Archive for: March, 2012

Mentoring Madness

In my recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, on the topic of Mid-Career Mentoring, one of the comments cast aspersions on mentors and mentoring. I wanted to follow up on this point here and probe the opinions of blog-readers.

The specific comment includes this statement:

"Mentoring," I learned, is an intense form of the summer camp buddy-system premised on the bizarre assumption that presumably adult persons who freely choose to go into a profession are under no obligation to find out for themselves how things work."

Discuss.

I must admit that there have been times in my life when I have said the word "mentor" (as a verb or noun) in a somewhat disparaging way. It is one of the words that certain colleagues and I use when we are making fun of some aspects of modern academic jargon, of the type we get in memos from administrators; for example, "We are tasked with mentoring the stake-holders to empower them to create deliverables."

And yet, I think mentoring is overall a good thing. I think certain academic citizens have always been mentored, even if we didn't call it that back in days of yore. In particular, those who were part of the system -- the so-called 'good ol' boys' network -- were mentored, whereas those who were not as plugged into this network were not. In the past, and to some extent even today, the unmentored were typically women and minorities in most of the STEM fields.

Academia can be mysterious, even if you try to find out for yourself how things work, and there's nothing wrong with creating a system that tries to demystify this. It may be fine in the abstract to have a sink-or-swim attitude about tenure-track professors, but, aside from the human issues involved, institutions invest a lot in new faculty, particularly in the STEM fields, and it makes sense for us to help our tenure-track colleagues succeed.

I think even those of us who had to walk 7 miles to school in the snow and cold with only old newspapers for shoes and a raw turnip for lunch can appreciate that there were things about the "good old days" that were unnecessarily harsh. Academic careers are still quite challenging, even with all the mentoring going around.

That said, I can still relate a bit to the sentiment that inspired the anti-mentoring comment, especially if it is rephrased as an anti-whining comment, rather than specifically being against mentoring. I think that mentoring has its limits -- both from the point of view of the mentor, however well meaning and engaged in mentoring they may be, and the mentee, some of whom tend to ignore the wise advise of their mentor -- and I have little patience with those who say "but no one told me that I'd have to spend so much time [insert major time-consuming activity]", whether or not they had an official mentor.

For the sake of discussion, perhaps it would help to give some concrete examples of advice a mentor might give a mentee, and then you can see if this constitutes some form of coddling of presumably adult persons who should figure this stuff out for on their own, or something more constructive. In the comments, you can leave other examples to illustrate the use or disuse of mentoring.

Real example 1: Years ago, a tenure-track colleague asked me if they should submit an NSF CAREER proposal that year or the following year. I gave my opinion, but mostly we discussed the pros and cons of each scenario. Back in the last millennium, no one ever told me when (or if) to submit a CAREER proposal; I just did it. That worked out fine for me, but does that mean my "mentoring" conversation with my younger colleague was a "summer camp buddy-system" kind of thing? I think not.

Real example #2: A common question asked by people putting together their lists of potential letter-writers for the tenure evaluation is whether to include their advisor or other people with whom they have worked closely (explanatory note for those who need it: the candidate typically lists some names, and the chair can pick some of those names, but then also asks for letters from people not on the list; in the end, there may be a few letters from colleagues/advisors, but the majority are from "unrelated" people). This is a good question to ask of a more senior colleague or administrator because the answer may vary considerably from place to place, and even within different units of one institution. In some places, there is always a letter from the former PhD advisor and it would look strange if this were missing; in other places, the former advisor is considered too unobjective and is not asked to write a letter. How do you know which is the case? Does the distinction between being mentored and being a rugged individual lie in whether you know to ask about this or whether you are simply told?

So: it's time to confess your true feelings about mentoring and being mentored -- do the 'm' words indicate weakness and lack of personal responsibility, or do they signify progress in humanizing the academic system?

 

21 responses so far

Academic Fish Ponds

This is a recent e-mail from a reader, but it's a topic I was thinking about in a related context, so this is timely (for me):

I'm a grad student in a respectable PhD program in the physical sciences here in the U.S. (ranked by U.S. News as either in the low teens to mid-20s, depending on the particular year of the ranking).  I didn't realize until I was knee-deep in grad school just how tough the academic job market is (like, I think I know more PhDs without permanent jobs than I know with jobs!).  I'm starting to get very nervous about my job prospects.

While mulling over my options--Take the Master's and run? Switch to a different field?--it occurred to me that I could always apply to higher-ranked grad programs (you know, Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, and their ilk).  Graduating from a Top 5 school would surely increase my prospects of getting an academic job, right? Provided, of course, I could get admitted to one of those programs...

I haven't asked too many people for advice (I don't want my professors or advisor to know that I'm considering leaving), but the one person I asked said it was better to be a big fish in a small pond (translation: stay where I am and try to stand out among my cohorts).

As an aside, if you look at the most recent faculty hires for my department, you'll see that they're all Harvard/MIT/Berkeley/Caltech/Stanford grads; there's not a single graduate from a 20-ish rank school in the bunch. We're good enough to be their grad students, but not good enough to be their eventual colleagues???

This e-mail raises many interesting issues, in addition to the usual ones involving stress about (potentially) seeking a faculty position in a field that seems to have an oversupply of PhDs. [insert required mention that academia isn't the only option for PhDs, there are many excellent careers in industry/business/government etc.].

