Role of ‘critical research friends’ in mentoring emerging researchers: Reflections from a mentorship workshop
ILRI staff at a Capacity Development training (photo credit: ILRI/Samuel Mungai).
By Joyce Maru
This post is re-posted with permission thanks to Joyce Maru from The
International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). For the original
post, please follow this link.
International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)/CGIAR graduate
fellowship program provides practical, hands-on mentorship support in
well-resourced ILRI research laboratories and facilities in Kenya,
Ethiopia and in other countries where ILRI operates.
hands-on mentoring, usually in periods ranging from six months to three
years, is an important component in developing the capacity of emerging
developing-world leaders in agricultural research (at MSc, PhDs and
postdoc levels). It also supports production of high-quality of research
outputs from ILRI.
A key consideration in the graduate
fellowship program is the need to understand and respond to the career
and capacity needs of research fellows so that the mentoring supports
them appropriately in designing and carrying out their work in
of the ways in which ILRI is helping fellows is by giving them access
to groups of ‘critical research friends’ made up of various mentoring
supervisors. According toCosta and Kallick (1993) a
critical friend is ‘a trusted person who asks provocative questions,
provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critique
of a person’s work as a friend.’
The term is mostly applied in critical pedagogy and in contexts of
mentoring and coaching to refer to support provided to individuals and
groups undertaking a certain project. In ILRI’s context, graduate
fellows or early-career researchers could, therefore, refer to their
mentoring supervisors as their critical research friends.
I recently attended a training of trainers (ToT) workshop on mentorship in Johannesburg, South Africa, which was conducted byVitaeUK and organized through theCIRCLEfellowship
program. In this blog post, I reflect on the key learnings I derived
from the workshop and how I think they can be used to enhance ILRI’s
approach to mentorship.
a starting point, it is vital to clarify the different terminologies
that are loosely and interchangeably used to refer to ‘mentorship
support’ in research. For example, it is important to clarify whether
when using that term, we mean ‘graduate fellow supervisors, mentoring
supervisors, supervisors, line managers or coaches.
prefer the term ‘critical research friend’ or ‘mentoring supervisor’
because, for example in ILRI’s case, graduate fellow supervisors often
assume a hybrid role of mentoring graduate fellows although other
informal mentoring relationships may emerge stemming from friendships
with work colleagues.
of approach used, however, the important question is what makes a good
mentor? Is it correct to assume that line management relationships
automatically become mentoring relationships? And moreover, how can we
encourage line manages to take a mentoring approach to supervision?
Qualities of a good mentor
group discussions at the Johannesburg workshop, a mentor was portrayed
as one with an ideal personality and demonstrating a long wish list of
qualities, behaviour and competencies, but the top five qualities that I
think a critical research friend should demonstrate include:
Generosity of spirit–
mentoring is ingrained in their value system and they are always
willing to share skills, knowledge and expertise with their mentees i.e.
they are available as a resource and asounding board;
alwaysencourage and inspiretheir mentees to learn, improve and conduct cutting-edge research withintegrity;
Self-reflectiveand valuesongoing learningandgrowthin the field;
Helps the mentees to set and meetongoing personal and professional developmentMentors
continuously help their mentees to develop by highlighting, through
constructive feedback, the areas that need improvement and by
objectively focusing on the mentee’s behaviour and not their character;
Wellrespected and admiredby colleagues and employees in all levels of the organization.
Making ILRI a centre of excellence in mentoring emerging/early career researcher
we aspire to become a centre of excellent in mentoring and supporting
emerging career researchers, some important considerations and
reflections could include:
How does the mentorship scheme align with the strategic direction of the organization?
How do we identify and support those who have the values and qualities to become mentors?
Is there a strategic plan, leadership and champions for mentoring?
there a clear, formal policy and guidelines on mentorship? (Defined
roles of mentor/mentee, implementation plan, mentoring support,
evaluation and feedback mechanism);
Is it sustainable?
Is it a coordinated approach? Who leads the initiative?
How do we continue to develop mentoring skills and capabilities?
Can we demonstrate output and impact?
How do we reward and incentivize best practice?
How do we institutionally support good mentors with integrity and without exploitation?
How do we set boundaries for the institution, the mentor and the mentees?
How do we create a critical mass of mentors?
What alternative models can we create for a mentoring experience when resources are scarce?
Is it inclusive? (Gender sensitive, interdisciplinary, diversity);
a question can be posed on the extent of the need to have, in place, a
unified/formalized mentoring system that allows equality of access and
is quality assured. I think that quality assurance underpins effective
mentoring relationships and, therefore, there is need for more
systematic and constructive support and mentoring for emerging research
Joyce Maru is a capacity development officer at ILRI.