Following the resolution of the Rector’s meeting with the Student Council on November 13th, HSE University will introduce a system of academic mentors.
The project of academic mentoring at the university has been prepared by the Student Council Academic Committee. The committee members believe that students need such a system: surveys have shown that academic supervisors don’t always offer full mentoring and students often need a less formal and more proactive form of support.
‘They need people who know how academia works to share their knowledge’, said Timofey Berezner, chair of the Student Council Academic Committee, ‘Of course each student has to be proactive, to look for the information themself, and take independent steps on their way to success. However, advice by a wise mentor can help overcome awkwardness for some, find their way through a difficult situation for others, and provide some explicit knowledge of how certain research fields work for yet others.’
Participants of the meeting supported the idea of a new mentoring project, but expressed some concerns as to whether it should become a widespread phenomenon. Vice Rector Valeria Kasamara reminded the audience that these functions should be performed by the students’ academic supervisor, first of all. Deputy Vice Rector Dmitry Dagaev also noted that there is a mentoring project as part of the Staff Development Programme. Nevertheless, Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov decided that the Student Council’s initiative is relevant and approved developing a platform to search for academic mentors in the near future.
‘We need to start with single cases of “matching”, when a mentor and a student find each other, and then use this experience. Importantly, participation should be exclusively volunteer-based, and non-mandatory. But since in academia, many things are done only because people are simply interested in what they do, this may make sense’, Rector said.
At the next meeting with the Rector on November 19, the Student Council discussed the problems related to the quality of online education.
The idea of academic mentoring has been evolving for quite a long time. I’d heard about such systems at universities abroad and thought it could be interesting and useful for my faculty.
Initially, I shelved this idea, but eventually, I found myself in a few situations when I wanted to try something new, to expand my academic horizons, but I didn’t know where to start and who to contact. I couldn’t find anyone who would be willing to give me some truly useful advice.
Those situations were resolved somehow, but I realized I probably wasn’t the only one in a situation when you don’t fully understand your future academic trajectory, and it would probably make sense to help students who face such a problem. I discussed this with friends and peers, and they concurred. Incidentally, the Student Council received an Academic Committee in May, as part of which we managed to start implementing this idea. It was time to realize the concept, to pass the approval procedure, and to perform preparatory work on the project.
The key question is: what is the difference between a mentor and an academic supervisor? Essentially, an academic supervisor should be a kind of ideal mentor: they may give a piece of advice, help turn a thesis into something bigger, etc. But due to high workload, and quite formal relations with students, not all academic supervisors have the motivation to do this.
Mentoring is not about the thesis. Mentors should not compete with the academic supervisor, to offer journals for potential publication – this would be a pointless duplication of work and effort. Mentors are about labs, summer schools and master’s/doctoral programmes, including those in related fields. Mentors help students choose where and how to develop their skills, and what tools to use. This doesn’t mean, of course, telling students something obvious or available on the website (‘laboratory X does this and this’), but rather something that is not published openly on the website.
Mentoring is volunteer-based, and anyone who has sufficient experience in academia can become a mentor. We expect that our mentors will mainly be made up from those were considering their academic future just recently – master’s or doctoral students, for example.
It should be someone who is not only a strong expert in the certain research field, like an academic supervisor, but is good at navigating various tools of research activity.
We hope that at the start of the project, we get enough responses from students who need a mentor as well as those willing to become a mentor. Only if this happens will we be able to start implementing the project, to start detecting its strengths and weaknesses. Of course, we would like to see both high demand and supply at various faculties. Then, we’ll be able to see how mentoring may very in different areas. And of course, we hope that all the participants will take it seriously, so that no one gives up halfway.
Mentoring is a mutually useful and demanding process. Starting a project is always stressful, and it’s obvious there will be certain failures, but we’ll be keeping a close eye on the process, getting feedback from the participants, and improving the mechanism. And then, in a few years, mentoring may become an integral part of HSE University’s academic life.