A Motivation Perspective on Faculty Mentoring

Vicente M. Lechuga
Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration
Texas A&M University
562 Harrington
College Station, TX 77843-4226
(979) 219-9697
Mentoring by Discipline 1
Scholars have offered numerous approaches and best practices for mentoring faculty, many of
which have provided valuable insight into the complex nature of the mentoring process. Yet,
little attention has been paid to how faculty mentoring can influence intrinsic motivation.
Through a series of 15 interviews with faculty members from various STEM disciplines –
including mathematics, engineering, and life science – coupled with the use of the motivation
framework of self-determination theory, the author argues that the manner in which faculty
are mentored and socialized into their respective disciplinary norms influences their intrinsic
motivation to engage in scholarly work. The author highlights three themes that speak to the
notion of “non-intrusive” mentoring practices that can help foster and sustain motivation; each
theme demonstrates how particular forms of mentoring can influence an individual’s sense of
intrinsic motivation. Findings imply that we ought not overlook how disciplinary norms affect
faculty mentoring and motivation.
Keywords: Faculty, mentoring, motivation, STEM, higher education
Mentoring by Discipline 2
Faculty mentoring is a complex and multifaceted process that plays a critical role in fostering
the success and retention of faculty (Blackwell, 1989; Boice, 1993; Stanley, 2006; Stanley &
Lincoln, 2005; Tillman, 2001; Turner, 2002). Research has attempted to outline the various
components of successful mentoring, in general, and faculty mentoring, specifically (Holland,
1998; Kram, 1985; Welch, 1996). Yet, as Stanley (2006) asserts, “more work needs to be done
to ascertain the nature and effectiveness of mentoring relationships” (p. 705). For example,
research on faculty mentoring has yet to examine the extent to which mentoring can foster or
infringe upon one’s motivation to engage in work activities.
In what follows, I discuss findings from a pilot study that sought to understand the research
motivation of 15 underrepresented faculty members in the Science, Technology, Engineering,
and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. This article, however, will focus specifically on
participant’s perspectives of faculty mentoring, its purpose and function, and the extent to
which it should play a role in fostering the success of faculty. In using self-determination theory
(SDT) and research on faculty mentoring as a conceptual framework, I take the perspective that
faculty members are learners and mentoring is a learning process that socializes faculty into
their respective disciplinary norms. One caveat: my point is neither to present findings as
generalizable across the numerous STEM-designated fields, nor to suggest that the perspectives
of faculty participants are emblematic of all or even most faculty regardless of race, ethnicity,
gender, etc. Rather, my goal is to offer an alternative method of exploring faculty mentoring
practices by demonstrating how mentoring can be examined from a motivation perspective.
I begin by providing a brief overview of the mentoring literature, focusing specifically on issues
pertaining to faculty mentoring. I discuss the motivational framework from which data were
gathered and analyzed before outlining the qualitative methodology and research design for
this study. Data are organized by category and reflect three major areas of importance: 1)
Mentoring by Discipline 3
Carving one’s path, 2) Establishing professional identity, and 3) Negotiating independence. I
offer an analysis of the findings from a self-determination perspective to demonstrate the
significance of exploring faculty mentoring from a motivation lens before discussing the study
implications, arguing for a more fluid approach to mentoring practices that take into account
disciplinary norms and practices.
Faculty Mentoring
Education scholars have offered numerous definitions of mentoring; however, space limitations
do not allow for a thorough examination of this body of literature. What is clear is that no single
comprehensive definition of mentoring exists. This is not to say that mentoring has not been
thoroughly defined; rather, the term has numerous definitions, making it difficult to identify the
primary roles and responsibilities of the mentor and mentee. Moore and Amey (1988) define
mentoring as a form of professional socialization whereby an experienced individual serves as a
guide and role model to a less experienced organizational member for the purposes of
developing their skills, abilities, and cultural understanding of the institution. Hill, Bahnuik, and
Dobos (1989) focus on the communication aspects of the relationship. Stanley and Lincoln
(2005) argue that mentoring is a relationship “characterized by trust, honesty, and a willingness
to learn about self and others, and the ability to share power and privilege” (p. 46). Whereas
Tillman (2001) provides numerous characteristics that define faculty mentoring stating,
Mentoring has been described as a process within a contextual setting; a relationship
between a more knowledgeable individual and a less experienced individual; a means
for professional networking, and sponsoring; a developmental mechanism (personal,
professional, and psychological); a socialization and reciprocal relationship; and the
opportunity for identity transformation for both the mentor and the protégé (p. 296).
