Profiles in Mentoring: Dr. Paul Hernandez talks mentoring, measurement, and what we can do to keep people in STEM degrees

We’re pleased to bring you our interview with Dr. Paul Hernandez, an associate professor at Texas A&M University in the department of Teaching, Learning and Culture. His research focuses on the contextual factors, developmental relationships, and motivational processes that support and broaden participation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers – particularly for students from groups historically underrepresented in STEM.  He shared a wealth of knowledge in our conversation, and we’re excited to provide you with an edited transcript of his answers. For the first time, we’re also including some audio highlights of the conversation. You can hear these excerpts by clicking the play button below.



Chronicle (C): Could you start out by telling us a little bit about your background and your path to where you are today, and about some research that you’re currently working on?

Dr. Paul Hernandez (PH): It’s been a circuitous path to where I am here–I’m an associate professor in the college of education, specifically in teaching, learning, and culture here at Texas A&M. My path here was circuitous in that I started out in experimental psychology, and from there developed an interest in measurement, psychometrics, and statistics, and through that process–although my degree was heavily quantitative, theoretical, and statistical–I’ve always had a passion for better understanding career development and the psychology involved in career development. 

That’s from my background in experimental psychology, so all throughout my PhD process, I was working on something called “The ScienceStudy,” and the ScienceStudy was a project headed up by Dr. Wes Schultz, and Dr. Mica Estrada at California State University-San Marcos, where I received a Masters Degree in experimental psychology. That project really drove me forward into the study of mentoring, because that project was looking at around 1400 undergraduates from underrepresented minority groups–mostly African-American students and hispanic students–at a variety of universities and following them as they matriculated through their undergraduate [career] to graduate school or into the working world. They were all STEM majors when it started, and so the question was, what were the experiences that they were having that were supporting their interest, and giving them these positive, reinforcing experiences? What were the experiences that were thwarting them, that were undermining their continued participation in their STEM degree program, and then [stopping them from] moving onto graduate school or careers in STEM?

That was a foundational experience for me, and it mapped onto a lot of my own experiences. Coming from an underrepresented group in STEM and statistics, I had fantastic people around me who were pouring into me and mentoring me. Their positive support, and the doors they opened helped me to get to where I am today. I wouldn’t be here were it not for my mentors. Everyone here works really hard, but some people were able to coach and mentor you in specific ways at specific times that really propel you to the next step. So, where I am today was born of my personal interest and passion, but also opportunities to work on projects like the ScienceStudy early on in my formative research years. 

“Coming from an underrepresented group in STEM and statistics, I had fantastic people around me who were pouring into me and mentoring me. Their positive support, and the doors they opened helped me to get to where I am today. I wouldn’t be here were it not for my mentors.”


C: Right, that’s fascinating. That leads me to another question we wanted to ask you about. Could you talk a little bit about what those risk and protective factors are for people staying in a STEM degree or career path? 

PH: I can safely say we know more about what helps than what hurts. There is some burgeoning evidence about what hurts related to STEM and mentoring. But what looks like helps the most, are relationships: protective relationships. I’ll just kind of put all of those–although this is probably inadequate–under the umbrella of mentoring relationships. And, relationships that are formed early, with step ahead mentors, and role models. I’m going to distinguish between those two things, mentors and role models: mentors who are providing direct support in some way, be it providing a safe-space, providing emotional support, providing tangible skills or opportunities to develop skills. These mentoring relationships are particularly important. 

A second [factor is]… identifying relevant role models.  Identifying people that are doing what you want to do, and knowing enough about them to know what the attitudes, skills, and behaviors, that got them there [are]. Knowing a little bit about their backstory and how they progressed from where they were, when they were in your place, to where they are now. 

So, role models, you don’t actually have to know them personally–there’s a very solid literature on role models and how they help to inspire people to stay motivated to go from where they are to where they want to be. Finding those and being able to make salient those role models and how [to] follow in their footsteps. So there are two kinds of relationships, mentoring relationships, the direct more tangible support, [and] role modeling: folks that have lit the pathway for you to follow. 

Another classification of experiences, not relationally based, but more career development based, are research experiences. These are prevalent in STEM fields. I’ve worked with colleagues, Erin Dolan–who used to be over at the University of Texas, now back in Georgia– she for a while lead the freshman research initiative. She and I and other authors, looked at early research experiences and found that those early research experiences were really important for helping students to matriculate. These were both mainstream and also at risk students matriculating from the start of college through finishing college in a STEM major. So those early research experiences were really important in that study. 

