"Mentoring…and Giving Back" at the 2016 WSDC Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina

Effective mentor-to-mentee relationships was the theme for the National Institute of Statistical Sciences (NISS) panel discussion at the 2016 Women in Statistics and Data Science (WSDS) conference hosted by the American Statistical Association (ASA). Three current and past NISS postdoctoral fellows joined Nell Sedransk, NISS Director in addressing the theme "Mentoring...and Giving Back." Ya Mo, NISS Research Associate, Zhulin He, Assistant Professor of Statistics at Iowa State University and Xia Wang, Assistant Professor of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cincinnati (US) spoke about making the transition from being mentored to becoming mentors themselves. The four women at different stages in their professional careers presented their individual perspectives on the expectations, qualities, and goals to make the most out of mentorships. 

Sedransk opened the discussion by individually asking Mo, Wang and He what they looked for in a mentor. "I wanted my mentor to provide reassurance that I was taking the right path all through the program," said Mo, the most recent Ph.D. (2015) graduate. "I wanted to know that the struggles I was experiencing were normal and that I was doing fine," she added. Mo’s Ph.D. mentor explained to her that some students come into a Ph.D. program with a clear idea of which topic they plan to study, then immediately commit to specific courses, research projects, and dissertations, while other students take the time to explore various fields before committing to a single subject.

"That information was both helpful and essential to my success," said Mo, adding, "I hope to someday be a reassuring and supporting mentor by helping my mentees see the big picture and foresee the difficulties that students will likely encounter." Mo sees the gain of knowledge from various subdomains if one chooses to explore the field before choosing a topic early in a Ph.D. program but at a potential cost of uncertainty and anxiety. Mo summed up by saying, "I hope that my mentees are well prepared for their choices.” 

Echoing Mo’s perspective, Dr. He reflected on her own mentor's role in helping her choose a career path during her time studying in Canada. "I was looking for a simple and consistent plan," said Dr. He. He initially chose a specific program that would lead her to graduate in two years, followed by a strong recommendation from her mentor that would place her in an industrial job immediately thereafter. However, plans changed. He said, “to my relief, my mentor was very supportive of my new plans and decisions." He continued, "I plan to carry the same level of flexibility that my mentor gave me on to my own mentees," adding, "It's important to set expectations, respect and support each student's decision, and plan ahead to prepare for a change to the original plan if necessary."

Mo discussed the need to solidify the date and time when the mentor and mentee will meet next at the end of every meeting. This is because established scholars often have demanding schedules that limit their availability as mentors. This requires proactive communication from mentees. Mo recollected, "My mentor cared about her students, but she was also extremely busy because of research, teaching, and services." When I sent an email to my mentor for a meeting, it often took a week or more to hear back from her. Wang agreed, "It's important to talk with mentors regularly for advice on moving to the next stage”

The panel expanded on the role of communication in mentoring, agreeing that mentees must be able to gain a clear grasp on the subject matter to ask for help when necessary. "It's very helpful for the mentor to know what is going on, what to do next and what the mentee needs.”  Dr. He noted that when she worked with her Ph.D. advisor, she was afraid to make mistakes while speaking. "I spoke very little at first, making my mentor think I was a very shy person. Later, I realized that the more I was afraid, the more mistakes I made.” Sedransk also emphasized the need for communications between the mentor and mentee saying, "The more communication there is, the better chance you have of getting it right."

"An example speaks louder than words," says Mo. When Sedransk and Mo collaborated on a research project, Sedransk wrote up the patterns she observed for the math achievement in the regression tree analysis. "It helped me actually see how to observe and write-up patterns for other subject areas," explained Mo. Visual demonstrations have proven to be a successful approach to combat language barriers for Mo.

While mentorships are designed to promote career advancement, both mentors and mentees may struggle to maintain a balance between their professional and personal lives. "The better you are, the harder you will have to work to find a balance," said Sedransk. Mo recalled a difficult time during her Ph.D. program when she was grateful for her mentor's compassion. My mentor told me to have faith that the decisions I make in my personal and professional life will all work out for the best. "That kind of reassurance is extremely comforting." 

Nonetheless, a line must be drawn when students seek their mentor's guidance in private life affairs. From a mentor's perspective, Sedransk said that mentorship must remain professional, as mentoring is a directional relationship - not peer-to-peer. "I can attest to that being a real problem and a very difficult one when either the mentee or the mentor is dealing with a deeply serious issue in her personal life. As a mentor, I'll give the flexibility I can, but the mentee’s problem is one she will ultimately have to solve so that help will have to come from somebody who has the professional knowledge to help.". Once the line is crossed from mentoring into personal affairs, the professional relationship can suffer as well and become very difficult. It doesn't mean mentors can't be friendly and helpful, but both mentor and mentee have to respect each other's private lives, she adds.

While mentors who specialize in a mentee's field of study are ideal, Sedransk recommended that students also find a mentor outside of their department to broaden their perspective. Dr. Wang said that with this idea in mind, she asked the Associate Dean of Research at UC to be her mentor. "We had monthly meetings for my entire first year, which was very helpful with my transition to becoming a junior faculty member."

Building upon the discussion, Mo said that in addition to building new relationships with mentors, maintaining an ongoing rapport is equally important. For example, she continues to learn from a previous advisor by collaborating to publish new research. "We send manuscripts back and forth for revisions and tailored them for different journals,” she added.

Concluding the panel discussion, Sedransk, Mo, Wang, and He emphasized on the need for mentors to be supportive and direct and to maintain an ongoing professional relationship with mentees. By actively communicating their expectations, mentees and mentors can set mutual expectations and identify the appropriate routes to reach goals efficiently.

The 2017 Women in Statistics and Data Science (WSDS) conference will be held in La Jolla, California, from Oct 19-21, 2017. The theme for 2017 will be "Share WISDOM (Women In Statistics, Data science, and -OMics).” Dalene Stangl, Professor of the Practice Statistical Science at Duke University, is on ASA's WSDS Program Committee and played a key role in launching the first WSDS conference in 2014. She said, "We seek to create a different force and space in our culture. A place where women can learn and understand our needs can start to reshape our own value and to assert ourselves more fully. We need to start by claiming our right to do so. This is why we created Celebrating Women in Statistics and Data Science.  So that we have a place to learn, understand, and voice what we value whether it agrees with or goes against a mainstream work culture.”

She added, "In the past, there were more men pursuing postdoctoral degrees in statistics and data science but today more women are pursuing these careers and NISS is determined to tap into the pool of talented women statisticians.”

Monday, May 15, 2017 by Mearl Colaco