The overarching goal of faculty mentoring is to help ensure a faculty member’s current and
future success; yet, the means by which to accomplish this task varies. Some view mentoring as
a career development process (Holland, 1998) in which a mentor provides training, stimulates
Mentoring by Discipline 4
the acquisition of knowledge, and socializes their mentee into the norms, values, expectations,
and culture of academe. This process can take place over a number of months or years. Others
suggest that the mentoring process varies depending on the type of mentoring relationship,
e.g., formal vs. informal mentoring (Tierney & Bensimon, 1996). Nakamura and Shernoff (2009)
discuss how the mentoring literature has described the tasks of the prototypical mentor stating,
“the ideal mentor [is] someone who serves as advisor, sponsor, host, exemplar, and guide for a
relative novice who is moving from dependence and inexperience to independence and
proficiency” (p. 2).
More recently, scholars have discussed the importance of mentoring underrepresented faculty
members to improve their retention and success, and have suggested including additional
mentoring components such as providing additional emotional support and decreasing feelings
of isolation, among others (Padilla, 1994; Stanley, 2006; Turner, 2002; Verdugo, 1995).
Although my purpose is to focus on faculty mentoring in general, it is important to acknowledge
that underrepresented faculty face certain barriers to success of which mentoring can assist. As
Tillman (2001) asserts, productive mentor-protégé relationships accrue benefits for
underrepresented faculty protégé’s, including higher publication rates, greater research
collaboration, and support for promotion and tenure.
What has yet to be explored is the extent to which mentoring can be either a benefit or
hindrance to one’s intrinsic motivation. To extend our understanding of the influence that
faculty mentoring has on motivation, I offer data from a pilot study that examined the research
motivation of 15 faculty members, utilizing self-determination theory (SDT) as a motivation
framework. For the purposes of our discussion here, I focus on the motivational aspects of
faculty mentoring and define mentoring as a process where an experienced faculty member
serves as a guide to an individual with lesser experience for the purposes of the socializing them
into disciplinary norms, fostering their acquisition of institutional and scholarly knowledge,
providing professional opportunities, and personal and/or professional support.
Mentoring by Discipline 5
Self-Determination Theory
Edward Deci and Richard Ryan developed and later expanded upon self-determination theory
(1985; 2000), a motivation framework that focuses on factors that contribute to individual’s
sense of intrinsic motivation and self-regulation. SDT emphasizes how social settings can
promote an individual’s intrinsic motivation when three basic individual needs are met – the
need for competence, autonomy and relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Competence refers to an
individual’s need to feel efficacious or accomplished, autonomy refers to an individual’s need to
feel as if his or her behaviors and actions are derived from the “self” rather than by means of
coercion or other external forces, and relatedness focuses on the need to feel connected to
others in a given social context. The goal of utilizing SDT as a theoretical framework is to
formulate an understanding of how mentoring can maximize a faculty member’s intrinsic
motivation to engage in their work activities with minimal need for extrinsic rewards. SDT is
premised on the notion that when an individual’s actions and behaviors are internally
determined rather than externally “coerced”, they will be intrinsically motivated to engage in
activities at optimal levels (Deci & Ryan, 2000).
A central feature of self-determination theory is the notion that an individual’s basic
psychological needs are met when they perceive them as being met, regardless of any external
motivators or forces that may be present. An individual’s perceived locus of causality (PLOC)
influences intrinsic motivation, and the location (i.e. locus) from which an individual’s actions
and behaviors are derived – either internally (determined by the self) or externally (determined
by external forces) – affects their perceived level of intrinsic motivation. Deci (1975) asserts
that, “intrinsically motivated behavior represents the prototype of self-determined activities.
