The Art of Mentoring
Mentor leadership is essential to the success of the ORISE program. Without mentors to ensure the training aspects of the program, ORISE’s research participation program would lose its educational focus and cease to exist. We at USAEC place heavy emphasis on the role of the mentor. As a result, we enjoy huge contributions from our ORISE participants.
The research participation program operated by ORISE was designed to provide opportunities for members of the academic community (students, faculty, and recent graduates) to participate in the programs, projects, and activities of the host facility. Participants can expect to continue their education by participating in hands-on research at federal facilities; enhance their professional development in science, mathematics, and engineering areas; become familiar with the research areas of the federal sponsor; and become available for future employment in fields related to the sponsor’s mission. A key individual in helping the participant attain these benefits is the mentor.
Recognize the basics of mentoring.
The mentor, appointed by the host facility, directs one or more research/development projects and provides direction and guidance to the participant(s) assigned to the mentor’s project(s). A successful mentoring relationship begins with the identification of a project appropriate for an ORISE participant and the obligation of funding to support the appointment. The mentor works with ORISE staff to develop a research project description and recruitment strategy. He or she reviews applications and makes recommendations for selection of participants, including stipend levels.
After ORISE makes the appointment offer and the participant arrives on-site, the mentor helps the participant get settled into the facility and become a member of its scientific community. The mentor will establish expectations about attendance and absences; assist with badging, ID cards, and access to the facility; identify office and laboratory space; introduce technical and clerical support; etc.
In keeping with the educational intent of the ORISE program, the mentor develops a training plan for each participant, including areas of research, attendance in meetings, conferences, special courses, etc. The mentor periodically reviews the participant’s activities to check progress. The mentor assists the participant in preparing renewal requests or final reports and makes recommendations on extension of appointments.
Call them participants, not contractors or employees. This helps you remember their status and your role.
More than 50 years of experience with research participation programs enables ORISE to identify the most common pitfalls for the mentor/participant relationship. The easiest trap for a mentor is to treat the participant as an employee or a contractor. This is particularly tempting when the participant is bright and capable, and when the mentor wants to be "fair" to the participant, treating him/her like everyone else.
The mentor walks a very fine line on this issue. On one hand, the participant is at the facility to further his/her education, not to perform work, render advisory or personal services, or deliver products. On the other hand, the mentor has the responsibility to keep the project on target and on budget and needs the ORISE participant to contribute to the research effort. Most of the time, both the participant’s and mentor’s objectives are met without difficulty. In rare instances, expectations do not match and ORISE staff are consulted.
Learn from other mentors’ mistakes.
The following fall under the category of major blunders, to be heeded by astute mentors:
- Do not assign an ORISE participant inherently governmental functions that should be reserved for a federal employee, such as contractor oversight.
- Do not harass your participant.
- Do not ignore your participant.
- Do not play it too close with funding for your participant’s appointment; when money runs out, your participant goes home.
- Finally, do not promise that you will employ the participant. Employment can rarely be guaranteed.
Don’t hesitate to ask . . .
ORISE staff are available to assist mentors with questions and resolution of issues that may arise regarding participants.
If you really mentor your participant, the payback for both of you will be tremendous.