Journal Of Veterinary Medical Education

Volume 21, Number 2
Fall, 1994

John R. August, Chair


David J. Prieur, DVM, PhD

Mentoring is the process by which more experienced and knowledgeable individuals assist less experienced individuals become more proficient in their activities. Although the term mentoring has been applied to such interpersonal interactions in many types of situations, I shall restrict its use to the application of time and effort and the provision of advice by experienced faculty members to inexperienced faculty members to enhance their performance and academic career development.

Many recent publications regarding mentoring address primarily the mechanics of implementing mentoring programs for junior faculty. Most of these publications relate to higher education in general, though some are directed specifically to veterinary medicine. This growing body of literature provides much information on the basis for establishing mechanisms for implementing a mentoring program.

There are many approaches to mentoring, ranging from formal mentoring committees established by the department to informal arrangements in which junior faculty obtain advice from senior faculty of their choice. It is my perception that there is no single best type of mentoring arrangement. More formalized mentoring systems will generally be associated with a higher assurance that the mentoring advice and suggestions are actually conveyed to the inexperienced faculty member. The negative side of a formalized mentoring committee system is the inherent difficulty of convening the committee for meetings. Regardless of the format, there are several important aspects associated with all successful mentoring programs. It is important that mentors be faculty knowledgeable in the area in which they are providing mentoring, be it instruction, research, or service; that the mentors understand the culture of the department and college and the position description of the junior faculty member; and that the mentors truly want to invest their time and energies in the process. It is also important that there be flexibility in the mentoring process, as individual junior faculty members have differing needs. It is crucial that the system be designed to assist or coach rather than to control the inexperienced faculty member and that it be perceived in this light by the junior faculty member. The department chair should be involved to at least an informational degree in the mentoring process. The advice provided by individual mentors, the department chair, and senior faculty of the department must be consistent in order for a mentoring system to work.

I want to discuss two additional topics related to mentoring that I perceive to be overlooked or underappreciated. These are an overemphasis on acquisition of tenure as a goal in the mentoring process, and the lack of the development of a good understanding by students during their graduation education process of how faculty function effectively.

There is too much emphasis placed upon tenure as a goal or end in itself. The goal of junior faculty should be their long-term maturation, growth, and development into productive and innovative academicians who continue to meet expanding roles as leaders by the quality of their work in their academic department and their chosen scientific fields. Suggestions and advice from senior faculty, department chairs, and faculty mentors should be directed toward this goal. Too often, advice, direct comments, or suggestions for untenured faculty are couched in terms of activities that should be pursued or accomplishments that must be reached so that the tenure review will be positive. Junior faculty should not be encouraged to engage in activities that are solely directed towards tenure acquisition. Advice should be provided so that untenured faculty eventually develop their instructional, research, and/or service programs to the highest, most effective and productive levels, and along the way be tenured and achieve national prominence for their activities. If tenure acquisition is promoted as the goal, it is understandable why some faculty become relatively unproductive after the award of tenure. They have achieved their goal.

One would assume, that after 4 years of interaction with faculty during their professional veterinary education and 4-5 years, or sometimes more, of interacting closely day-to-day with faculty during their graduate, or internship and residency training, these individuals would perceive clearly how faculty function effectively in academia. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Our graduate education programs are excellent at educating graduate students, but substantially less effective at training future faculty members. After 4 or 5 years of graduate education, some DVM-MS or DVM-PhD individuals have almost no insight on how faculty develop productive instructional, research, and/or service programs. Most who earn the PhD degree are very proficient at designing an experiment or preparing a research proposal, but some have little understanding or appreciation for what is involved in establishing and maintaining a research program. Graduate students could, while students, learn much more about how productive faculty function, what is expected of productive faculty, and how successful faculty manage multiple and diverse responsibilities. We need to examine closely our graduate education programs and incorporate changes to facilitate the acquisition by graduate students of a more in-depth understanding of the mechanisms, strategies, and activities involved in becoming a successful faculty member.