Such activities have…an internal perceived locus of causality” (p. 234). Said differently, when
behavior is determined by the “self” actions are intrinsically motivated in that individuals
engage in a given activity without the need for external prods, promises, or threats. However,
when extrinsic motivators are introduced as rewards for engaging in intrinsically rewarding
activities, external rewards shift an individual’s intrinsic locus of causality to one that is
Mentoring by Discipline 6
externally controlled resulting in individuals feeling less intrinsically motivated (Lepper, Greene,
& Nisbett, 1973).
Arguably, mentoring can be considered an activity in which a perceived locus of causality, from
the perspective of the mentee, is external, given that member(s) of an organization can
influence a mentee’s actions, behaviors, and developmental processes. In other words,
mentoring can partially be viewed as an externally imposed practice that socializes or
“compels” a mentee to understand and accept the norms of their socializing group or risk being
denied permanent entry (i.e. tenure). In viewing the issues of mentoring through a selfdetermination lens, one can begin to understand the importance of fostering an individual’s
success through a mentoring (external) process that does not infringe upon their (internal)
need for autonomy. Research has demonstrated that an enhanced sense of internal PLOC
positively enhances intrinsic motivation and influences one’s perceived competency in their
performance (Tafarodi, Milne, & Smith, 1999). Conversely, an individual’s intrinsic motivation is
undermined when PLOC is externally located, which infringes on one’s need for autonomy (Deci
& Ryan, 2000).
One can argue that the intended outcomes of self-determined behavior for faculty members –
feeling connected to others, functioning autonomously and effectively, developing a reputation
for excellent scholarship – resemble many of the outcomes that faculty mentoring also aims to
achieve. Thus, viewing the role of mentoring through a self-determination framework allows for
an understanding of how mentors can achieve a proper balance between ensuring that a
mentee’s basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are being met while aiding in
their career development. Because self-determination focuses on meeting individual needs, it
provides a multi-faceted approach to explore the relationship between an individual’s
motivation, their self-determination needs, and the amount (and type) of mentoring that is
required to foster their success.
Mentoring by Discipline 7
Data for this article were drawn from a qualitative study that utilized a constructivist paradigm
of naturalistic inquiry. The intent of the study was to explore the motivation of
underrepresented faculty members to engage in research activities within the STEM fields.
Findings related to research motivation have been highlighted elsewhere (Author, under
review). Data presented here focus on motivational aspects of participants’ current and/or
previous mentoring experiences. I chose to highlight mentoring practices because, during our
interviews, it became clear that participants’ shared similar narratives with regard to faculty
Data were collected through semi-structured interviews that ranged in length between 50-90
minutes, with the majority lasting about an hour. Interviews were chosen because of the fluid
nature of the study, which allowed for variations in participants’ responses and researcher
probes regarding areas related to motivation and faculty work (Patton, 1990). Potential
participants were identified using publicly available information on university/department
websites. A total of 53 emails were sent to faculty members in engineering, life science, and
mathematics departments at one public research university in the southwestern U.S. Of the 21
faculty members who responded, 15 participated in this study, with disciplinary specialties
either in engineering, mathematics, or biology. Table 1 provides a breakdown of faculty by rank,
discipline, and/or sub-discipline.
Table 1. Distribution of Faculty Participants by Discipline and Rank
Number of
Aerospace Engineering
Biological Science
Chemical Engineering
Civil Engineering
Electrical Engineering
Engineering Technology
Industrial & Systems Engineering
Mentoring by Discipline 8
Total – 15
Mechanical Engineering
The university was chosen for primarily for two reasons. First, the institution is a member of the
Association of American Universities, a 63-member association of the top research universities
in the U.S. and Canada, and second, the university’s programs from which faculty were drawn
consistently ranked in the top 20 among public universities (see Table 2). Most recently, the
College of Engineering was ranked among the top 10 in the 2010 U.S. News & World.
