Impact isn’t all about citations and prestige – it’s about the effect you have on others, too. Mentoring is a wonderful way to pay-it-forward, passing on knowledge and skills to others.
And there are a number of specific activities that mentors tend to offer. National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity’s Kerry Ann Rockquemore defines those as:
Did you notice how most of these activities could be done by anyone, at nearly any stage of their career?
If you’re a graduate student, you can mentor undergraduates. If you’re an early career academic you can do the same for graduate students, and senior scholars can do the same for you. Plus, scholars of similar standing with differing backgrounds can “peer mentor” one another. It’s all about paying it forward.
We tend to think about mentoring as only being face-to-face rap sessions, but the truth is that the internet allows us to mentor people we’ve never met through a variety of means – the first of which is the idea of “distributed mentoring.”
Distributed mentoring is a movement started by Diana Kimball to open up the practice of mentoring beyond the confines imposed by physical location. According to Diana, you can be a “distributed mentor” by creating a space on your website where you proclaim your interest in mentoring others over the internet on a variety of topics.
Those who are interested in being mentored can read through your list and contact you via email to begin the process. You can “meet” via video chat or over the phone, as often as you’d like.
But distributed mentoring isn’t done in only this way. You don’t have to join Kimball’s movement to be a distributed mentor. Instead, you can seek out others on social media who are in need of assistance.
There are many places on the web where you can find early academics hungry for guidance. We’ll highlight three: Academia Stack Exchange, ResearchGate, and Twitter. Let’s break down how you can use each platform to help others.
Academia Stack Exchange is a spin-off from Stack Exchange, a popular computer programming Q&A site. On Academia Stack Exchange, users can ask about most aspects of academia: how to format a CV, the etiquette of handling a reference request from someone who never showed up for class, where to find certain types of data or articles, and so on – the sorts of questions a mentee will often ask.
But there’s more to Academia Stack Exchange. Basically, the site works like this: someone posts a question and others answer it. Members of the community can vote answers up or down, based on quality. Points are assigned based on both what you contribute (questions, answers, edits, and so on) and whether others have voted your content up or down. And you accumulate points over time, gaining reputation, badges, and the ability to do more things on the site as your points increase.
Here’s how to use Academia Stack Exchange for distributed mentoring: browse Academia Stack Exchange by topic (you may also want to wander over to other Stack Exchanges, like this one for Chemistry, this one for Open Data, or this one for History) to find questions that match your expertise. And once you’ve signed up for an account, you can begin to answer questions.
If you’ve chosen to use your real name when signing up – which we recommend – others will be able to recognize your contributions. But whether pseudonymous or not, you’re still helping others, which is the whole point of mentoring.
Twitter can be used for all kinds of mentoring and support activities, especially when using and following hashtags.
Hashtags like #madwriting can be used for accountability: many share their writing schedule with others like you’d share your “days since my last cigarette” with friends – to hold you to a promise of productivity and responsibility.
General hashtags like #phdchat, #gradchat, and #ecrchat are often used by students and early career researchers to pose questions and ask advice, as are hashtags for disciplines. Check in on these hashtags regularly and answer any questions that arise or offer to share your experience and advice. Not everyone will be interested, but many will appreciate your willingness to take a few minutes out of your day to help them.
The same goes for those you’re already following on Twitter. Read through your homepage Twitter stream each time you login to see if anyone you’re following could use advice or support; and support him or her in any way you can, to the extent that you’re comfortable doing so.
One downside of using Twitter to mentor can be the sheer amount of unrelated tweets you have to sift through to find the stuff worth chatting about. Hashtags are a partial answer to that question, but they don’t fully solve it. You can also Direct Message (DM) people on Twitter (assuming you follow each other and/or they have allowed DMs in their Preferences) to have a more private, one-on-one mentoring “conversation.”
In a prior Impact Challenge we outlined the things you’ll want to consider before using ResearchGate. And then we primarily talked about ResearchGate as a platform to share your scholarship. But it also can be used to reach out to and help other scientists.
ResearchGate’s Questions area allows scholars to pose a question to or start a discussion topic with others who have listed certain skills and expertise in their profile, and anyone matching those skills can answer.
Here’s how it works: under the “Skills & Expertise” section of your profile, you can add and edit subject areas you’ve got expertise in. Then, on the Questions area of the site, ResearchGate will prompt you with questions it thinks you can answer, based on the expertise you’ve listed in your profile.
Because ResearchGate is closely linked with your scholarly identity, it’s easy to get recognition for your contributions. Points are also added to your RG score based on the number of questions you answer, which gamifies the experience for a bit of fun.
Some have praised ResearchGate’s Q&A feature over that of similar services, but others criticize the site for the “useless” questions posed in the Q&A. You’ll need to judge for yourself whether the questions posed in your area of expertise are worth answering, and what value you can get out of engaging others on the site.
It can be hard to create a safe space for others using very public forums like those mentioned above. Similarly, it’s difficult – and potentially risky – to offer access to opportunities and networks to someone you don’t know very well.
One way around these problems is to make initial connections on public-facing social media sites, if you want to, then exchange private contact information and continue mentoring via email, video chat, or telephone.
If you’re a stranger to a potential mentee, go slowly — mentoring can get complicated fast, and over-commitment and over-involvement helps no one. To start with, it’s better to offer too little of yourself than too much.
Choose two platforms (we recommend Twitter and Academia Stack Exchange) to experiment with as a distributed mentor. Then, sit back and “lurk” for a while, spending your time reading previous Q&As to get a feel for how it works on each platform, and answer at least one question on each platform. Additionally, consider setting up a “/mentor” section of your website and formally joining the Diana Kimball’s Distributed Mentoring movement.