Ever since I graduated I’ve always wanted to learn new things and for that reason I’ve pretty much always had at least three different types books on the go at any given time. Typically I have a fiction book to read when my brain is really tired, a technical book linked to engineering, maths, or programming, and some sort of self-improvement book. I want to be the best I can be, to reach my full potential and not be limited by my lack of understanding.
Over the past few years I’ve been spending quite a bit of time thinking about how mentoring (and what I believe to be the lack of) is affecting the environment for modern graduates in industry. As margins become tighter and tighter in industry, the experienced engineers have less and less wriggle room to spend mentoring graduates. Instead the experienced engineers merely push the less-experienced engineers to a quick solution so that deadlines are met and fee structures are not blown – resulting in a shallow learning experience.
I’ve always tried to make time to help less experienced engineers understand new concepts, even if I think they should know them already from University. This has meant frequently giving up my dinner hour and time after work to help someone understand a new concept. I’ve not always been successful and that’s a limitation of my skill and something that I’m getting better at with time as I improve as a mentor, but as time goes by I wonder if my approach is mentoring or coaching?
Most of the time I spend on a 1 to 1 basis with students takes the form of conversations and specific questioning to change the way they think about things. To change or reinforce their perceptions about how something can be improved in the future. This is the commonest form of mentoring that I’ve taken over the years, but through what I’ve read of Starr (2010) this approach isn’t mentoring at all, it’s more like coaching. It’s essentially a series of conversations to help change a future outcome. One of the favourite activities I teach is the supervision of dissertations, this is the module I can see the biggest leap in a student’s abilities, particularly with regards critical thinking and it presents the biggest opportunity that I get to mentor and build a connection with the students. It’s the one area that probably sucks a disproportionate amount of time out of my week but it’s definitely where my mojo (Goldsmith, 2010, p17) lies when I’m teaching.
It’s this connection with the students and their topics I think that I enjoy the most, especially as I watch them grow and I still get emails and calls from some of the students that I supervised a few years ago simply so they can let me know what they’re up to. Of course quite a few students only get in touch when they’re chasing a reference or contacting me because they want something from me but when someone drops you a note to say hi or let you know what they’re up to now without wanting anything from you it's personally very rewarding and it’s this type of contact that I treasure as it’s then that you know you’ve made a real impact on someone’s perspective on life.
Dissertations are also one of the key activities that is keeping me in academia, as it’s giving me an opportunity to continually learn and grow on a personal level although the longer I stay in academia the lower my career progression opportunities and the lower my earning potential become…. Perhaps Robert Greene (2012) is right, when looking back on my life nobody will remember the wonderful report I sacrificed weekends and evenings to complete, but perhaps they’ll remember the time I gave them to help improve their critical thinking skills and understanding of structural behaviour and I know my kids will hopefully appreciate the time we have together now I’m no longer being continually shipped out all over the place to design buildings.
After all I’ve changed quite a few skylines around the world when I had a proper job, maybe there’s more satisfaction to be had creating brilliant engineers to create even more radical designs. Or perhaps there's a compromise to be had by spending some of my time teaching and another chunk of my time working with brilliant engineers and architects to design really radical and life-changing designs... I think this could be where my future lies in all honesty, it's about time I seized the steering wheel again as these things don't happen by themselves.
Goldsmith, M. (2010). Mojo. London: Profile Books.
Greene, R. (2012). Mastery. London: Profile Books.
Starr, J. (2010). The Coaching Manual (Third ed.). London: Pearson Business.