Table 2. List of Participating Departments and their National Rankings among Public Universities
Program Area
Biological Science
Aerospace Engineering
Civil Engineering
Industrial & Systems Engineering
Mechanical Engineering
Chemical Engineering
Electrical Engineering
National Ranking (among Public
Top 5* (among all U.S. institutions)
Top 5
Top 10
Top 10
Top 10
Top 20
Top 20
Top 25
Source: U.S. News and World Report, 2009 except *Source: Chronicle of Higher Education- rankings of
specific program areas by tenure/tenure-track faculty publication rates. Participants interviewed belong
to that program area(s).
Interviews were audio taped and subsequently transcribed for analysis. Protocol questions
focused on understanding the ways in which faculty participants fulfilled their three basic
psychological needs required to feel self-determined and intrinsically motivated. Subsequent
communication took place either by email or by telephone when clarification of data was
needed or additional probing was necessary. Data were subjected to a line-by-line analysis and
were initially coded based on broad concepts and experiences participants discussed. I analyzed
data within these initial coding groups to develop multiple sub-codes and categories. After
sorting and reorganizing sub-coded data, I focused on refining codes and categories before “reassembling” data into broader themes (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). For example, participants
referred to the need for autonomy within such categories as “innovative research”,
Mentoring by Discipline 9
“independent researcher”, and “research competence”. Thus, the categories were collapsed
into a theme labeled “Importance of Autonomy”.
I used the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1990)
during the analysis phase, in which data were continually analyzed and compared to one
another, and categories were integrated in numerous ways to offer the researcher multiple
perspectives from which to make meaning of the data. I ensured credibility and trustworthiness
of data by reviewing multiple data sources, evaluating data across interviews, logging ideas
subsequent to each interview, and rechecking data with participants during and after the
interview period (Guba & Lincoln, 1989). This reassured that data were not misread or
misinterpreted (Merriam, 1998). Moreover, this triangulation process allowed me to “examine
conclusions (assertions, claims, etc.) from more than one vantage point” (Schwandt, 2001, p.
257) and to ensure that findings were “worth paying attention to” (Guba & Lincoln, 1989, p.
In presenting findings from the study, I examine three important areas of the mentoring
process, as described by participants, which specifically pertain to the conditions that allowed
participants to display their scholarly abilities while maintaining their independence. Data were
grouped into three themes: 1) Carving one’s path, 2) Establishing professional identity, and 3)
Negotiating independence. What follows is an examination of each area.
Carving One’s Path
An important theme frequently discussed by participants is best expressed by the phrase “let
them figure it out”. Tenured and untenured participants expressed the delicate balance
between mentoring faculty and facilitating them. Some faculty members were quite clear
about their approach to mentoring. For instance, a [full] professor in chemical engineering
explained that, “Some departments consider that mentoring is an important component. I am
okay with mentoring, but not extensive mentoring because I consider that the individual has to
Mentoring by Discipline 10
become independent, and independent of anyone.” She explained that one aspect of
mentoring included providing practical advice such as how to set up a computer account and,
Those things, or other things like, let’s say, choosing health insurance and things like
that, but not [about] their research. Let them do their research in their own way….In my
opinion, we have to leave him or her alone.
An associate professor of biology illustrated this point by explaining that when a new tenuretrack faculty member is hired,
You’re given a big pot of money to start up your lab and for the most part they say, “In
five years show us what you’ve got and if you impress us, you can be one of us. [If] you
don’t impress us, you need to go somewhere else.” It’s like they support you, like they
don’t stand in your way.
Untenured faculty participants expressed similar sentiments. An assistant professor of civil
engineering, for example, discussed his department’s approach to mentoring junior faculty.
You are completely autonomous in your research in the department. The only thing the
department does is give you the resources, and then it’s up to you. Everything else is up
to you, and that’s the way it should be.
He further explained that he was happy with the wide boundaries set by his department in that,
“You can do whatever you want. You are completely autonomous in your research in the
department.” He discussed how his department was “not really interested in getting involved at
all…they are expecting you to have a research problem…and to be successful in your research
area, and that is the only thing they care about.” A biology professor provided an alternate
perspective of the amount of autonomy given to junior faculty. He explained how assistant
Mentoring by Discipline 11
professors try not to seek assistance from senior faculty about their research because such acts
might be viewed as a display of ineptness by others.