I’ve looked with the ScienceStudy data–with my colleagues Wes Schultz, and Mica Estrada, and Anna Woodcock–at the later end of college, at co-curricular research experiences and summer research experiences, and to some degree those course based research experiences like FRI. Tallying up and having multiple high-intensity research experiences–and what I mean by that is, getting involved in research experiences for at least 10 hours a week–and having multiple–two or more–of those experiences were highly predictive for underrepresented minority students for their still being in either a STEM training program like graduate school or in a STEM career up to six years after they graduated with a baccalaureate degree. So, those three things: mentoring, role modeling, intensive research experiences, those are really game changers when it comes to supporting students who would like to pursue a STEM degree. That’s for underrepresented minority students, and also for students from majority groups. 

C: That makes sense. We’re also curious to hear how you operationalize the quality of mentoring relationships, and secondarily how you connect some of these role models to people that might be looking for them? 

PH: Those are good questions. Let me address the, “how do you bring together people” and potential role-models and/or mentors [question]. There’s some really good work by folks involved in the Art of Science Women’s network, and there’s a chapter that they have, first author is–Glessmer is her name, talking about Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN). It’s a network that was supported by NSF; and that’s actually a cornerstone for some of my work, looking at connecting early tenure women and undergraduate women with potential mentors and role-models. 

That work with ESWN helped to talk about lessons learned for these professional development programs that constitute ESWN. ESWN has professional development workshops–It’s targeting early career, mid career and late career faculty, who are in the earth sciences. These are women faculty, as well as postdocs and graduate students. It takes this later end of the career development pipeline, and it’s building a support program in ESWN through networking, through a Listserv, through weekend workshops, through connections. It’s kind of a light touch–it’s this distributed network where people can check in, have an experience at a workshop, and go back to their home institution and feel like they’re part of something bigger than what they’re experiencing at their own university. It’s through those experiences where they’re able to identify more senior colleagues who have been where they’re at, and where those senior colleagues talk about the steps they took to get where they were in graduate school, to where they were in early career, to the next stage of their career as they matriculated forward through the faculty, or through working as an earth scientist at a professional scientific center like NOA or something like that. 

My colleagues and I took this idea–Emily Fisher, Becca Barnes, Sandra Clinton, Amanda Adams–we took this idea and we ported it to first and second year women in STEM, and had the idea that we would bring ESW to them, and we would translate it from a professional development model for the more advanced career stage, to women who were exploring the idea of being an environmental or earth scientist. We developed, collaboratively, this two day weekend workshop, packed with exciting panels. It was an all female weekend where we brought in interested students to this workshop. For two days, they heard from women in the earth sciences  who were in the later career stages. They could have been an advanced undergraduate, or a postdoc, or faculty; they could have been working at a scientific research center off-campus. They got to [hear from] very diverse women in diverse careers in order to help them understand that these careers are attainable; they’re satisfying, they’re interesting, and they’re worth investing your time in to solve real problems that people are facing. That actually turned out to be a very successful program. We’ve got a couple papers on that one in PlusOne, one in Geosphere, talking about the effects of this program, which the shorthand is called PROGRESS.

PROGRESS helped the women in our program, as compared to a control group, who didn’t participate in the program, to grow their developmental network of mentors, particularly as it related to faculty. We connected them with faculty using something called the “birds of a feather matching approach”. We connected them with all kinds of mentors–we just tried to find someone local to them who would be willing to spend a little time with them. Not intensive mentoring, but someone who would be willing to have coffee with them and meet with them at least one time a semester, maybe for an hour, to answer their questions and help them along their way. 

“They got to [hear from] very diverse women in diverse careers in order to help them understand that these careers are attainable; they’re satisfying, they’re interesting, and they’re worth investing your time in to solve real problems that people are facing.”


What we also found is not only did it help grow their network of mentors, it also helped these women to identify career role models. As it turned out, having female, STEM career role-models, was a strong predictor of staying in a geoscience major (earth and environmental science major), which was the focus of this project. So, that weekend workshop, and then the follow up connections we helped facilitate through email–between these women and local mentors and role-models–helped them to identify inspirational role models, helped them to make connections to people who would support them, and ultimately resulted in retaining them in their earth and environmental science network at a much higher rate. We’re talking 95% versus more like 75%, so it really had a tangible effect on their staying in, and desiring to continue, in earth science careers. 

C: Wow, that’s a substantial effect. 

