6. Yoda Is Dead!

The single all-knowledgeable mentor is a fable. Get over it.

We tell ourselves stories!

One of their more common tropes is how a single wise and knowledgeable mentor[1] is critical for success.

  • Ask Luke Skywalker about Yoda.
  • Ask Harry Potter about Professor Dumbledore.
  • Ask Rocky Balboa about Mickey Goldmill.
  • Ask Caine about Master Po.
  • Ask Michel Corleone about his father.
  • Ask Dr. Kildare about Dr. Gillespie.
  • Ask The Bride about Pai Mei.
  • Ask Odysseus’s son about Mentor himself.

Problem is: This is fiction. Just like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. It’s not that mentors don’t provide valuable advice in real life. It’s not that mentors aren’t much appreciated. It’s not that mentors are unwanted. It’s not that mentorship programs don’t have real impacts.[2] It’s that a single, all-knowledgeable all-wise mentor is as much a fiction in the 21st Century as the general medical practitioner a la Marcus Welby, MD[3]. This doesn’t keep us from seeking out the singular mentor, however, or a huge cottage industry in the faculty development world from perpetuating the myth.

Mentees have multiple needs, which cannot be met by a single mentor

Kerry Ann Rockquemore[4] has a better idea. In her view, faculty seek not ‘mentorship’ but satisfaction of the following needs:

  • Professional development (time management, conflict resolution, project planning, grant writing, basic organizational and management skills).
  • Access to opportunities and networks (research collaborations, funding, etc.).
  • Emotional support (to deal with the stress and pressure of being a faculty member),
  • A sense of community (both intellectual and social).
  • Accountability (for research and writing).
  • Institutional/political sponsorship (someone to advocate their best interest behind closed doors).
  • Role models (who are navigating the academy in a way they aspire to).
  • Safe space (to discuss and process their experiences without being invalidated, questioned, devalued and/or disrespected).

And here is her take-home message: “…it is literally impossible (and in my opinion dangerously unhealthy) to have all these needs met by one person…”[5]   There is no guru[6].

Maybe in Star Wars Yoda could meet all Luke Skywalker’s needs. But Yoda is fiction. And Yoda is dead. We handicap ourselves in faculty development unless/until we put this fiction aside.

“Dangerously unhealthy”? Quite possibly so. Advice received exclusively from a single mentor is highly likely to be insufficient. If it isn’t, quite likely the mentee is en route to becoming a clone of the mentor and is not venturing sufficiently far out of the comfort zone.

Moreover, there is no single formula for meeting these needs. If you’ve seen one faculty member, you’ve seen one faculty member. Every one is different.

Reality-based mentoring

My take-home message is that successful mentorship programs need to be reality-based. That is, they must proceed from the knowledge that an individual competent to meet all the needs of a mentee will be exceedingly rare if not non-existent, that multiple ‘mentors’ if not a ‘mentor cloud’[7] will probably be needed, and that the first step in ‘mentorship’ should be to compare the needs of the mentee to the competencies in the mentor cloud. Each need should be linked to providers. If any needs are unmet, the cloud should be enlarged. Repeat as needed while the career of the mentee develops. A recent study[8] is consistent with this advice.

Fortunately, either we already know how to do this or we can adapt precedents from other fields. The professions and the trades have all specialized, and as we access them we readily move from one ‘consultant’ to another as our needs change.   Both Yoda and Marcus Welby, MD are dead. A successful primary care physician is adept at referral to specialists when needed.   Correspondingly I suggest, therefore, that every mentee should have a ‘mentor-in-chief’. The job of the mentor-in-chief would be primarily to direct the mentee to consult with appropriate members of the mentor team (or enlarge it) as needed.

Importantly, I use ‘mentor’ and ‘mentee’ advisedly, as words and precedent are powerful determinants of expectations, roles, and relationships. We receive and provide wisdom, advice, and support from/to those without such formal designations. One can be in charge of one’s own mentorship or provide/receive peer mentoring. The roles can include friend, conversational partner or sounding-board, therapist, expert/consultant, guru/sage, raconteur, historian, advocate, motivator/commitment device, and/or coach, among others.   Thus, it is prudent not to jump to conclusions when the words ‘mentor’ and ‘mentee’ are in play, but rather establish directly the expectations, roles, and relationships that all parties anticipate.

How, then, can we figure out who does what for whom?   Kerry Ann Rockquemore advocates a “mentoring map” and provides some related tools.[9] The Biological Sciences Division at The University of Chicago has developed a tool.[10] With these as inspiration, it should be possible for anyone to devise a suitable instrument. Numerous canned “mentorship contracts” are available online for reinforcing expectations and obligations; the drawback of some is that they are too generic to accommodate the specific roles than each individual needs to play.