There is no way an assistant professor would open himself up or herself to them…one of
the requirements of an assistant professor is to develop individuality and in the process
of doing that, an assistant professor’s mind is oriented towards being independent.
Tenured and untenured respondents seemed to understand the rationale behind creating
broad boundaries and viewed them as vital to the mentoring process, even while
acknowledging potential detriments. When asked about the amount of professional autonomy
his department gave him, a biology professor jokingly stated, “I’ll put it this way. They give me
enough rope to hang myself four times over.”
Establishing Professional Identity
The amount of professional autonomy provided to faculty came with a great deal of
responsibility. Faculty often spoke about the need to explore areas of research that were
different from what they had conducted as doctoral and postdoctoral students. Individuals who
are unable to do so will eventually be thought of as inadequate. “If you stay, within my field, as
a postdoc for more than five years you may be very good, but then you start losing credibility.
People will start to wonder why you haven’t made the jump”. This respondent, and associate
professor of biology, further explained that, “Initially, when we are hired, we are hired partially
based on the productivity when we were postdocs, but we are not hired to do the research we
did as postdocs.” A chemical engineering discussed how a senior faculty member explained the
importance of quickly establishing her professional identity as separate from that of her Ph.D.
advisors. She was told, “You cannot be connected anymore to your [Ph.D.] advisors. You have
to break that connection. You have to be you”. An assistant professor similarly remarked, “I
explored other avenues very different than the ones that I had done during my dissertation and
that, I think, was also a good point too because I could build my own [area of] expertise and be
different from others….”. The freedom to succeed (or fail) on one’s own merits was seen as a
Mentoring by Discipline 12
valuable mentoring tool that allowed participants to prove their worth, both to themselves and
Establishing a professional identity as a scholar with sub-disciplinary expertise was essential for
promotion and tenure, and required participants to conduct what they referred to as
“innovative” research. A biology professor explained, “I constantly re-evaluate [if] what we are
doing was successful yesterday…. and read other people’s stuff and saying ‘Oh, that’s cool. I
didn’t see that coming. I gotta do something different.’” Another respondent similarly
explained, “First, [you need] to know what everyone is doing, second, [you need to know] how
to integrate available knowledge. That, to me, is innovation.” An engineering professor
suggested that faculty who do not seek to be innovative could be endangering their careers.
“As long as you find your niche, your own innovative area of work, then you’re safe. I think
everywhere it’s the same, I can tell you.”
Others discussed how pursuing innovative research agendas served to stimulate motivation and
productivity. “I am interested in some topics and I want to expand on those, you know…. Trying
to increase knowledge in one particularly tiny area in my field. I think it is motivating to me.” An
assistant professor of computer engineering also linked innovative research to productivity
stating that one “component of a productive researcher is innovation. If you really want to be
productive there is something that has to trigger that, and I think it’s innovation.” Implicit in the
idea of pursuing new and unexplored areas of research was the importance of faculty
autonomy. Not surprisingly, participants considered autonomy to be one of the most important
characteristics of their work that allowed them to pursue innovative research areas.
Negotiating Independence
At times, participants considered attempts by others to offer advice and mentoring as
infringements on their autonomy. Despite its availability, all participants expressed a desire to
be mentored only “minimally”. Said an assistant professor of engineering,
Mentoring by Discipline 13
As for mentoring exactly, I haven’t requested it or I don’t think that I need mentoring at
this time because I am into what I do, and it’s my work and I feel like I can do it. And
that’s the reason I became an assistant professor.
Although he acknowledged that faculty mentoring was important, he explained that it could
also interfere with their work. “Mentoring is very important. You should, as an assistant
professor, have a mentor [but] that mentoring shouldn’t interfere with your goals as a young
researcher.” An associate professor of mechanical engineering similarly discussed the delicate
balance between asking for assistance and maintaining a level of independence. “You have to
be tough, but at the same time you have to be humble enough so when you actually need
advice you go and ask people [for] advise.” A biology professor expressed the complexities of
attempting to mentor individuals with highly independent minds.
