What Makes a Good STEM Mentor?

Guiding the next generation of science, technology, engineering, and math professionals

7 February 2014

The following is an excerpt of an article that appeared in the May 2013 issue of IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer.

Sometimes you just need somebody to talk to. “I came from a science background, and I wasn’t always comfortable going to my professors with questions,” says Rebecca Searles, social community editor for the Huffington Post. “All I wanted was to talk to someone. I just wanted someone there who would not judge me and who was willing to share their experiences.”

Searles has her own experiences to share as one of the managers of Huffington Post’s STEM Mentorship Program for girls ages 14 to 21. The program, announced in December 2012, received more than 1000 requests from young women seeking mentors and several hundred offers from professional women willing to serve as mentors in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. “We got flooded with emails as soon as our first post went up,” Searles says.

Many people succeed without mentors. However, for others, mentorship can play an important role not just in career success but also in how satisfied a person remains in their profession, according to a study published in the January 2013 issue of Academic Medicine. The effects of mentorship are far-reaching. According to the National Mentoring Partnership, people with mentors have higher self-esteem, improved academic scores, and better links to professional resources. Other studies have shown that organizations with professional mentoring programs have higher employee retention rates and improved channels of communication. Mentoring, it seems, is about sharing, but it is also a key avenue toward personal and organizational success.

A MENTOR’S ROLE

The role a mentor plays in a mentee’s life can vary dramatically depending on the circumstances. Some mentors work with children, inspiring them to join their profession. Others work with college students, helping them realize what the profession will be like when they graduate. Still others are there for people at different points in their careers.

Linda Kekelis, the executive director of Techbridge, in Oakland, Calif., and one of Huffington Post’s mentors, devotes herself to inspiring young girls who could go on to study STEM fields. “Most of our girls don’t have someone in their lives who works in technology or engineering,” she says. “A role model can really help expand kids’ ideas about possible careers in these fields.” Most of their work focuses on hands-on activities that teach science lessons the students would not otherwise receive in school. They also offer students a chance to meet professionals and learn about what work is like in their fields.

The role of mentoring a college student can be a bit different. Cheryl Platz, a senior user experience designer for Microsoft and another Huffington Post mentor, says mentoring for that age group is more about sharing information about herself as a person, a woman, and a professional. “I think the most valuable thing is creating a relationship,” she says. She tries to demystify what it’s like to be a professional woman in technology so that her mentee can see how that may apply to her. People that age have a lot of questions and anxiety, she says, and a mentor is the best person to turn to for answers. “They’re surrounded by pressure, a lot of stress, and new information, so it can be kind of hard to do a sanity check.”

Roy Foreman, an electrical engineering manager in the Information Systems Sector at Northrop Grumman, headquartered in Falls Church, Va., established a mentorship program at his alma mater, Alabama A&M University, in Huntsville, after he noticed a lack of minorities in the school’s engineering program. “I decided to go to the source and build a corporate-to-school partnership,” he says. He and his fellow mentors offer workshops on résumé writing and job interviews, give corporate tours, and provide general introductions on how to succeed as an engineer.

Foreman’s mentoring helps him encourage potential engineering students—and later recruit them into Northrop Grumman, where he also mentors young professionals. There, he and his team of mentors offer coaching in specific skills, share resources and personal networks, focus on short- and long-term goals, and challenge mentees to move beyond their comfort zones. He says he did not have a mentor when he started out; the engineers he worked with “were not open to taking an eager engineer or technician under their wings.” Although that experience forced him to figure things out on his own, he acknowledges that “not everybody can handle that approach.”

Platz also mentors fellow professionals at Microsoft, and she says the need for mentoring changes as employees develop. “You can have multiple mentors,” she says. “You can have mentors for different goals and different kinds of relationships.” She points out that some people come to her with project-focused challenges where they’re trying to apply certain principles to their work, while others are looking for career development. She also talks to a lot of women about work-life balance. “I have a pretty healthy life outside of work, and people are trying to figure out how to be successful without giving 80 hours a week to their employer.”

No matter what age group they’re helping, the Academic Medicine study—led by researcher Sharon Straus at St. Michael’s Hospital, in Toronto—found that good mentors were “honest, trustworthy, and active listeners.” They gave of themselves, listened to their mentees, asked questions in return, helped mentees set goals, and made themselves available either in person or by phone or email. On the other side of the equation, good mentees had clear expectations and goals, listened to their mentors’ advice, shared similar values with their mentors, and were committed to the mentee-mentor relationship.

Read the entire article at IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer.

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