Yoda was so 20th Century, if not “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” That was then; get over it. Let’s tell ourselves a more realistic story. As the African proverb states: It takes a whole village to raise a child.[11] We have in academia a host of people who are eager to provide counsel and/or eager to receive it. Why not accept the generosity and needs of the many, and not just the one?

Rest in peace, Yoda!


√  When you ask to be “mentored”, first formulate a specific list of what you need and next ask each prospective “mentor” which of the listed items he/she is able to provide.

 If you are asked to “mentor”, first ask the prospective mentee to formulate a specific list of what is needed, agree to meet only those needs you are able to meet, and advise that additional ‘mentors’ be recruited to meet the unmet needs.

Postscript: the Kerry Ann Rockquemore “mentoring” playbook

April 19, 2010: There Is No Guru Reconsider the quest for the perfect mentor.

October 11, 2010: What’s Holding You Back?

October 3, 2011: Don’t Talk About Mentoring To get the guidance you need, replace your vague sense of unease with a specific list of needs.

October 17, 2011: Sink or Swim Colleges need to abandon the philosophy they use to justify doing little to help new faculty members.

November 2, 2011: Essay questions story-telling as effective mentoring Stories from a senior faculty member’s past may be more fun to tell than they are helpful to those trying to navigate academic careers.

November 14, 2011 Essay on mentoring and minority faculty members One key to helping minority faculty members is to recognize that some of their experiences are different from those faced by others, and to remember that some are not

November 28, 2011 Essay on need for tenured faculty members to have mentoring Post-tenure, faculty members still need help to be strategic about their careers

December 14, 2011 Essay on need for clear tenure and promotion guidelines The best mentoring colleges could provide junior faculty members would be to offer clear guidelines for tenure and promotion

July 15, 2013 Essay on starting off a mentoring relationship How senior professors can adopt the right mindset for mentoring, and can make their new colleagues feel welcome.

July 22, 2013 Essay calling for senior faculty to embrace new style of mentoring New faculty members are unlikely to find gurus, so it doesn’t help them to focus on that classic (if rare) type of mentoring.

July 29, 2013 Essay on the coaching style of mentoring Kerry Ann Rockquemore explains the differences between the two.

August 5, 2013 Essay on how to make new arrivals in an academic department feel welcome It’s about asking the right questions, learning to pronounce your new colleagues’ names and sharing unwritten rules.

August 12, 2013 Essay on how to be a good faculty mentor to junior professors Sums up the themes of her series.

Other blog posts by her are at Inside Higher Ed.

She leads the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.

[1] http://www.mentors.ca/mentorpairs.html ;  http://www.starwars.com

[2] Surprisingly, although we know that mentorship achieves certain things, we do not know how it works. In academic medicine, for example, programs including mentorship help retain faculty [Ries, Andrew MD, MPH; Wingard, Deborah PhD; Gamst, Anthony PhD; Larsen, Catherine MPH; Farrell, Elizabeth; Reznik, Vivian MD, MPH. 2012. Measuring Faculty Retention and Success in Academic Medicine. Academic Medicine 87: 1046-1051] and improve faculty satisfaction (many studies). We know the attributes of mentoring relationships subjectively characterized as “successful” vs. “unsuccessful” (Straus SE, Johnson MO, Marquez C, Feldman MD. 2013. Characteristics of Successful and Failed Mentoring Relationships: A Qualitative Study Across Two Academic Health Centers. Academic Medicine 88: 82-89). But no randomized controlled trial has ever tested whether any specific mentorship practice (or combinations thereof) affects an objective outcome, although the first is in progress (Rick McGee, pers. comm.)

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcus_Welby,_M.D. , a kindly general practitioner who’d seen it all and could cope with any medical circumstance

[4] https://www.insidehighered.com/users/kerry-ann-rockquemore


[6] https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/winning/winning14

[7] Rick McGee, personal communication. Also, according to Rick, the NIH has undergone a rapid change in expectations from ‘mentor’ to ‘mentor(s)’ http://www.feinberg.northwestern.edu/faculty-profiles/az/profile.html?xid=17545

[8] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3665769/pdf/nihms-449785.pdf

[9]http://www.facultydiversity.org/?gifts (be certain to view associated forms in “Download the Slides”;  DeCastro R, Sambuco D, Ubel PA, Stewart A, Jagsi R. 2013. Mentor Networks in Academic Medicine: Moving Beyond a Dyadic Conception of Mentoring for Junior Faculty Researchers. Academic Medicine ;88(4):488-496.

[10]  https://bsdacademicaffairs.uchicago.edu/sites/bsdacademicaffairs.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/SOMmentorshiptool.pdf

[11] http://www.afriprov.org/index.php/african-proverb-of-the-month/23-1998proverbs/137-november-1998-proverb.html
©Martin E. Feder 2015

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