So, if you are trying to tell me to assert my independence as an independent
investigator and you come and make a comment about the way I am in my lab…that is
perceived as an attack on my effort to be myself as an independent investigator. So,
how do you do that? It’s a very complex problem…
Adding, “So, anything like that has to come in a very subtle way, a very subtle way…” An
associate professor expressed similar sentiments, offering his views on the potentially intrusive
nature of faculty mentoring, “It would be highly insulting to that mind, for someone to give a
piece of advice to a person. I think the normal reaction is to reject that idea because…you are
trying to generate your own individuality”.
In speaking to participants about participating in formal mentoring programs offered through
their department or college, many faculty were not opposed to the idea but pointed to
problems that could arise. One respondent explained that his department,
Mentoring by Discipline 14
…tried to implement a formal mentoring system here and it was widely refused by the
assistant professors. That was perceived of as insulting. It was rejected, I mean fully
rejected. I mean people here told us we were patronizing and so on.
An assistant professor discussed his apprehension with the idea of a senior faculty member
assisting him with his research so early in his career. “The whole point of doing research is that
you do things something that no one has done before. So, if you rely on other people for advice
over and over again, you might not be that original in your research…” Later adding, “You are
setting yourself up for failure if you over rely on people.” An associate professor expressed
similar opinions.
Say you’re having problems writing grants. And so some faculty member teaches you
how to write a grant and constantly does for the whole five years, for me that is
enabling because I kind of believe that you are hired to perform a service. There is an
assumption that you already know how to do this kind of stuff or they wouldn’t have
hired you in the first place.
Participants viewed faculty members who sought “too much” mentoring as unsuited for faculty
work. “If you need a lot of directions for your research then you may not be in the right place,
right?” He continued, “[If] you are asking people, ‘Well, what do I have to do now?’ then you
don’t have the right things to be a faculty member”. As an associate professor aptly put it, “My
department gives me complete autonomy and it’s dangerous for some people. Some people
can’t do this free form sort of thing”.
In discussing findings within the framework of self-determination theory, it is important to
remind the reader about the foundation from which this motivation framework is based. SDT
focuses on understanding the ways that individuals can meet their basic psychological needs
within a given social context (Brophy, 2004). SDT considers the degree to which an individual’s
Mentoring by Discipline 15
social context is able to fulfill or thwart their needs (Deci & Ryan, 2000). For the purposes of our
discussion, the participants’ disciplines are considered the social context and the mentoring
process is the phenomenon that is being investigated to understand how faculty members’
satisfaction needs are being met. The discussion that follows will focus on two specific areas of
significance, a need for autonomy, and the inter-play between autonomy and competence.
An important issue repeatedly discussed as an important aspect of mentoring was a relatively
strong desire for autonomy. Tenure-track faculty often spoke about the need to establish their
professional identities and areas of research, whereas tenured faculty discussed the importance
of providing junior faculty with the autonomy to accomplish such a task with minimal
interference. Discussions about mentoring often related to providing junior faculty the freedom
to determine how to approach their work. Research has demonstrated that having “choice”
enhances an individual’s internal PLOC and sense of intrinsic motivation, resulting in positive
outcomes (deCharms, 1968; Deci & Ryan, 2000). Offering assistant professors options or
providing them with choices during the mentoring process, as opposed to intentionally or
unintentionally influencing their behavior, can increase their chances of successfully completing
a given task.
What is also important here is that, rather than speaking about a lack of feedback or input
about their scholarly endeavors, participants discussed how offering advice or providing too
much mentoring could infringe on their autonomy. Moreover, participants’ goals were focused
on either establishing their professional identity or conducting innovative research, both of
which required them to feel a sense of autonomy to be able to do so. Deci and Ryan (2000)
argue that autonomous behavior forms the basis for intrinsic motivation and self-determined
actions; thus, meeting one’s goals requires a degree of autonomy that fosters success and
feelings of competence. Here, participants equated faculty success with faculty independence.
