Guidance across disciplines through mentoring

Guidance across disciplines through mentoring

31 Oct 2018

The mentoring programme for early-career researchers launched by the Academy of Finland and the Council of Finnish Academies has started well. More than 20 pairs have been enlisted and the process of forming some pairs is still ongoing. There has long been a need for a mentoring programme aimed at supporting professional research careers. The model currently being tested has been developed jointly by the Council and the Academy. A major element is that the mentoring pair do not share the same discipline.

“Mentoring isn’t supervising, which is more tangible. The main point is to establish a relationship where it’s immediately clear that it’s not one where a more senior scientist in the same field teaches a younger scientist the secrets of their discipline. Mentoring makes me think about things in a different way, outside my core area,” says Professor Emeritus Olavi Nevanlinna, pointing out that also the mentor gains a great deal from the relationship. The aim is a period of years, not just months or a couple of years.

For researchers leading their first Academy Project

Team leaders heading their first Academy project were selected as the target group for the programme. Approximately 100 researchers whose funding began last autumn, and who had participated in the 2016 call for applications, were eligible to apply to be mentees. There were more applicants than the ultimate number of mentors available. The Council of Finnish Academies sought mentors mainly from within the Council. Mentors, who work on a voluntary basis, were found for half of those wanting to be mentored. Several them are emeriti.

Docent Saijaliisa Kangasjärvi from the University of Turku was chosen to be Nevanlinna’s mentee. She is a plant biologist, while Nevanlinna is a mathematician and a professor emeritus at Aalto University heading his last Academy Project.

“I became involved purely because I would be able to discuss with someone who clearly possesses experience and know-how, but who isn’t a researcher in my field of study. The desire to participate in the programme was immediately clear to me. All the other mentees I know have said the same. Mentoring makes the person being mentored think in a new way,” Kangasjärvi says.

She nevertheless stresses that traditional guidance should not be ignored. The professors in her own field have provided significant support in her career development. Nevanlinna, in turn, recalls that as a young researcher who had recently earned his PhD he had no one to support him in career advancement. Only after going abroad did he find an internationally eminent senior researcher with whom he conversed for decades. They published together, but the relationship nonetheless continued to be of a mentoring nature. He has had personal experience of mentoring while he was Head of Department at Aalto University. He was responsible for doctoral students and tasked with helping them advance their careers.

Confidential meetings

Discussions and meetings between the mentoring pair are not recorded in the public domain. The meetings do not have to be reported. Nevanlinna and Kangasjärvi met a few times both in Turku and in Helsinki. They have always agreed on a topic, so that they can prepare before the meeting. It is advisable to meet in a neutral setting, preferably not at the university of either party.

Nevanlinna has chaired the Council of Finnish Academies for several years. The Council has actively interacted with the Academy of Finland. It was through this link that the institutions became interested in a mentoring trial.

“If the Academy of Finland can spread the word about this programme abroad, others will benefit too. A distinctive feature of this programme is that cross-disciplinary practices are introduced to field-specific traditions. This trial is one way of helping mentors find a role that forces them to break free and realise that they need to familiarise themselves with other fields,” Nevanlinna says. In his view, there has been hardly any support for this in Finland. The mentoring programme offers the best opportunities for this.

The programme started a year ago with a launch event. The next joint event is in December. All of the mentors and mentees will be invited, but not as pairs. Researchers who have not yet been allocated a mentor will also be invited.

In 2020, the aim is to conduct a survey to ascertain how the programme has succeeded. The survey will strive to maintain the privacy and confidentiality of the mentoring discussions.

Learn more about the mentoring programme.

Original text in Finnish by Leena Vähäkylä

Photo by Anita Westerback

Last modified 31 Oct 2018
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