Profiles in Mentoring: A Conversation with Dr. Carol A. Mullen about Mentoring in Crisis

Interviewed by Selen Amado

Dr. Carol A. Mullen is a tenured full professor of educational leadership and policy studies in Virginia Tech’s School of Education who specializes in mentoring theory and practice, creativity and innovation in learning, and values-oriented pedagogies for developing professionals and systems. Dr. Mullen has published numerous books, articles, and guest-edited special issues on mentoring, coaching, leading, and learning. In this interview, we asked her about insights from her most recent work on the online mentoring of doctoral students during the pandemic.

Chronicle: Can you tell our readers about your background and the research you are currently working on?

Carol Mullen:“I enjoy working closely with doctoral students and having wonderful collegial relationships with them, so this interview is dedicated to them. I’m a tenured full professor at Virginia Tech in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Program within the School of Education, I’d like to point out that despite the pandemic, 11 of my mentees’ doctorates were conferred within the 3 years of their start date, and 8 mentees are on track with their dissertation. So, we were able to move ahead with positive results with online mentoring.”

“My background in mentoring stems from my days as a doctoral student at the University of Toronto in Canada. My faculty dissertation mentor and I found each other. We were well matched based on our common interests. Throughout my graduate education, I also benefitted from my peers and their wisdom whether through courses or in coffee shops. I’m honored that my alma mater recognized mein 2020 with the distinguished alumni award named The Excellence (OISE Leaders & Legends) Award. Among the awards I’ve received for academic mentoring is the JayD.ScribnerMentoringAwardfrom the UniversityCouncilforEducational Administration.”

“Since 1995, I’ve taught in U.S. higher education institutions. To date, I’ve published 28 academic books, 163 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters, 17 guest-edited special issues of academic journals, and many invited articles. Some of this work deals directly with mentoring and its importance in education. I combine my interests in mentoring with social justice, leadership, innovation/creativity, and international education.”

“My latest book titled Handbook of Social Justice Interventions in Education(Springer, 2021; edited, two-volume set) contains a few chapters on mentorship from a social justice perspective. It’s also exciting that many chapters from different countries emerged from mentoring teams.

Among my books on academic mentoring are:

Fletcher,S.,&Mullen,C.A.(Eds.).(2012).TheSAGEhandbookofmentoringandcoachingin education.Sage.(568pp.) ISBN: 13:978-0857027535

Mullen,C.A.(Ed.).(2008).Thehandbookofformalmentoringin highereducation:Acase studyapproach.Christopher-GordonPublishers.(353 pp.) ISBN:13:978-1-933760-20-9

My work in mentoring has a strong editorial component. I was theEditor of Routledge’s journal Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning.My current guest-edited special issues are:

Mullen,C.A.(2020).GuestEditorof“Dynamic Mentoring Groups, Programs, and Structures: Legacy Special Issue.”Mentoring & Tutoring, 28(4). (515 pp.) Routledge.

Mullen,C.A.(2021).GuestEditor of“Special issue:Mentoring and Coaching in a Time of Crisis,          Pandemic, and Social Distancing.” International Journal of Mentoring & Coaching in Education, 10(2).(107 pp.) Emerald Publishing.

Other research I’m currently working on that concerns mentoring in a pandemic—online mentorship—is mentioned in my next response.”

Chronicle: What do you think about the use of online mentoring during the pandemic?

Carol Mullen:“For practical and ethical reasons, I strongly favor the turn to online mentoring in higher education contexts during the pandemic. All doctoral students and those in candidacy (post-coursework) need to be able to benefit from guidance, especially in hard times. Candidates under duress can falter and disappear, which calls on their faculty mentors to adapt our pedagogies, including those we cherish like face-to-face interaction. Agility, responsiveness, focus, and care are markers of healthy mentoring.Although educational institutions around the globe have been depending on remotely delivered instruction, mentoring is largely invisible.”

“Consider that even in the best of times, doctoral students are susceptible to attrition. A University of California (2017) study reported that students at the coursework stage were more likely to find their advisors supportive (n= 172) than those in candidacy (n= 144), implying a fading in dyadic support (p. 6). With doctoral candidates in professional degree programs in education facing the daunting challenge of doing their proposal/dissertation while employed full time as school principals and so forth, their vulnerability when the pandemic struck and since is likely for many.

Given that attrition as high as 50% has plagued doctoral programs in the pre-pandemic, with lack of mentoring and advising reported to be a leading cause, some faculty mentors would have worked miracles to avoid disruption in their mentees’ education due to closure of universities over COVID-19 and Delta concerns. Such pauses can be productively bridged in difficult times to dodge perpetual dissertation inactivity and program withdrawal (Mullen, 2021).

“The extent to which doctoral mentoring in education, and other disciplines (like medicine), has been affected by the crisis is not yet known. Insights and lessons can be drawn from emergences, worldwide. While trends are yet to be revealed, some early research indicates that the mentoring of candidates on their proposals/dissertationsduring the pandemic may have improved or remained unchanged for some, whereas for others, the support was non-existent or even worsened.Satisfied mentees report having been guided by their program mentors via technology-hosted platforms, email, or phone. Frequency in mentorship and varied ways of communicating and connecting electronically are two strategies of quality guidance attributed to mentor strengths experienced during the crisis.”

“In my current research (Mullen, 2021),I describe the online mentoring intervention that I developed and implemented when COVID-19 hit. As a result of this intensive, student-centered approach, all my mentees have either graduated with their doctorate (PhD or EdD) or progressed to candidacy, having successfully defended their proposal. An unexpected outcome was that in their experience of the intervention, being mentored electronically was not a sticking point. Some even said that the live video encounters felt as though they were in the actual presence of their mentor. Their informative feedback and can-do spirit encourage me to persist with my piloted intervention while refining it.”

Chronicle:What do you think are the implications for mentoring practice when life is back to “normal”?

Carol Mullen:“Based on my own experiences and the emergent literature, a demand and opportunity seem present for faculty to think anew how we enact quality mentoring in addition to social justice. Justice-oriented dissertation research undertaken by diverse candidates and regularly making available opportunities to co-present and coauthor on socially important topics are some of my own approaches as a proactive mentor. As demonstrated in research that is beginning to be disseminated, some faculty mentors have been responding to the crisis by adapting their pedagogies for remote instruction, signaling agility, responsiveness, focus, and care.”

“The turn to online mentoring in higher education deserves greater exploration beyond the health crisis for practical and ethical reasons so that candidates are mentored effectively, not faltering and disappearing. The time seems ripe for innovating the work of mentoring, for learning from insights and lessons, and for sharing outcomes with the world.”

“Mentors and mentees have a serious role to play in confronting the threats that exacerbate racial, socioeconomic, and other disparities. Online mentoring’s generative capacity for reaching underserved populations and remedying opportunity gaps in doctoral studies at least to some extent is a worthy challenge before us.”

Find Carol A. Mullen on ResearchGate

Website: school-of education/faculty/carol-a-mullen.html

Twitter handle: @CarolAMullen2