Mentoring in STEM

Materials World magazine
1 May 2018

Kathryn Allen takes a look at STEM mentoring schemes and examines how readers can get involved.  

With an increasing focus on continuing professional development in industry, the usefulness of a mentor cannot be underestimated. 

This statement can apply to most, if not all, industries. But, within the STEM sector, particular emphasis is put on the benefits of being mentored (as outlined in Materials World July 2014). 

A mentor is an experienced advisor – someone who can answer career related questions, offer insight into a profession, and potentially provide networking opportunities or contacts. Mentors can also provide information on careers that students may be unaware are available to them. 

But, whether you are searching for or looking to become a mentor, how do you know where to look? 

There are various ways to get involved. Engineering organisations and institutes, charities, universities, and even LinkedIn run mentoring programmes. You can either search for a mentor independently, by asking around within organisations or networks that you already have, or you can join a programme and ask to be matched up with a mentor. For those looking to become mentors, similar choices are available.

The Institute is also currently developing its own mentoring programme. Sam Cruchley, Chair of the Younger Members’ Committee, told Materials World, ‘The Institute is planning to start a mentoring scheme this summer for younger members – graduate members initially, to be expanded at a later date. It would involve matching up members of the Institute, probably Fellows but other experienced members too, with graduate members. So keep your eyes peeled, as more information about the scheme will be coming out within the next few months.’ 

Starting point

For prospective mentees, it’s important to know what you want from your mentor, even if this is just a rough idea. Generally, someone currently in the industry you are looking to enter, or with prior experience in it, is a good starting point. Then consider what other skills you are looking to gain – would someone with management or leadership skills be useful? If you are unsure what specific area of industry you would like to enter, consider your field of study and look within this for a mentor.  

For prospective mentors, before signing up, it’s crucial to consider if you’re ready to take on the role. While most people can benefit from having a mentor for a large part of their education and career, not everyone can be one at any stage of their career. That said, there is not a specific age, or level of experience, at which you are allowed to become a mentor. It simply depends on whether you have knowledge and experience to pass on. It’s also worth considering if you can commit to regular contact with a mentee, if you are approachable, and if you like to be challenged. Some mentoring programmes may require certain levels of further education or a number of years in industry. Research programmes that offer mentoring in different formats, depending on how much time you have to offer, or who you are looking to mentor. 

Women in STEM

With the gender imbalance in the STEM industry, some mentoring programmes exclusively search for experienced women to encourage younger ones into STEM. One of these programmes is STEMettes, which runs a series of events, exhibitions, and mentoring schemes.  

Sci Sisters, while also aimed at building support networks between women in STEM, is a less structured or monitored scheme. The website aims to enable women to connect via its interactive map. The map identifies female professors, scientists, and those in leadership or managerial positions, who have joined the network. The benefits of this scheme, according to the website, include support, advice, potential training opportunities, and invitations to speak at events.

Founding member of Sci Sisters and Crum Brown Chair of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, UK, Polly Arnold, explained why there is a need for this scheme. ‘While I’ve been doing a lot to encourage young women to stay in STEM, there are still too few in senior positions. So in small companies or labs, women can still feel very isolated. I considered that senior women scientists in government labs, industry, or academia would have the same management issue, and if they were geographically close, their different discipline or employer wouldn’t matter.

‘Sharing a coffee and some support might even lead to some interesting new scientific connections. The map with people’s keywords would then offer a chance for others looking for a brilliant speaker, or an expert, to find women who might otherwise have remained under the radar.’

According to Arnold, the scheme has proved very popular. ‘Uptake has been great, although of course I’d like more, and the feedback has been super too. It’s also exciting that people in other regions have asked, and even volunteered to extend the map beyond Scotland, with interest from America, too.’

While also focusing on supporting women in STEM and run by the Women’s Engineering Society, MentorSET connects female mentees in STEM with mentors, male or female. In order to become a MentorSET mentor you don’t have to have mentoring experience or be at the top of your profession, but a degree or equivalent, and experience is required. Women are also encouraged to apply to be both a mentee and a mentor if they are at a mid-career level, with MentorSET claiming they will be able to gain more from this. 

Schemes for all 

But, it’s not just women that can benefit from mentoring. In November 2017, LinkedIn launched its Career Advice feature, connecting people for mentoring purposes. On the Career Advice hub users can enter the type of advice they want to receive, or are looking to give, and members are recommended based on this and the user’s professional profile. 

However, if you are looking for a more structured or guided mentoring scheme, STEM Learning runs a STEM Ambassadors programme that incorporates mentoring. With support hubs around the UK, STEM Learning works with 30,000 STEM Ambassadors – volunteers from more than 2,500 employers – to offer mentoring, careers talks, networking, and work experience to the younger generation. Through this programme mentees can also request a STEM Ambassador for a particular activity or event. 

A spokesperson from STEM Learning told Materials World, ‘The main thing that makes a good ambassador is passion – it is essential to have a genuine interest in making a difference to young people’s perception and interest in STEM subjects and careers. Regardless of the stage you are at in your career, as an ambassador, you can play a pivotal role in closing the STEM skills gap and enthusing young people of all ages.’ 

STEM Learning cites the benefits of being an ambassador to include a sense of achievement, reward and professional satisfaction, presentation skills, and confidence. 

Dr Melanie Bottrill, STEM Programmes Manager at Imperial College London’s Outreach team, which focuses on student led mentoring, offered advice for those looking to become a mentor. ‘There are lots of different schemes available and once you have identified how much time you have to commit, you will be able to best judge what scheme works for you. Also consider how you want to communicate with your mentee(s) – do you want to meet face-to-face, online, or in a group? Whatever you are most comfortable with, you will find a scheme that caters for that’, said Bottrill.

It’s crucial to find a mentoring programme that suits your needs. Whether you’re looking to be a mentee or a mentor, consider what you want from it and how much time you have to offer.