Mentorship programmes such as the 12-week Learn to Code programme run as part of the Research Software Campsoffer a great opportunity for researchers to level up their coding skills. I took part in this programme as a mentor in the run-up to the Beyond the Spreadsheet Research Software Camp, November 2021. Based on my experience, this guide offers some tips for how mentors can set up a successful short-term mentoring relationship.
1. Be clear about what you can offer
The first stage of most mentoring programmes will be to match mentees with mentors. Help the organizers make a good match by letting them know what topics you’d most like to focus on and any other priorities or connections you have. For example, I said that I preferred to mentor someone looking to develop their R skills and/or someone based at Warwick so that it aligned with my work. There were a couple of mentees interested in learning R, one of these, Rebecca Hamilton, was based in Cardiff with collaborations at Warwick. Since I live in South Wales and have been a regular at the Cardiff R User Group, this was a perfect match!
2. Set up an early kick-off meeting
Try to set up an introductory meeting one or two weeks before the mentorship programme officially begins. This gives you and your mentee a chance to get to know each other better. Find out more about your mentees' background - not only their coding experience but also the context in which they are looking to apply these skills. What is their main goal for the mentorship? Rebecca’s was to learn how to use R to manage spreadsheet data.
The advantage of meeting early is that it gives you time to prepare for the mentorship period. Rebecca used the time to install R and RStudio, while I gathered some resources that might be useful during the mentorship.
3. Set up regular meetings
Schedule weekly meetings during the mentorship period to discuss what your mentee has been working on. This is an opportunity for your mentee to ask questions that have come up and for you to add to their learning by providing further information, working through examples together or recommending other resources.
Keep the meetings short (30 minutes) to encourage focused discussion and leave time for you both to follow up on any agreed actions. Use collaborative notes to keep track of what you discuss and have agreed to do next. You can add notes to this asynchronously and it will also help when reporting back at the end of the mentorship.
4. Guide your mentee to create a work plan
Review the general requirements of the programme together, e.g., key dates and any expected outputs such as a blog post. Discuss what might be feasible to achieve in the time available, in terms of what learning resources could be covered and/or what tasks could be achieved. Guide your mentee to prepare a draft work plan with tasks for each week that can be reviewed in your weekly meetings.
As Rebecca was very new to R, her work plan was about two-thirds learning (e.g. working through the Basic Basics module of the RYouWithMe course by R-Ladies Sydney) and one-third applying to her own data (e.g. using R to read in data from an example spreadsheet from her project).
5. Refine your end goal
It can be difficult to define a precise goal at the start of the mentorship. Keep the end goal under review, so that your mentee finishes the mentorship with a sense of achievement.
As Rebecca shared more about the spreadsheets she worked with, it became clear that they came in a variety of complex formats and a full solution to managing the data with R was beyond the scope of the mentorship. At the same time, Rebecca had fallen in love with the R package ggplot2, enjoying the possibilities it offered for visualisation. So we refined the end goal to be able to read the data from at least one sheet of an example spreadsheet and create a relevant visualisation from it.
A successful mentoring relationship is built on understanding your mentee’s goals and helping them find a path to meet them. This requires being clear about what you can offer to ensure a good match, scoping the mentorship in a kickoff meeting, then meeting regularly to keep on track, and guiding the mentee to plan their weekly activities and refine their end goal for the mentorship programme.