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Eric Vance Talks Mentoring

1 February 2015 3,160 views 3 Comments

Mentor noun: a wise and trusted counselor or teacher.

David Morganstein

David Morganstein

If we were lucky, we benefitted from one or more senior colleagues who took an interest in our careers, perhaps when we were graduate students or maybe at one of our early jobs. While a lot of mentoring happens organically, our association, chapters, and sections can do much to create opportunities to both be a mentor and receive guidance from one.

As one example, I suspect many graduate students would welcome a connection with a more senior and experienced statistician as they move from studies to career. These opportunities have bi-directional benefits and bring value to both.

Former ASA President Sastry Pantula, who frequently spoke about the value of mentoring, said, “Appropriate mentoring can help develop a career, enhance confidence, and provide a sense of belonging. A mentor is like the oil that lights your path to the future and lets you (not himself/herself) shine.”

What’s more, we speak to our values by recognizing outstanding mentors and the service they provide to others and our profession. Perhaps it’s time for the ASA to begin offering an annual recognition for an outstanding mentor.

Eric Vance

Eric Vance

Eric Vance, Virginia Tech associate research professor and director of LISA (Virginia Tech’s Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Statistical Analysis), offered to lead one of my presidential initiatives on the importance of mentoring and is helping in a number of ways to expand and recognize mentoring within our association. This month, let’s talk to Eric, get acquainted, see what’s been happening the past couple of years, and learn about what he is planning for 2015.

Eric, why is mentoring important to you?

To me, mentoring is about enabling success. I don’t know if anybody can become successful without some mentoring and guidance from those with more experience. Every day in my job as director of LISA, I see the positive impact statistical thinking has on people’s research. And every week, I read an article about Big Data or analytics that never even mentions statistics or statisticians! I want to increase the impact of statistics and statisticians worldwide, and mentoring is an important step. We statisticians need to help each other. What better way than to mentor a statistician early in their career?
What can mentoring offer a statistician who is just starting their career?

One of the things that attracted me to the field of statistics was the opportunity to do whatever I wanted and “play in everyone’s backyard.” With such freedom in applying statistics, a statistician just starting their career could become overwhelmed with all the possibilities. It’s not always so easy to start out with a blank canvas. A mentor can offer a mentee examples and stories of how they have used their statistical training. They can paint a picture that is rich with details that can help others creatively direct their own careers.

Of course, sharing lessons learned can also help a statistician just starting their career to avoid growing pains.

Did you have mentors who guided you in your career?

Michael Lavine was my first statistical collaboration mentor; David Banks became my research advisor; and now I trade ideas with Doug Zahn about how to better train statisticians to become effective statistical collaborators. I also consider several of my students to be my mentors, as I continually learn from them.

What can mentoring offer a more seasoned statistician? What might they get out of it?

Mentoring is a two-way street. Mentors get as much as they give. Seasoned statisticians can get a fresh perspective on the field from their mentee and learn new things. They can learn and practice their leadership and teaching skills via mentoring. In fact, mentoring can be part of their personal career development plan in that it may be necessary to demonstrate competency in mentoring before being promoted.

What does the CAS “Mentoring in a Bag” material provide for someone interested in mentoring?

The Committee on Applied Statisticians (CAS), led by Amarjot Kaur, developed a short, one-page guide for a statistician learning to be an effective mentor or mentee. The idea is that this guide can explain the basics for starting a mentoring relationship, such as the four stages in a mentoring relationship (establishing rapport, identifying goals, assessing progress, and moving on). We hope this guide can be placed in a conference bag for interested attendees to jumpstart a mentoring relationship.

What does the CAS “Mentoring in a Box” material offer a chapter or section interested in starting a mentoring program?

Starting a mentoring program from scratch can be difficult. We in CAS know that because we’ve done it. Basically, everything we have learned about creating and sustaining a mentoring program for statisticians has been evolved from the Mentoring in a Bag initiative and distilled into material we call “Mentoring in a Box.” A chapter or a section interested in starting a mentoring program can “open” the box and find ready-to-use email text, survey templates, procedures, and guidelines to run their own mentoring program. For example, the box contains an online survey a chapter or section can modify to use for recruiting participants and an algorithm to efficiently match mentors and mentees.

Several ASA sections and at least one chapter will be starting mentoring programs in 2015 based on the templates and guides provided by CAS in Mentoring in a Box.

