In conversation with Professor Bernie Morley and Professor Nathan Mayne.
The Future Leaders Fellows Development Network’s award-winning Leadership Mentoring Programme brings together established mentors with mentees in an interdisciplinary exchange of knowledge. In this blog, we share a conversation between mentor Bernie Morley, a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Bath, and mentee Professor Nathan Mayne, an FLF specialising in climate studies of exoplanets at the University of Exeter. This discussion reveals the significant benefits of interdisciplinary mentoring and emphasises the importance of leadership development in the research world.
Seeking a Mentor
Nathan sought a mentor when he realised, he had reached a point in his research where he was comfortable but desired an understanding of broader academia. He wanted to contribute beyond his research group and needed someone who could guide him in the right direction.
“The challenges, which sort of spurred me to find a mentor, were really about direction. I was getting to a point where I felt happy and comfortable with the way that my research group were going. I can always do better, of course, the research itself was exciting and interesting and progressing well. But I wanted to understand ways that I might contribute in a wider sense to academia or the kind of higher education structure”.
This led Nathan to seek a mentor from the Leadership Mentoring Programme. And, after sharing these challenges, he was matched with mentor Bernie Morley.
Needs of Mentees
As a mentor, Bernie Morley had faced mentees with different needs. Some, like Nathan, sought guidance to progress further in their careers, while others needed more fundamental guidance on university processes. This emphasises the importance of matching mentors and mentees based on their specific needs and ensuring a productive mentorship.
Bernie highlights the effectiveness of the program’s matching process, which aligns mentors and mentees based on shared values and goals. The success of mentorship hinges on the initial pairing and the subsequent development of a strong and enjoyable relationship. This process encourages meaningful conversations that contribute to the growth of both mentors and mentees.
“The Network has done a brilliant job at matching. We were able to talk about things that that mattered to us, and they were similar things. Yes, there was the career, but there was also family, and where we live. That’s a factor in that broader picture. You then get to know each other, talk to each other a little bit realise that you can get on and from there on you can start to talk about what’s important, and pursue more with trust and authenticity.”
Interdisciplinary Mentor Matching
Nathan emphasises the fresh perspectives that mentors from different disciplines bring to the table. Their insights into the workings of various universities offer mentees a more comprehensive view of the academic landscape. Interdisciplinary mentorship encourages mentees to explore new avenues and think beyond their current work environment.
“Speaking to someone that had that insight not only of a different research field, but also the way different universities work and at different levels was really useful to me, not only to expose things I didn’t know, but to ask me questions that I hadn’t even thought about yet.”
Bernie highlights that in practice, interdisciplinary discussions often transcend the boundaries of their respective disciplines. Their conversations extended into broader university management, providing mentees with a deeper understanding of academic institutions. Interdisciplinary mentorship encourages mentees to view the academic world holistically.
“I was fascinated by the research that Nathan has done. It’s amazing how successful he’s been at that level of research. But a lot of the questions I had with my mentees were more around how universities work. And the discipline then is only marginal to that conversation. I mean, yes, there are differences in certain in certain disciplines, but because of my role at Bath, it had been across all the disciplines. So it was more about management, about potential, the difference between research type roles and more management roles.”
Nathan’s leadership development was strongly influenced by mentorship. The primary impact was on his leadership and direction. He focused on his goals and the direction of his career. He mentions that, as academics, the constant pursuit of immediate goals often overshadows consideration of the bigger picture. Mentorship enabled him to question the path he was on, making him more open to new ideas and ways of doing things.
“For me, I really wanted to understand and analyse what I was trying to achieve. Where was I trying to go? I think sometimes in academia, maybe in many careers, you focus on achieving the next goal and the next goal. And we don’t allow ourselves much time to think about where’s this road taking me? Do I like that place?”
Nathan discusses the significance of interdisciplinary leadership, which involves understanding various disciplines and working together to address complex problems. He highlights that solving major issues in academia and the world often requires collaboration across different fields.
“As you progress through along certain pathways, you’re going to be in positions where you need to make decisions about people from all sorts of disciplines and backgrounds, and you need to be able to understand that bigger picture and understand differences between fields.
The second thing in terms of interdisciplinary work in general is it’s great to get new perspectives. And I think the argument about diverse viewpoints in all senses of the word has been shown to increase innovation. But I think it does come with a caveat and that’s that patience is required. So, interdisciplinary work is not about the abandonment of disciplines. You still need strong discipline experts, but it’s about connecting those people so that you can solve bigger, bigger problems. And to me, that’s what I get a buzz out of in research.”
Bernie adds, “From the point of view of moving higher up the university, into management, it’s not so much interdisciplinary, it’s you’ve got to understand the differences in disciplines, and I think that’s hugely important.”
Becoming a Mentor
Bernie’s motivation for being a mentor stems from a desire to give back to the academic community. He had experienced the benefits of strong mentors during his career and saw mentorship as a way to support others in achieving their goals. His approach aligns with the fundamental concept of education – helping others grow and succeed.
I was very lucky coming up through my career because I had sort of a very strong scientific mentor. And then I had two senior members when I was at Imperial who were very helpful, taking the next step in leadership and seeing the bigger picture. And so, it’s a chance to me to give back. It’s what education is all about really, isn’t it? It’s why we teach undergraduates; it’s why we teach postgraduates. And to some extent, if I can support members of staff to achieve the right, the right balance, the right things, then I feel I’m doing something helpful.”
Getting the most out of Mentoring
Nathan emphasises the importance of a well-matched mentor-mentee relationship. He suggests that potential mentees should be clear about their goals and what they seek from mentorship. Authenticity is key, as open and honest discussions foster meaningful mentorship. The key takeaway is that mentorship is a two-way relationship that requires both parties to be themselves and work towards common goals.
“I think mentoring is so valuable, but I think it hinges on the match. And I think that’s what was so great about this system. I can approach people that I’ve met, and I might get lucky, and someone I’ve met turns out to be a great mentor or we can have a really good interaction.
But being quite clear and thinking about what it is you want to achieve from that so that you can connect with the correct person, I guess. And then I think from there it’s authenticity and I think that’s both from the mentor mentee just being yourself. I was really impressed with how the kind of things I was looking to talk about aligned with Bernie’s character and an experience. So, it was great for me that way.”
Bernie reflects on the enjoyment he derives from being a mentor. It’s not just about giving back; it’s about building enjoyable connections with interesting people and engaging in conversations that can be more fulfilling than other academic commitments.
“I feel that this kind of thing is an investment in the people within this system that links us all- the funders, the researchers, everyone. So, for me, it’s about trying to plant a tree and sort of make things better in the future. And the best way to do that is to connect with people that you might not normally have connected with.”
Nathan adds that mentorship can help academics who might struggle with interpersonal skills to improve their ability to work with others, which is essential for success in academia. Mentorship fosters meaningful conversations that support mental health by encouraging individuals to talk openly about their concerns and challenges.
“I totally agree with Bernie. It’s basically because you get to meet interesting people and have fun discussions. If you want to get on a little bit and support others more, you need to work with people. For mental health, too, a great way to deal with things is to talk to people, not keep it bottled up. So, if this helps people have conversations, then that’s a major plus in my book.”
This mentor-mentee conversation highlights the significance of mentorship in academia. It emphasises the importance of well-matched relationships, authentic discussions, and the interdisciplinary nature of academic growth. Mentorship not only benefits individuals but also contributes to the collective success of the academic community.
Image credit – Andy Catlin, 2023