Social Capital and Mentorship: Tools from the Precipice for Early Career Professionals

Stacy Ogbeide
Stacy Ogbeide

Stacy Ogbeide, PsyD, ABPP, CSOWM
Associate Professor/Clinical
Dept. of Family & Community Medicine
UT Health San Antonio
Twitter: @DrStacyO1

2020 has been quite the year thus far. Loss of social connectedness continues to be a central theme in our national conversations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., physical/social distancing). Social connectedness in the U.S., however, has been eroding at an increasing rate for the past decade even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Robert Putnam in his bestselling book, Bowling Alone, documents the decline of social capital and community in the U.S. since the 1950’s. Social media has not necessarily helped either. Research shows that even with the rise of social media, people are reporting feeling socially disconnected at increasing rates (Loprest, Spaulding, & Nightingale, 2019) which is also not great for one’s health (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). I am leading the article with decline of social connectedness because social disconnection is a very palpable issue for early career professionals (ECP’s) – especially when it comes to one’s career trajectory and career choices (O’Shaughnessy & Burnes, 2014; Pienaar, Holmström, Hauer, & Schéle, 2018). There are many ways to address this, but I wanted to spend a little bit of time discussing professional mentoring and why ECP’s (or professionals in general) should seek this support at some point in their career. Mentorship is common in academia and it can be helpful for those in clinical practice (e.g., private practice, community health center) and in consulting (e.g., addressing organizational behavior) as well.

I have experienced mentorship at different levels throughout my training and professional experiences – from working with a guidance counselor in high school, to being assigned an advisor in college. There are many definitions of mentorship available, the most impactful for me is: a mentor is someone who serves as a guide who even though they have seen what lies ahead, is willing to walk beside you – leading but never leaving you behind on your journey (Boyd, 1988). Even though someone may have had personal experience with informal and formal variations of mentorship early in their training, it does not always come naturally to continue this process once training is complete and one is launched into the world of being an “ECP.” Luckily, there are many mentoring options available.

You may have been accustomed to having an assigned mentor or advisor during your doctoral training who guided you on research, dissertation progress, and where to apply for internship. There are peer mentoring models and group mentoring models that are effective. There are also levels of mentoring such as teaching, sponsorship (creating opportunities, opening doors), support, intervention (identify and fix a problem), and critique (tell you the hard stuff). A mentor can also serve at one or more of these levels OR you can have more than one mentor who can address these different levels. The important piece of this is having mentors speaking to each of these levels during your professional journey (Brown-Speights et al., 2018). Some mentors will be in your life for a lifetime and some just for a season – once you establish goals and objectives for mentorship, one will have a better idea of the timeline for mentorship.

Well, now that you know the different mentoring options, what are the next steps? Here is a list of qualifications to consider when choosing someone to serve as a mentor: strong interpersonal skills, flexibility, takes initiative, accessibility, tenacious, willing to give recommendations, and lastly, someone who is willing to inspire, invest, and support YOU (Bhagia & Tinsley, 2000). But let us not forget – mentoring is a two-way street. Here is a list of qualifications for the mentee: clear goals and objectives (what do you want/need; check out the helpful mentee self-evaluation tool by Carey & Weissman, 2010), open to feedback, active listener, and respectful of the mentor’s time and input (Brown-Speights et al., 2018). Many of you will be (or already are) mentors for trainees or other professionals, which makes one both the mentee and the mentor. This illustrates the dynamic process of the mentoring relationship and why it can be powerful and energizing when the relationship is balanced.

I hope I have piqued your interest in seeking out a professional mentor. My mentors have enriched my life and I hope the same for anyone else who is seeking out mentorship. Being a first-generation, Nigerian-American woman in academic medicine, there were and are many intricacies of dealing with the ebbs and flows of life in academia as well as addressing issues like structural racism in the settings in which I exist. So, I sought out mentors early – before my training was complete and continue to do so as an ECP. I found people I admired, who possessed the qualities of a strong mentor (e.g., supportive!), and who are doing things professionally that I hope to do very soon in my career.

Mentorship has helped me step out in faith and take risks, understand that the grass is not always greener on the other side, encouraged true self-care, and taught me that failure is okay and when I can learn AND grow from it, it is a bonus. Having this perspective shift has helped me understand and come to enjoy the ebbs and flows of being an ECP.

My parting words for ECPs:

  • Do not forget your peers! They can serve as great mentors too – especially on the fly.
  • Mentors can serve different roles: coach, cheerleader/encourager, sponsorship, career guidance, just to name a few. Sometimes one person can fill all these roles but it is okay (and desirable) for you to have different mentors fill different roles. You may have a mentor that focuses on your role as a clinician. You may have another mentor that focuses on your role as an administrator or researcher. Having multiple mentors can be a great benefit.
  • You may want to consider having a mentor who is not in your discipline. It can give you a different perspective/worldview.
  • Racial and Ethnic Minority ECP’s: racial/ethnic matching with mentorship can be truly life-giving. But – consider not discounting someone as a mentor because of this – if they are willing to discuss racial and ethnic issues throughout your mentoring relationship, this may be professional relationship to consider.
  • Our professional lives can be challenging. We are pulled in many different directions with competing demands. Mentorship can truly help you re-focus and determine what are the most important elements of your career. The first step to receiving mentorship is to take the risk of asking someone that you admire. I promise – the risk is worth it!

P.S. Thank you to a peer mentor of mine (Dr. Deepu George) for giving me feedback on this article!

References:
Bhagia, J., & Tinsley, J. A., (2000). The mentoring partnership (commentary). Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 75(5), P535-P537. doi: https://doi.org/10.4065/75.5.535

Boyd, D. (1988). Introduction: Lawrence Kohlberg as Mentor. Journal of Moral Education, 17(3), 167-171. doi: 10.1080/0305724880170301

Brown-Speights, J., Carter-Henry, S., Davis, A., Flowers, K., Figueroa, E., …, & Washington, J. (2018). In pursuit of equity and diversity in the Family Medicine workforce and leadership. Pre-conference workshop at the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine, Washington, DC.

Carey, E. C., & Weissman, D. E. (2010). Understanding and finding mentorship: a review for junior faculty. Journal of Palliative Medicine13(11), 1373–1379. doi: https://doi.org/10.1089/jpm.2010.0091

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352

Loprest, P., Spaulding, S., & Nightingale, D. (2019). Disconnected young adults: Increasing engagement and opportunity. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 5(5), 221-243. doi:10.7758/rsf.2019.5.5.11

O’Shaughnessy, T. & Burnes, T. (2014). Conceptualizing a path to professional wellness for women early career psychologists. Women & Therapy, 37(1-2), 59-71. doi: 10.1080/02703149.2014.850335

Pienaar, J., Holmström, S., Hauer, E., & Schéle, I. (2018). Supporting early-career psychologists and social workers: Psychological flexibility moderates between isolation at work and cognitive weariness. Retrieved from http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:umu:diva-152168