Mentoring by Discipline 16
Linking Autonomy to Competence
Deci and Ryan (2000) assert that a need for autonomy is often linked to one’s competency
needs, and argue that experiencing autonomy and competence is necessary to feel intrinsically
motivated. A unique aspect of mentoring that participants spoke about pertained to the
delicate balance between seeking advice without appearing to rely on others in order to
succeed. While most participants appreciated practical advice or scholarly input, respondents
were somewhat apprehensive about asking for assistance on how to improve upon specific
aspects of their research or teaching. On the one hand, literature pertaining to faculty
mentoring often discusses the importance of senior faculty providing junior faculty with some
direction on how to succeed in academe suggesting that “leaving faculty alone” to navigate the
publishing, teaching, research, and tenure process is problematic (Stanley & Lincoln, 2005;
Tierney & Bensimon, 1996; Tillman, 2001; Turner, 2002; Verdugo, 1995). Participants, on the
other hand, were not interested, and at times were reluctant, to either ask for or offer advice.
In cases where assistance was needed, participants were careful in either soliciting or offering
advice primarily for two reasons. Relying on others for suggestions infringes faculty autonomy
and also does not allow faculty to demonstrate nor fulfill their competency needs.
One might perceive of mentors who take this approach to cause more harm than good; yet,
allowing faculty the freedom to seek help only when needed creates an autonomous
environment that permits them to demonstrate their abilities and to feel competent. In such
instances, autonomy provides faculty members the freedom to self-organize their work so as to
engage in appropriately challenging work activities that satisfy their competency needs upon
successful completion. The key lies in how much autonomy mentors ought to provide their
mentees to create autonomy-supportive environments. When mentees are afforded too much
freedom, they may perceive of their work to be overly challenging, resulting in work
environments that undermine intrinsic motivation and potentially leads to decreased
Mentoring by Discipline 17
Participants viewed the many positive attributes of mentoring, as described in the literature
(Angelique, Kyle, & Taylor, 2002; Barnett, Gibson & Black, 2003; Jackson, 2004; Noe, 1988;
Tillman, 2001; Stanley, 2006), as potentially problematic. For example, faculty rejected the idea
that proper mentoring ought to consist of stimulating the acquisition of knowledge, offering
advice to improve research and/or teaching skills, improving self-confidence and feelings of
competence, providing emotional support and positive reinforcement, among others. They
considered such actions to be overly intrusive, resulting in potential deleterious affects on their
success. For example, when discussing grant-writing activities, participants believed that they
should not expect assistance in learning how to navigate this process. Seeking feedback on a
proposal was acceptable, but seeking input from others in developing it was not. Superb grant
writing and external funding skills contribute to a faculty member’s ability to succeed, especially
in disciplines where external funding plays a significant role in whether tenure is granted. Were
they to receive assistance from senior faculty members in obtaining external funding,
participants believed that there was a high potential for failure once that assistance was no
longer available.
Implications for “Non-Intrusive” Mentoring
To be sure, the needs of faculty with regard to mentoring are diverse and wide-ranging
(Angelique, Kyle, & Taylor, 2002; Fagenson, 1989; Kram, 1985; Tierney & Bensimon, 1996)
Tierney and Bensimon’s (1996) work on promotion and tenure illustrated the importance of
faculty mentoring during the pre-tenure process. Their study of over 200 faculty members from
various disciplines revealed that a majority of their participants felt they lacked mentoring. The
authors discussed the various facets of successful mentoring, which included offering junior
faculty substantial feedback on manuscripts, providing specific advice on teaching (including
sitting in on a junior faculty’s class), and offering emotional support, among others. Although
they conceded that a small minority of faculty either declined mentoring or felt they did not
require it, the majority of their participants “usually had more to say about the lack of
[mentoring] than they did about what took place” (p. 54). The inadequate amount of mentoring
their participants received sheds light on the many and diverse needs of a broad spectrum of
Mentoring by Discipline 18
faculty. Yet, what participants meant by “mentoring” was unclear, and given that only 22 of
their participants were from hard (and applied) sciences – all were from engineering disciplines,
to be specific – it is unfair to paint the notion of faculty mentoring, and its many facets, with a
broad stroke. Said differently, what faculty members in the social sciences might consider
proper mentoring others in the hard sciences may perceive of as intrusive or enabling.
