Martin Willet (Mentor) - mentoring case study


My name is Martin and I am a recently retired Research and Development Manager. I graduated from Birmingham University with a degree in physics and then did a part-time PhD at the University of Nottingham.

I worked for the National Coal Board from 1978-1994 on toxic and flammable gas detection in underground mines and then moved to City Technology, a company specialising in the design and manufacture of a wide range of gas sensors.

I worked on many different detection technologies, such as electrochemical, optical, semiconductor and catalytic devices, and managed various groups and projects both inside the company and with commercial and academic contractors. I was also responsible for capturing the intellectual property generated by the work, and liaised with IP attorneys on patent filings.

I retired in 2021 and now have a voluntary role as the Communications Director for the UK Gas Analysis and Sensing Group.

Mentoring experience

This was my first year of mentoring undergraduates, and I was paired with two Physics students, one in his second year and another in his fourth (intercalated) year. Since I am located far from Birmingham, all our contacts were via video calls, although this did not seem to be a particular drawback as post-pandemic online meetings are quite normal, and I was able to get to know both students reasonably well over the months we were engaged in the scheme.

I had separate 60-90 minute meetings with each student every 4-6 weeks, and after initial introductions, the mentees took the lead in defining the topics for upcoming calls. This allowed both of us to prepare examples and gather any other relevant materials in advance, thereby maximising the ground we could cover and keeping the discussions well focussed.

Both students were particularly interested in work experience placements, and much of our time was spent discussing approaches to selecting and applying for such opportunities. We went through practise questions and considered how the mentees could benefit by questioning the interviewer.

This led us into wider considerations, such as how to assess the ethos of different organisations, contrasts between academic and commercial career routes and ways to develop the self-awareness necessary in making sound decisions.

Throughout the process, we were able to have very open exchanges and this certainly helped to maximise the benefits to all parties. I think the mentees came away with a broader view of many of the topics we discussed than they had perhaps expected.

For my part, it was really gratifying to be able to offer suggestions and ask questions which helped them find a way through their challenges. Hopefully they have been able to make use of these insights during the placements they both started at the end of the mentoring period. I have also offered to remain in contact with them and continue to talk through particular issues if and when they believe it could be beneficial.

How can you support students and graduates through the mentoring scheme?

I think the main support I can offer is to help mentees clarify and articulate their own preferences, and to align these with the different options and opportunities which are available.

I was initially concerned that my own career experience might not be sufficiently well aligned with the mentees' areas of interest. But actually, many of the discussions focussed on more general workplace and career topics and so this was not really an issue.

Having worked in a variety of technical roles, and under a wide range of business ownership and reporting models, I found that it was actually quite easy to come up with examples to illustrate most of the issues we wanted to cover.

Equally, I felt it was important to recognise issues where I lacked relevant experience and could not offer meaningful insight, and in these cases we worked together to come up with alternative approaches to take forward.


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