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Washington Statistical Society Builds Community Through Mentoring

1 September 2016 No Comment
Mark Otto

    In September 2014, David Morganstein requested time at the Washington Statistical Society’s (WSS’s) board meeting to propose they start a mentoring program. At the time, he was president-elect of the ASA, and mentoring would become one of his presidential initiatives the next year. I joined the meeting to make the board aware of resources the Committee on Applied Statisticians (CAS) developed to start mentoring programs. For my efforts, I was asked to chair an ad hoc committee to develop a proposal for a mentoring program. Morganstein and the WSS president participated in all the monthly calls. High-level support and involvement was crucial for the success of the program.

    But why have such a program? It takes a lot of organization and asks a lot of its members. The WSS gives discount memberships to students. Some graduate programs even give ASA and chapter memberships to their students, but after most students started working, they didn’t keep up their memberships. Mentoring might help their transition into work and retain students as active chapter members.

    Mentoring should help at any stage of a career. Sastry Pantula (2010 ASA president) is an example of how an established statistician maintained contact with his mentors while mentoring younger professionals. He kept up contact with his mentors from Iowa State as he became head of the North Carolina State Statistics Department and, while deciding on becoming ASA treasurer, he asked for their advice. Sastry mentored three students at a time outside an elevator at JSM. I mentored a Harvard post-doc that had already mentored two undergrads before she left graduate school. Mid-career statisticians could easily be both mentees and mentors. One of the goals of the WSS is to develop the next generation of statisticians. Mentoring can provide one-on-one support for achieving that goal. Morganstein put it succinctly: Mentoring can build community.

    It’s Been Done Before

    In its third year of a mentoring initiative, the CAS researched past ASA section and chapter mentoring efforts—most lasting only two years. The CAS ran its own program for two years. Eric Vance of Virginia Tech and a CAS member ran mentoring programs for the Conference on Statistical Practice and Joint Statistical Meetings. The CAS developed a clearinghouse of mentoring resources, a do-it-yourself mentoring guide, and a guide for organizations called Mentoring in a Box. The WSS Mentoring Committee chose the in-a-box template. There was still a lot of work to do to adapt the program to the chapter and get it up and running. The WSS president suggested they set a modest goal of matching 10 pairs.

    In December, the board accepted the proposal, committing three years to develop the program, and formed a four-person committee to do the pilot. The committee had three months to prepare and create the advertising, welcome materials, a web page, and online application form. Once the notices went out, the program had to be up and running. The committee accepted applications for the next three months, took a month to match pairs who then committed to working together for six months, and finally planned a short evaluation survey to learn what to do better the next time. The WSS Board was informed of the committee’s progress and the results were reported back.

    Off and Running

    Announcements for the program were put in the January 2015 chapter news section of Amstat News. Even though the committee purposely sent a similar notice to the Washington Statistical Society Newsletter, the editor published a month early so the committee had to rush the mentoring program page and online application form, as well as send outreach emails to local university graduate programs a month ahead of schedule.

    Almost all WSS mentees were graduate students or in their first years of work. Also, because they advertised in a national newsletter, there were three mentee requests from elsewhere in North America, including one in Saskatchewan. The other two, one from Florida State and another from the University of California at Davis joined the WSS to be in the program.

    While mentees were eager to join the pilot program, mentors didn’t volunteer. The committee needed to actively recruit mentors through emails and personal calls. Morganstein single-handedly enlisted 20 ASA fellows who were also WSS members. The committee made cold calls from the ASA online membership directory, searching for WSS members in areas mentees requested. They later learned that mentors had to be recruited in all the other CAS programs.

    The committee exceeded its goal by matching 22 mentor-mentee pairs. Four more mentees wanted to join the program during the six-month formal mentoring period, and four more pairs were matched after the initial deadline. After hearing Morganstein’s talk, “Paying It Forward”, another mentor volunteered to participate. In the CAS Mentoring in a Box system, it’s important to have a champion—someone to advocate for the program. Morganstein not only filled that role, he also contributed to all the discussion and helped out in rough spots.

    During the formal six-month mentoring period, the committee sent out two reminders about where pairs should be in their mentoring relationship. Most participants wanted more guidance, but two did not like the structured, goal-oriented CAS approach and would have preferred more informal relationship building. While most pairs benefitted from their mentoring experience, one mentee did not follow through after the first meeting, another mentee did not want to continue after getting a job just outside the metro area, and a third did not connect with her mentee because she was a nonstatistician in a statistical agency.

    Wrap Up

    At the end of the formal period, the committee sent out an evaluations survey and received 15 out of 44 possible responses—12 from mentors and three from mentees. Most liked the program and are continuing to work together on their own. They found meeting and sharing experiences most important. A couple mentors helped their mentees edit their résumés. Others found, or even made special networking experiences for, their mentees.

    Mentees appreciated having someone to reach out to for advice, getting a broader context on what to expect in their jobs. One mentee thought she benefitted from advice outside her small office.

    A few mentors found the mentees’ narrow focus on jobs discouraging, and one thought it difficult to bridge cultural gaps. Even though chapters, especially those as concentrated as the WSS, can pair people within the same proximity to each other, most communicated by phone and email.

    Lessons Learned

    The board committed to supporting the program for three years. It will take at least that long to make the program run smoothly so it is viable over a longer period of time. What can the committee do to improve the pilot? While the committee wants to attract mentees in all stages of their careers, most in the pilot program were students. Many mentors could not start working until September because their student mentees were out of the country. The committee will match the program to the next school year.

    The committee also mismatched a few pairs—something that was obvious after their first meeting. Committee members need to follow up with calls to work out any matching problems and immediately support both our mentors and mentees. A more complicated, refined matching process probably would not help. Also, the committee would not match mentees after the deadline; it is too much work for the committee.

    There should be more follow-up notices to guide pairs through the mentoring life cycle. This should be guidance without quashing the unique relationship pairs are building with each other.

    Finally, mentors might need some perspective on working with other cultures.

    The pairs asked for more opening and closing events where everyone could meet. One mentee even wanted to rotate mentors to have a wider networking experience. The committee might try an opening mentoring workshop where mentors and mentees announce topics they would like to talk about. Groups would come together based on interest for 15 minutes, then regroup, letting pairs form from that experience. The goal is to integrate mentoring into the fabric of the WSS, not only formally but also informally.

    Finally, the committee could ask the mentees to become mentors. The mentees now know a lot about the mentoring experience and will find mentoring can be enriching, too. Keeping the mentees might lead to a fuller statistical career and active membership in the WSS.

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