McMahon CarterGraduate School Dean Lori McMahon and Director of Educational Services and Professional Development Program Kellie Carter.At a research-intensive university, few skills are more strategic – and sought-after – than mentoring and leadership, which affect productivity, diversity, and the effectiveness of instruction from the undergraduate to the post-doctoral level and beyond (see articles "Reaching Gender Equity in Science: The Importance of Role Models And Mentors" or "The Merits of Training Mentors").

What if, then, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), it was possible to gather the best and brightest, create a forum for them, and add the latest science and scholarship to train the next generation of mentors and leaders?

Well, it is possible, thanks to the new Mentoring & Leadership Certificate offered by the UAB Graduate School, starting in the spring of 2016, according to Dean Lori L. McMahon, who also serves as UAB’s Jarman F. Lowder Professor of Neuroscience, Director of the Comprehensive Neuroscience Center and Co-Director of the Roadmap Scholars Program. The certificate builds on existing UAB initiatives to close the mentoring gap, such as the Graduate School Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentorship and the UAB Mentoring Academy and Mentoring Week sponsored by the Office of Post-Doctoral Education.

“Although the quality of mentoring drives success at institutions like UAB, most of us are not born with all of the skills required to be great mentors,” says Dean McMahon. “It is something that we have to learn, and all of us become better mentors over time and with experience.

“Being a great mentor is much like being a great parent,” she adds, with a smile. “You need to know when to push and when to have patience. Each mentee has unique strengths and weaknesses, and great mentors recognize these characteristics and help their mentees grow and develop.”

In the past, Dean McMahon explains, new faculty acquired their mentoring skills on-the-job, which could be stressful for both mentor and mentee, leading to mismatched expectations all around. “Today, thanks to emerging scholarship on best practices in mentoring and leadership, we can offer formal instruction allowing mentors to do a top-notch job of mentoring and teaching the next generation of leaders.”

The new Certificate program will provide formal instruction to graduate students, postdocs, and faculty in mentoring and leadership, and is part of a larger emphasis on “mentoring the mentor,” an important trend in graduate education, says Dean McMahon.

“Training in mentorship should be essential for anyone working in an academic research environment. In fact, it is becoming an expectation of federal funding agencies like NIH, which award institutional and individual fellowship training grants. This Certificate program will help UAB faculty, students, and trainees excel in this area.”  

The effort to create a Mentoring & Leadership Certificate was led by Kellie R. Carter, PhD, Director of the Graduate School’s Educational Services and Professional Development Program (PDP @ UAB), Administrative Co-Leader, CIRTL@UAB Certificates Program, and Co-Director for Teaching Instruction, MERIT Postdoctoral Scholar Program. “Graduate students who attend our professional development courses and workshops frequently ask us whether we have courses in mentoring and/or leadership,” explains Dr. Carter, whose doctorate is in educational leadership. “Post-docs and UAB employees have also inquired about offerings in this area.”

Mentoring appears simple on the surface, but a successful mentoring relationship is complex and very individual, explains Dr. Carter, who researched mentoring in higher education for her doctorate.

 “These relationships take different forms, such as student-to-professor, peer-to-peer, or junior colleague to lifetime coach. Each type of relationship calls for strategic use of a core set of skills, such as empathy, good communication, patience, and diplomacy. Many of these same skills also characterize an effective leader. That’s what is unique to this certificate, that we are merging training in mentoring with building leadership capacity. We believe that individuals who complete the certificate will not only perform better in existing positions, but be able to use their new view of learning and leading people to create additional career opportunities.

Dr. Carter says she knows of no other program where these types of courses are available in a curriculum designed to meet the needs of students from all graduate programs, including the sciences, humanities, and professional schools, she adds. “With our ongoing professional development offerings, background, and access to ‘mentoring leaders’ on campus, we felt like we were in the perfect position to build on our existing program with this new certificate.”

The 15-credit hour course of study results in a Level A Certificate in Mentoring & Leadership that appears on a student’s transcript, she explains. It involves three core courses for 5 credit hours: GRD 713 Mentoring 101 Seminar, GRD 735 Leadership 101 Seminar (offered as GRD 703 this spring), and GRD 719 Introduction to Mentoring & Leadership. Students then elect to take 2 more courses, 6 credit hours, from the PDP’s standing curriculum in presentation and discussion skills, writing and publishing, teaching at the college level, and ethical leadership. Finally, students take an additional 4 credit hours from a series of workshops and seminars in grant writing, presenting, writing, career development, and managing and leading teams. Visit http://www.uab.edu/graduate/mentoring-and-leadership for details.

The new Mentoring & Leadership Certificate is the second in a series of professional certificates offered by the UAB Graduate School, which also features courses in teaching higher education and Teaching Certificates through an affiliation with the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, & Learning (CIRTL). These certificates represent the UAB Graduate School’s continuing effort to better prepare today’s graduate students and post-doctoral fellows for the careers of the future, concludes Dean McMahon.

“Times have changed. The students we are training today are different from the ones we trained 10 years ago. So is the job landscape. We know that the majority of our students will pursue non-academic careers. Skills like mentoring, leading, and teaching help them round out their professional competencies so they are positioned for jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities that we can’t even imagine today. In fact, we will be looking to offer additional certificate programs wherever new needs and interests arise among students and trainees.”