from local universities in late January. The postdoctoral researchers and faculty came together to participate in a mentoring workshop organized by the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Science (NC TraCS) Institute and Duke University Office of Research Mentoring. The two-day workshop brought together faculty from different disciplines and schools to improve their understanding of an important influence on many academic careers: mentorship.


Mentoring, even informally done among academics, can make or break a researcher’s career. Female researchers and those from underrepresented minorities are particularly vulnerable to diminished career advancement when they have poor mentorship options. Good mentorship is valuable to everyone, not just to those in the early stages of a career. According to Mark Dewhirst, director of Duke Office of Research Mentoring, it’s important to remember that you can be both mentor and mentee at every stage throughout your career. When done right, these relationships benefit everyone involved throughout their careers.


Anyone can go to a conference and play a slideshow, but how often do you remember bullet points form a slide five years later, when you’re confronted with a difficult conversation? This question led workshop organizers Dr. Mark Dewhirst and Susan Pusek to the interactive teaching style employed in this mentoring workshop. Instead of being lectured about difficult situations they may face in their careers, the workshop participants recreated uncomfortable confrontations they’d already experienced — and learned to handle them better in the future. 


To open the two-day workshop, professional actors presented a series of vignettes portraying several difficult and uncomfortable situations that can arise between a mentor and mentee. After each scene, the actors turned to the audience — in character — and answered questions from the audience and participated in a group discussion on how they could improve the interactions.  Katie Sheats, DVM, PhD, assistant professor of Equine Primary Care at NCSU, appreciated the uncomfortable reality portrayed by the actors’ performances. “The vignettes target awkward situations,” she said, “And those are very real confrontations that everyone will experience from one perspective or the other throughout the course of their career.”


“It’s rare that you get the chance to have these hard conversations in a safe space, where you can hit the pause button,” said Ben Saypol, director of Theater Delta, who developed the workshop method and lead the discussions. “This interactive style allows us to explore what choices create adversarial situations or honor differences and bring about solutions.”


 The workshop covered seven core competencies, including unconscious bias, aligning expectations, and effective interpersonal communication.  The participants practiced having challenging conversations as both mentor and mentee, focusing on areas of potential conflict, such as unmet expectations and interpersonal conflict.


The Unique Opportunities of Collaboration

While this type of workshop has been done before at Duke, it was the first of its kind to be a collaboration between the UNC and Duke University NIH Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Programs. The collaboration brought members of multiple university communities to neutral territory, something that gave the participants room to explore issues and recognize similarities among mentoring issues across disciplines. “The blending of schools and disciplines led to a richer conversation than we would have without that diversity,” said Susan Pusek, Director of NC TraCS Education Programs. “The diverse perspectives offered some validation and community support for issues that people had previously thought were localized to their own departments.” 


Though Duke and UNC organized the event, they were not the only participating schools. “We invited faculty and researchers from our own schools as well as North Carolina State University and North Carolina Central University,” Dewhirst said. The organizers hope to continue the event and involve other local members of the CTSA consortium, such as Wake Forest University, in the future.


Attendees sharing insight on mentoring included researchers in veterinary medicine, health policy, pediatric genetics, and dentistry. Pusek and Dewhirst also praised the exchange of ideas possible by inviting people from multiple schools and disciplines. “We learned about resources created by the other schools and were able to think about how we could implement those ideas in our own departments,” said Pusek. 


How Mentorship is Changing with the Times

Retraining mentors on how to help their postgraduate researchers and younger faculty is particularly important today as researchers’ career goals change over time. “Right now, we have many more traditional mentors who expect to mentor people to become them — the only goal is academia,” said Dewhirst. But, he acknowledges, almost twice as many private sector jobs exist as academic jobs for trained researchers. “It’s not economically sound to expect everyone to go into academia, so mentors must improve at mentoring people on different career paths and with changing goals,” he said. According to Pusek, this issue of aligning mentor and mentee expectations was important to the participants. “We found that they really loved the idea of formalizing expectations with documents at the beginning of a mentor/mentee relationship,” she said. Most mentors don’t currently do this, according to Dewhirst and Pusek, but the practice prevents problems later in the relationship. NC TraCS offers documents to help faculty do this more easily, and Duke offers the Mentor Duke app for the same purpose. 


Though researchers seldom want to take time away from their work, Sheats stressed the importance of taking time out to learn and reflect on how to become a better mentor. “The cause is worth the time commitment because of the impact it has on future generations of not only scientists, but everyone who benefits from scientists’ innovations.”