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March 9, 2017

Beronda Montgomery: Growing from adviser to mentor

March 8, 2017

Beronda Montgomery is MSU Foundation Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and microbiology and molecular genetics in the Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory. She serves as assistant provost of faculty and academic staff development—research and scholarship.

I remember the great responsibility I felt when the first graduate student decided to join my research team. In preparing for her arrival, I highlighted the list of course requirements for her doctoral program and quickly outlined the first biochemistry experiments that she would conduct. I was cautiously optimistic that we would be positioned to make significant inroads in understanding how plants perceive what is going on around them to inform which activities and behaviors best situate them for success and productivity based on the environments in which they exist, which is one focus of my scientific work.

As the student began to work diligently in the laboratory, it quickly became clear that my preparation had positioned me to serve as an adviser, but not necessarily a mentor. These are two names that are often used interchangeably to describe what happens when engaging with those individuals we supervise. However, I have come to fully understand that advising does not equal mentoring. Advising at its core is offering advice or factual information that would benefit any individual on a defined course of action – and I was clearly prepared to do that valiantly. I knew exactly what classes a student seeking a doctoral degree in my student’s chosen discipline needed to take.

Mentoring is so much more than offering generic advice. As I began to know the student, I realized that her needs were centered in her prior experiences and individual characteristics. The challenge that I faced was that in all of the preparation I had received for leading successful research, I had not received intentional preparation for developing a personal philosophy of mentoring. Like so many who prepare to serve as faculty members, I’d learned about mentoring mostly by observation and maybe through a bit of osmosis from the ways in which I had been mentored well or less than ideally.

As I grew in my desire to mentor, I did what I had learned to do in other scholarly undertakings – I engaged the topic as I would a core research question and turned to the literature to find evidence, insights into factors to consider, and best practices for mentoring students engaged in scientific study. In my explorations, I found a wealth of resources, knowledge and insight from experts in the social sciences and education on these matters.

I began to develop a deeper understanding that mentoring is based on a thorough assessment of individual strengths and areas of opportunity for individual growth, on connecting engagement with the personal aspirations of the individual you seek to mentor, on exploring and centering values and self-defined career goals of individuals, and thoughtfully networking individuals and targeted opportunities and resources. I ultimately recognized the power of translating and integrating this knowledge into the daily practices that I employ. I continued to grow in my mentoring perspective and practice through strategically connecting to others with interest in impactful mentoring. Through these efforts, it became clear that there was a need to create and cultivate spaces, conversations and opportunities to engage as a community around developing cultures with thoughtful and intentional mentoring practices.

Ultimately I grew from adviser to mentor, and developed a scholarly focus on effective mentoring of students and faculty. This work has extended my focus from plants to people in regards to understanding how paying close attention to what is going on around an individual can be critical for informing what specifically will best position them for success and productivity. 

Assistant professors are invited to join Montgomery and the rest of the Academic Advancement Network as they present about creating mentoring roadmaps and networks reflective of one’s personal career aspirations on March 29. Find out more

Photo by Blythe White, Academic Advancement Network