Findings from this study suggest that the notion of mentoring is fluid; thus, it is important to
recognize how faculty members are socialized into their respective disciplines to understand
how they characterize mentoring. Becher (1989) asserts that disciplinary cultures affect how
faculty are socialized into their specific academic communities, influence the types of
knowledge faculty choose to discover and the methods they utilize to undertake research. He
argues that, “…the ideals and the practices of academic communities are intimately bound up
with the nature of the knowledge they pursue” (p. 169). Within the scope of this study, faculty
socialization into fields of engineering, mathematics, and biological sciences is highly influenced
by the norms and practices of their respective disciplines. What is more, “Socialization into a
particular form of academic life involves a number of different elements” (Becher, 1989, p. 25),
which include appropriate research practices, teaching methods, and other professional
disciplinary norms. In extending Becher’s idea, I contend that the manner in which faculty
members are socialized into their disciplines may also influence what they view (and do not
view) as appropriate mentoring practices.
Disciplines socialize scholars – from the time they are graduate students, through their
postdoctoral posts, and finally as newly minted professors – to view their autonomy and
competency needs in specific ways. Which is to say, the socialization process transmits the
appropriate manner in which individuals should satisfy their (SDT) needs within a given
discipline. Inghilleri (1999) contends that basic psychological needs play a role in how different
groups assimilate and maintain memes. One can argue that participants assimilated and
maintained particular cultural norms and practices based on how they were socialized and
taught to satisfy their basic needs. Senior faculty members are key in transmitting the cultural
Mentoring by Discipline 19
norms of their disciplines during the socialization process of junior faculty, of which a certain
amount of autonomy is warranted to self-regulate one’s behavior. As Kennedy (1997) argues,
“The faculty member’s understanding of his or her academic responsibilities are not prescribed
by contract or institutional rule…It is, rather, part of an inherited culture, and the route of
transmission is thus of vital importance” (p. 97).
It may behoove us to move away from thinking about “mentoring” as an umbrella term that
brings together an array of components that apply to faculty regardless of their disciplines.
Instead we ought to consider mentoring to be an adaptive practice that is based on disciplinary
norms and practices and faculty socializing groups. Becher (1989) asserts that the culture of the
academy ought not be viewed as monolithic, and illustrates how the various “academic tribes
and territories” (i.e. disciplines) function within a single university. Similarly, I suggest that
scholars may benefit from viewing faculty mentoring as fluid in nature by exploring its meaning
and purpose within specific environments and disciplines. Additional data from this study, for
instance, reveal that the pre-faculty (postdoctoral) posts may play a role in how faculty
participants view the socialization process. Engineering and biological science fields implicitly
“require” faculty to complete postdoctoral work before entering the professoriate, whereas
education and other social science disciplines do not (Tierney & Bensimon, 1996). Moreover,
findings suggest that scholars might consider the implications of “over-mentoring” faculty
members, and the potential deleterious effects on their future success.
More research is needed to address whether “non-intrusive” mentoring is helpful in some
disciplines over others, and whether providing faculty with increased freedom to self-organize
their research and scholarly work fosters their future success. Nevertheless, providing faculty
with additional autonomy to “figure things out” is only appropriate if that autonomy is
supported. As suggested by the literature (Brophy, 2004; Deci & Ryan, 1985; 2000; Kasser,
2002; Koestner & Losier, 2002), autonomy supported environments enhance intrinsic
motivation, confidence in one’s performance, and health and well-being (Deci & Ryan, 2000). It
may be beneficial to approach the mentoring process with the intention of creating autonomy
Mentoring by Discipline 20
supported environments that allow faculty to experience their work responsibilities as selforganized and internally regulated, which provide them opportunities to demonstrate
competence and feel efficacious. Moreover, faculty members need autonomy-supported
environments that make it acceptable for them to ask for help when needed and receive
meaningful assistance when it is sought out. An environment that provides faculty with a great
deal of autonomy is problematic when faculty feel that seeking help from more experienced
colleagues results in little or poor advice and/or a perception of them as dependant on others
to perform successfully. In the end, more work is needed to ascertain whether data will support
these multiple hypotheses.
Mentoring by Discipline 21
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