What have you heard back from ASA members who served as mentors?

I am familiar with the CAS mentoring program for applied statisticians and the 2014 CSP and JSM mentoring programs. Something I’ve heard from mentors in all three programs is that mentees need to know that it’s on the mentee to drive the agenda and to make sure the relationship continues after the initial meeting. After the mentors initially help the mentees identify career goals and mileposts, the mentees must be proactive about communicating with the mentors on their progress. We will be sure to include this information in future mentoring programs.

What have you heard from ASA members who have received a mentor?

The feedback I’ve gotten from mentees has been mixed! Some mentees gush about the programs and their mentors and how they benefited from the experience. Several mentees received job offers as a direct result of advice their mentors gave them. Other mentees felt they were mismatched or that their mentors didn’t show much interest in them.

How have mentees and mentors been matched up in these programs?

We have used different matching strategies in each mentoring program to see what works best. In one, we matched the participants based on their CVs, but we found this approach too time consuming. In another, based on some short answers about what they wanted to get out of the program, I matched all the mentors and mentees myself, which was quite a bit of manual labor. For the most recent 2014 JSM mentoring program, I clustered the mentors and mentees into “buckets” based on their answers to multiple-choice questions. Then, I matched mentors and mentees within each bucket, which reduced the complexity of the matching problem.

For the 2015 CSP mentoring program, we’ll use the intake survey template of multiple-choice and short-answer questions from Mentoring in a Box to cluster participants into buckets, and then our committee members will match participants within one bucket each. Sometimes, there’s an imbalance of interests and it’s hard to match everyone appropriately. Sometimes, the perfect match just pops out at you.

The mentoring program at the 2014 CSP involved quite a high proportion of the attendees. How do you think that affected the environment at the CSP?

Since its inception in 2012, CSP has been a small, friendly conference that encourages participants to meet each other and engage in conversation. Hopefully, the mentoring program will further encourage those types of interactions at CSP. One attendee told me that because of all the mentors and mentees at CSP last year, she benefited from three separate mentoring conversations, even though she wasn’t participating in the formal mentoring program!

What other mentoring plans are in the works?

At the CSP this month in New Orleans, our mentoring program will match mentors and mentees for an initial face-to-face meeting to build rapport. Hopefully, they’ll continue their mentoring relationship after the conference. We also will be conducting a panel discussion on mentoring at CSP during which we’ll hope to engage with the audience to hear their ideas about how the ASA can support mentoring.

For the JSM mentoring program, we will expand from 50 pairs last year in Boston to 100 [this year] in Seattle. Last year, we asked the ASA Fellows to participate as mentors—that worked really well! We’ll do the same this year and open it up to other attendees who would like to serve as mentors.

The Biopharmaceutical Section and the Washington Statistical Society have already created mentoring programs. This year, I’m chair of the Section on Statistical Consulting, and we’ll be trying two new things. The first is to help our members organize group mentoring sessions centered on specific topics, such as how to start your own consulting business, conducted semi-monthly via Google Hangouts. The second is actually your idea. Our section will solicit nominations for a mentoring award. Recognizing outstanding mentors and the importance of mentoring is an important way to promote the practice and profession of statistics.

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  • Harlan Sayles said:

    Given that there seems to be agreement that mentoring is an important part of career development among young statisticians and given that the ASA is a large organization with many members who would benefit from this sort of activity, why is this limited to a small number of participants who are able to attend a conference once or twice a year?

    It seems like it would be in the best interest of the ASA to do everything possible to make its members better statisticians. Isn’t that why we have come together as an organization in the first place? Why is the mentoring program relegated to being a small side project rather than one of the ASA’s primary focuses?

    I’ve been working in the field of statistics for about 8 years now and I am still figuring out on my own things that I wish I had known and feel that I really should have been told before I started. I don’t think we do a good job as a profession in making sure that we’re all at least operating with some base level of knowledge and up to some minimal standard of excellence. I think we have a lot of room for improvement in this area and I see a larger mentoring program as a possible solution for getting us to where we should be.

  • Eric Vance said:

    @Harlan Sayles
    I absolutely agree that it would be in the best interest of the ASA to do everything possible to make its members better statisticians.

    You ask why is the mentoring program a small side project? The plan is figure out how to effectively run mentoring programs by experimenting with several small programs. We think we have figured it out well enough now to expand to all interested ASA sections and chapters.