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Dear Kerry Ann: Voluntary vs. Paid Mentoring

Wednesday, March 30, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Allison Van Buren
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Originally posted on Inside Higher Ed.

Dear Kerry Ann,

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately of colleagues and friends paying for mentoring (or being paid for mentoring). I’ve seen it written into grant proposals and offer letters, and I’ve heard people talking about paying others to help them with everything from job market applications to preparing tenure dossiers.

I’m not sure why, but I’m uncomfortable with this idea (actually, I hate it). I believe that freely giving and receiving mentoring is part of a faculty member’s job. I feel angry when I see people paying for what should be the work of their adviser and/or senior faculty members in their department. In other words, this type of outsourcing seems to have the effect of absolving faculty members from doing an important part of their job.

I suspect you have a different view on this, and I do like many of the things you’ve written about mentoring. So can you explain why people won’t do their jobs?




Dear Uncomfortable,

Thanks for your honest question! I agree with your observation that a trend has emerged of outsourcing mentoring for pretenure faculty members. But I think there’s a more helpful way to frame this question than “Why won’t people do their jobs?” We exist in a current reality where colleges and universities expect tenured faculty members to do increasing amounts of labor with decreasing resources. Let’s be honest: mentoring is time-intensive, invisible and unrewarded labor. When faculty members are working long hours, time-intensive, invisible and unrewarded labor tends to go to the bottom of their priority lists.

Because I recognize that reality, I don’t have any judgment about whether the rise of paid mentoring is good or bad (although others have strong opinions on this issue). I can share with you the difference between working with voluntary and paid mentors as someone who has experienced both types of mentoring -- and in full disclosure -- served in both capacities for others.


My view is that both voluntary and paid mentors can be useful for tenure-track faculty members, but they play fundamentally different roles. So let me share with you the questions I encourage new faculty to ask themselves when they are building a mentoring network. I think the questions themselves may clarify why people rely on both types of mentoring.

Do You Want to Receive a Gift or a Professional Service?

The first difference between paid and voluntary mentors is access. All of my voluntary mentors are highly successful people with busy schedules, so it’s never easy to get a meeting scheduled on their calendar. They also only agree to those meetings periodically, when I have a pressing and specific question. In other words, I have to track voluntary mentors down because we don’t have an agreed-upon schedule for our meetings. And of course, if something more important than talking with me comes up for them, our meeting time is the first to get bumped and rescheduled.

The reason for this dynamic is that voluntary mentors are doing me a favor by gifting me with their time. As a result, I feel deeply and genuinely grateful for whatever time we have together, and I make sure that I don't overstep my boundaries in terms of requests.

By contrast, paid mentors work in blocks of time (a semester, a quarter or over an academic year). Because I am paying them, they set up a structure to meet with me at specific and mutually agreed-upon time blocks. Since they are being compensated for their labor, they view our meetings as a priority and show up prepared to serve me (unless there is an emergency).

The result of this differential relationship is that I make polite requests of my voluntary mentors. If they meet those requests, then I am grateful. But if they don’t meet those requests, it is not appropriate to aggressively remind them, to try to hold them to deadlines or to make demands that they actually do what they promised. However, when I pay a mentor, that payment comes with contractual expectations. As such, I feel free to make regular and assertive demands of my paid mentors.

Who Will Best Meet My Needs?

Because voluntary mentors are giving me a gift, I often find myself performing so they will think highly of me and grant me an additional meeting. This is especially true when I am developing a new relationship with a senior mentor. I want to appear high functioning and successful so they will become invested in helping me. (It’s far more desirable to support a rising star then a train wreck.)

The relationship with paid mentors is quite the opposite. Because I am paying for their time, I don’t feel they are giving me a gift. That means I can comfortably show up as the hot mess that I am and there is no reason to hide anything or pretend to be anything that I am not.

In fact, I am only going to get my money’s worth if I quickly and completely make all my challenges visible to them. My paid mentors are providing a professional service and being remunerated for it, so they are highly invested in the outcomes and my success. They want and need to see the mess in order to do their job! And I can get 100 percent real with them without worrying if that will impact whether or not we have a future conversation.


For example, if you are struggling with a manuscript, you might ask yourself what you need. Do you need a senior scholar in your field, or a writing coach who can act as a developmental editor? If you give a manuscript to a senior scholar in your field, she will read and review it from her substantive expertise (when she has time). You may feel like you need to impress her, so you may only send them a very polished manuscript for review. And if that’s what you need, that’s great! A voluntary mentor (acting as a reader) is the right choice.


But maybe what you need is help developing an early-stage manuscript. In this case, you can throw a disastrous draft at a writing coach and he will welcome it, roll up his sleeves and get to work by your side. Both are important, but these are inherently different roles, so it’s important that you identify what you need and select the best type of mentoring to meet that need.


Who Asks the Questions?

This question gets to the heart of what you need a mentor to do for you, and it’s the biggest difference between voluntary and paid mentors. Specifically, voluntary mentors are happy to answer whatever questions I ask of them because they position themselves as a resource for me to draw upon. By contrast, paid mentors understand it is their job to ask me hard questions, to hold me accountable for my commitments and to teach me and connect me with what I need to meet my goals. They position themselves as a coach and their job is to help me be successful.


When I work with people who are trying to construct a mentoring network, the question is not about good and bad types of mentoring. Neither is inherently good or bad -- they just meet different needs. Instead, I encourage new faculty to consider how to strategically use the precious time and expertise of voluntary mentors and to determine when paid mentors can enhance the performance, speed and quality of their outcomes. I hope this judgment-free explanation of how types of mentoring differ is useful to your thinking about this new trend in faculty development.


Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.
President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

P.S. I love your questions, so feel free to email me at

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