PH: Yeah. Measurement! I don’t want to forget your question about measurement.  … The short answer is: self-report surveys have been my primary tool to measure, and there are a couple reasons for that. When we ask on these surveys, the women are the best informants. These participants are their best informants to say, who is it that’s providing them with support, and who is it that they’re drawing inspiration from. And so … you give them a definition of what role models are, and you ask them, do they have any? Do they have any career role-models? And then it provides them the space to say yes or no, and if it’s it yes, name the person. Who is it that’s providing you this role-modeling inspiration, who are your role-models? You give them some slots that they can fill in, just a couple follow up questions: … we ask about the gender of the role-model because that’s been very relevant to our study, but there are other things you might want to ask about. So, we ask them about gender, and about occupation. Then, what’s their name, and what are they doing that you find so inspirational in terms of their career? And then we can kind of tally that up, my graduate students and I work on coding that data. 

With mentoring, it’s very similar. With mentoring, generally speaking, we ask them “who is providing you with support?” Again, provide them with a definition of what mentoring support looks like, and then ask them, “Do you have anybody in your life that’s giving you mentorship toward your degree or career goals?” Now that kind of narrows the scope. You can open the scope to say is anybody providing you with support, and that might lead you to respond about mom and dad, or a cousin who’s helping you. But, in my work, I’m really interested in who are the people that are helping provide you support toward your degree and career goals. These students are at the point in college where they’re really thinking hard about “what is it that I want to do with my life”, and so who are the people that are supporting you getting from where you are now to where you want to be in your career. That’s one caveat–something that I’m interested in–that’s fairly narrowly focused whereas a lot of folks in mentoring would have it a bit more open in terms of mentorship. 

That’s an important aspect of measure. And after, if they say yes, I have someone who’s a career mentor, one or more of them, then to name them, and provide us with some information about them. Is this person a faculty member? That would be the most insider, high prestige, type of mentor. They could also name this person as being a peer, maybe somebody who’s a college senior and they’re a first year student, or a sophomore. It could be a post-bac mentor– there’s some good work by Melissa Aikens and colleagues looking at the importance of mentorship triads involving a faculty and a post-bac mentor particularly for STEM–really great work–and it’s the three of them working together to provide support to the student. 

Then we ask questions about “well, what kind of support are you receiving,” and generally speaking I ask about four kinds of support–these are standardized measures. There’s a recent National Academies report that came out just last week on the science of effective mentorship. The chair of that, Dr. Byars-Winston, is a really fantastic colleague with such deep knowledge of mentoring in STEM. She and her colleagues on that committee have done a great job of curating what we know about mentoring in STEM fields … There’s a lot of good measures that can be adapted to your purpose. I’ve used several of them that ask about the kind of emotional, psycho-social support, task related, skill building support, and role-modeling as a mechanism support. Is this person providing you inspiration, are they living a life that you would like to live, are they having a career you would like to have? And then overall satisfaction as the fourth one–what’s the quality of the relationship overall? Are you happy about your relationship? Is the relationship strained? Is it unsatisfying? 

Those four aspects of support are what I tend to focus on. Others exist: I’ve got a colleague, Erin Dolan, who’s just started a project trying to better assess negative mentoring experiences. This gets back to your question about barriers and stumbling blocks. I would say, more needs to be known about the negative aspects of mentoring relationships, and Erin is really doing a great job leading one project trying to better understand negative mentoring relationships for undergraduates in STEM. But there’s a lot more to be known about the negative side of mentoring then there is known about the positive aspects of mentoring. 

C: It makes sense that people would want to know what makes relationships stronger, and might have focused less on the negative aspects. As a follow up to that question: from the mentor’s side, is there anything that you think is really important for someone who’s poised to be a mentor to know about how they can seek out mentees? Or maybe even if they’re just approached or put in the position to mentor somebody, how can they be most effective and what can they do to make that relationship as successful as possible? 

PH: Being deliberate. Being reflective. There are some really fantastic tools to mentors. In fact, next week I’m going to a training myself to better facilitate my own mentoring. Continuously thinking about how you can serve your students is really important. What I would hope everyone would do is not reinvent the wheel on mentoring. There’s a great book out called “Entering Mentoring.” It’s been developed by our colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, and Entering Mentoring is a fantastic resource for being reflective about your mentoring practice. And what the folks developing “Entering Mentoring” have done in a really careful way, in a really thoughtful way, and they’ve got some publications out on this as well as the book that you can buy and some free online resources, is they’ve really taken the burden off of mentors in terms of how can I be a better mentor. They’ve developed a set of measures to help faculty and graduate students–folks who are mentoring undergraduates–be very thoughtful, and very deliberate about how they’re supporting their students, how they’re providing support for their students. And particularly across cross cultural circumstances–mentoring students who don’t come from your circumstances, mentoring students that don’t look like you, or have the same experiences, how do you do that well, how do you do that with sensitivity, how do you do that with cultural relevance? 