I am going to ignore the issue of whether rankings have any merit and whether the Prestige Universities deserve their high level of prestige etc. Let's just take these numbers (Top-5, Top-20 etc.) at face value for now.

An important question for the person who wrote the e-mail is: In the context of thinking about possible future jobs in academia, do you think you would only be happy in one that is a research-ranking peer of your current university (or one more highly ranked)? I know it can be hard to predict (as a grad student, I was completely wrong about what kind of job/place would be best for me), but it's worth thinking about other options within academia: teaching-focused schools (small colleges, universities that are focused on undergraduate education, community colleges) or research universities other than the top-ranked ones. These jobs are difficult to get as well, but overall you may have more opportunities than you would if you only consider major research universities of a certain rank as job prospects. Perhaps you know some people who work at these types of institutions and could talk to them about their jobs, or you could do some investigating/mingling at conferences to interact with a broader group of academics and others.

But let's say that you are quite sure that you want to be at a major research university, a peer to your current university or better (in rankings), and jobs are extremely scarce in your field. I don't know about your particular institution/field, but from what I've seen over years of serving on various committees and panels and such, top graduates of top-20ish schools can compete with those from top-5-10 schools for academic positions. If you do interesting research, give conference presentations, publish, and put together an impressive application, you could be competitive with the top-5 people.

The person you talked to was right to mention the 'big fish' scenario; if your department/advisor are respected in your field and your advisor writes reference letters saying you are the best student s/he has ever had, that can count for a lot. You may have to work harder to be perceived -- on first impression -- as just as good as the top-5 people, but it's doable.

Important considerations in whether you stay or try to move could include:

  • the nature of your research project (is it exciting? significant? can you play an important role in it?),
  • the reputation of your advisor as a scientist and mentor (will s/he write you awesome letters if you do well?), and
  • your assessment of your abilities (difficult to do..).

When you consider those (and other) factors, maybe you will decide that the best place for you for research and career development is a top-5 department, maybe it's another place, or maybe it's where you are right now.

Another question: Have you been around for any of the searches that resulted in the recent top-5 hires in your department? It would be interesting and instructive to look at the applicant pools (were all the interviewees from top-5 departments, or just the person who got/accepted the offer?). If you attended the interview talks and/or met the candidates, what were your impressions? If there are any upcoming searches, it would be good to take a close look at the process and the people involved.

And if you look at departments in your field at peer institutions of your current one, do you see a similar preponderance of top-5s on the faculty? That is, is your department typical in this respect? If so, and you want to try to stay in your field, perhaps you should send out some applications..

If you have the time, it's worth doing a bit of 'career field work' before making a big decision. There may be more options than you know about now, or you may find you are in the best place for you already.

26 responses so far

One Man & a Baby

Mar 09 2012 Published by under life and family

This is a combined/excerpted/modified version of some interesting gripe-mails, with details removed and the verb tense arbitrarily set in the present (some e-mails used the past tense), but still (I hope) capturing the essence of the situation/s:

I am in a family-friendly department, and I am really grateful for that. It is one of the reasons I have generally been very happy with my job over the years. Owing to my infant/toddler/school-aged child, I sometimes have to leave a meeting early or postpone something for reasons related to my son/daughter. I do this as little as possible, but it happens. I never hide the reason for my absence/departure (etc.), usually just saying that I have to pick up/take care of my kid. I appreciate very much that everyone seems to understand, and has never treated me as if I am not serious about my job. But..

And this is where the writers of the e-mails diverge a bit, some saying they feel like a hypocrite because.. (see below), some just harshly criticizing those who use the kid-excuse (apparently) too much, and some wondering if there is a difference in how men and women deal with such things (that is, not in their own life, but in how and how often they communicate about their work-family time conflicts to their colleagues).

Note 1: I think most of the e-mails are from women, and in some cases that is relevant, but in other cases it isn't.

Note 2: If you're interested, there's an old FSP-post on a related topic ("TMI Talks").

A specific focus of ire or, at least, mild contempt, seems to be those who bring up their kid and their kid-responsibilities at every possible instance and in many different contexts, even when it is not relevant.

For example, in one situation in which perhaps the gender of the griper and the gripee matter, the "I feel like a hypocrite" comment came from a woman who was very weary of how often a male colleague mentioned his diaper-changing, baby-walking, baby-carrying, baby-this-and-thatting, not in casual/social conversation, but at pretty much every opportunity in the course of the work day (faculty meetings, committee meetings, professional e-mails etc.). She wonders whether a woman would bring these activities up quite so often in a professional setting, or whether women are more concerned about appearing too unprofessional and distracted from their work (whereas men get points for being the Involved Dad).

I am guessing that most people wouldn't be bothered if someone (of any gender) says in a meeting, "I'm sorry I have to leave this meeting early, but it's 5:42 PM and I have to pick up my kid from daycare by 6:00." The question is whether you think it is annoying or cute/heartwarming if someone (you can break this down by gender if it is relevant to you) says in a meeting, "That's a good point, Bob. I was thinking of something similar last night while I was changing my son's diaper, so I'd like to suggest that we keep talking about X before making a final decision." (especially if that wasn't a one-time event, but something repeated in many different professional contexts).

What think you, readers? General opinions and anecdotes are both welcome.

 

 

17 responses so far