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Durham University

Human Resources & Organisational Development

Selecting a Mentor

Guidance for Heads of Department

Guidance for Heads of professional support services

Guidance notes for Heads of Department on who should be a mentor

Choice of Mentor

Normally a mentor should not be the Head of Department. It is a good idea for the mentor to be outside the direct management line of the new academic. A mentor can have a significant role to play before a new member of staff even begins employment. Therefore there needs to be an element of allocating a mentor before the new academic arrives in the Department. The Head of Department would normally make this decision. The final choice will need to attempt to match personalities, research interests, experience and personal style. It might be helpful to consider the following questions about the proposed mentor:

  • Are they already so over-burdened that they will not be able to support the new member of staff?
  • Do they actually want to do the role?
  • Do they have the right kind of approach to their own development to appreciate the importance of development for the new member of staff?
  • Are they likely to have some empathy with the problems faced by new members of staff?
  • Do they have a balanced view of the importance of each facet of academic practice?
  • Do you want them as a role model for your newest member of staff?
  • Are there any gender or cultural issues that should be taken into account?

In general terms, a mentor should be able to:

  • Listen actively to another's views
  • Ask open questions
  • Reflect back feelings
  • Make suggestions but avoid being prescriptive
  • Summarise the main points of a discussion
  • Give constructive, positive and precise feedback

Someone who has been mentored themselves in the recent past will often make a very good mentor. The most careful planning of mentoring pairs cannot take into account clashes of personality. Good practice would be for the Head to review the partnership with both sides after an agreed trial period of say 2 months.

If either the new academic or mentor feels that the relationship is not productive, they should discuss the matter with the Head of Department and if appropriate the new academic should be asked to consider which member of the Department would be a suitable replacement mentor.

Sometimes a small Department may not have one person who is suited to being a mentor for both teaching and research and it may be in the best interests of the new academic to have two mentors, one for each area.

Mentoring and Department workload models

It is important that Department workload models make allowance for the time new staff need to establish their research careers and undertake the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice. In addition, models should also make allowance for the time taken to provide effective research and teaching mentoring.

Guidance notes for Heads of professional support services on who should be a mentor

The mentor tends to be a senior/ experienced person within a participant's own Department.  To help choose an appropriate mentor ask the following questions:

  • Who would be a useful role model, displaying appropriate behaviours and management skills?
  • Who would be able to help individuals resolve difficult situations in their professional life?
  • Who would challenge and support individuals to acquire a vision, purpose and take on a new direction in their working life?

Furthermore, a mentor should be:

  • someone who broadly shares a new member of staff's professional and/or technical expertise;
  • nominated by the appropriate Head of Department/Section from amongst staff not on probation.
  • the matching of mentor and probationer should be sensitive to issues of culture, gender and disability.

The person who now springs to mind is the ideal mentor.  If the mentor does not represent this ideal then it is important to move towards this ideal as part of the mentoring process.  Remember all parties need to get something out of this in terms of personal development members of staff should be encouraged to make early contact with their mentor, likewise the mentor should be encouraged to contact their new mentee as soon as possible.

Staff moving into a role which carries new responsibilities, are encouraged to have an overlap period of work shadowing with their predecessor. They may also find it helpful to seek a mentor with experience of the role, possibly from another department.

Mentoring is not a substitute for effective line management, and therefore ideally the mentor should not be the line manager, supervisor, Head of Department/Section or a new member of staff's appraiser. 

A mentor's role

The mentor's role is essentially to accelerate the rate at which a person learns.  Mentors have to possess a real interest in others and specifically in their development and learning.