I do with some degree of frequency provide support to my college by running one hour or four hour half day workshops on best practices in mentoring. I use that curriculum to help them think about how you set expectations with incoming mentees. That’s really important. How do you communicate with them? Communication is so key. And that’s two way–that’s not just me talking at them, but hearing and adjusting to the relationship. So communication, setting expectations, cultural sensitivity, how you provide experiences that help them where they’re at, assessing where they’re at in their skillset. You [want to] give them opportunities that will challenge them, as opposed to ones that will be so below their level that they’re boring or worse, so strenuous, so difficult, that all they can do is fail and struggle. So I would say to mentors, myself included, anyone who’s mentoring someone in a STEM degree or field or beyond, use those free resources to be reflective about your practice. That’s really what we have to think about. It’s a relationship and it’s a practice that has to be cultivated. Those relationships can be solid, they can be developed to be solid and mutually satisfying, but if you don’t attend to them and if you don’t attend to your own practice and how you mentor, you leave so much more up to chance in terms of the opportunities for failed communication, the opportunity for dissatisfying experiences and thwarting experiences. So that’s my recommendation, is to take your mentoring practice seriously, and understand that it can get better. We can do things to make it better. 

“So that’s my recommendation, is to take your mentoring practice seriously, and understand that it can get better. We can do things to make it better.”


C: That’s right in line with the approach that we promote here at the Center and on the Chronicle, of using evidence and being deliberate with one’s practice. One more question for you, if you could wave a magic wand, do you have a large scale vision for mentoring, particularly with regard to STEM, for how you would increase participation in these fields? What kind of large systemic change would you like to see to facilitate people from underrepresented backgrounds getting into and staying in these subject areas? 

PH: That’s a big question. I think that what we have seen recently on a small scale, and it’s been tested in small ways, are a couple things: Getting away from, and helping students and faculty and infrastructure (in university) to better understand, that mentoring from the aspirant to the career stage, should be thought of as a network of relationships. There is some really important work by Kathy Kram and Monica Higgins, who’ve really pushed the envelope in a corporate context to suggest that mentoring–1 on 1 dyadic mentoring–is fine when it works, but really, particularly for people who have less capital–less cultural, less monetary, less social capital–for them it’s particularly important to think about mentoring not as a relationship to a person, a person not as the mentor, but as the type of support you’re getting from your network. So a lot of mentoring is moving towards understanding networks. That is to say, in the workshop that I run with my colleagues for these first and second year women interested in Earth Science, we really try to hammer home that a mentor is not a person that you go to, it’s a kind of support you receive (mentoring/relationship support).

Not every one person you go to can provide you everything that you need. It’s unrealistic to expect that you can go to one person to get all the kinds of support you need, in terms of a safe-space to vent, emotional support, skill development, opportunities and access, sponsorship, kindness, and role-modeling. So, helping these early undergraduates shift from thinking about a person to a network, and then putting into place [the necessary] infrastructure to help people connect with various kinds of support. There was some good work that was published recently looking at the impact of having first year engineering students particularly for women connect with a second, third, or senior year woman as an engineer. This didn’t involve any faculty, it didn’t involve graduate students, it was just connecting them with someone who was a near peer who had been where they were just a year or two ago. What they found was tangible effects on retaining those women. They felt like the belonged at a higher rate, they stayed at a higher rate. 

These are small things that we could do as institutions to connect people deliberately to relevant role models and mentors who have the time to put a hand back and help someone forward. The PROGRESS workshop–we’ve taken it from two days and compressed into a one day event. We’ve got some data we’re putting together now that look very, very promising–those kinds of things could be done on a campus or across campuses to support women in terms of identification of relevant role-models. [This would] help minorities, first generation students all at a very low cost, and are really scalable opportunities for helping them to identify people that were where they are now and the steps that they took to move forward. 

Related to mentoring experiences, I suspect–I don’t have any data around this–I suspect part of the reason why in college campuses themed dorm groups are so successful is that they’re putting people together that have a common purpose, and some are older and some are younger, and it helps to build this community of practice where people can see what it takes to go from where you are to the next step. So, practices like that have the potential to be incredibly powerful, and imminently scalable with not a whole lot of resources required. The other thing I would say, is something that is showing great promise for retaining students in STEM, is early research experiences, course based research experiences. SEA-PHAGES is one, the FRI program at Austin that’s now taken off and is being implemented elsewhere, Tiny Earth is another one. So we’re kind of in a time where this great advancement is happening, to support students, to give them an early taste of what it’s like to be a scientist, someone who’s an engineer, and those have great promise for keeping students inspired and on the pathway to the career that they want. 

C: Absolutely. I think we’d all love to see some of those changes happen and I hope that they do. Thank you so much for your time, we really appreciate it. 

PH: Well, thank you so much, I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you.