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

Sidekicks and bond strength

Aug 02 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school, students

A reader wrote wondering if the strong bond that forms between some male advisors and male students ever happens between male advisors and female students. For discussion, we could also consider the cases of female advisors/male students and female advisors/female students, but *important* for all possible cases, let's only consider platonic, professional relationships.

The reader who wrote to me used the term 'sidekicks'. I don't think this is a good word to describe this particular situation, but it makes a zippy (albeit possibly cryptic) title for a blog post.

Historically, strong bonds between male advisors/male students in the physical sciences and engineering have been most common because there have been so few women. In recent years, however, there are increasing numbers of women, particularly at the undergraduate and graduate levels, so there are more opportunities to evaluate advisor-student pairs in which one or both are female.

There are personality issues involved in advisor-student "bond strength", of course. Some advisors don't form strong bonds with any students.

But among those who do: what makes an advisor and student 'click' in such a way that they act like more like colleagues than professor and student? Similar personalities, drive, work ethic, cultural background.. other? And is gender a major or minor factor?

My own answers would be: similar drive and work ethic as factors, and gender is irrelevant in these cases.

A question for SP readers: Have you ever formed a particularly strong working relationship with particular students (as an advisor) or with a particular advisor (as a student)? What do you think the major factors were?

30 responses so far

Why We Are Awesome

Feb 22 2011 Published by under advising, career issues, graduate school

Yesterday in my FSP blog, I mentioned that graduates of my research group, which is comprised of 4 professors, have been very successful obtaining jobs that are relevant to their doctoral research. Most are in academia (in tenure-track or tenured positions); others are in industry/business or government positions. The database I discussed covers graduates from the past 20 years. We are equally proud of them all, PhD and MS graduates.

One factor in the success of our graduates has been that there have consistently been academic and other PhD-relevant jobs available; some years/decades are better than others, but there have always been some academic jobs. Even in drought years, however, our graduates have done well on the job market, so, although the availability of jobs is certainly important, a discussion of possible reasons why our graduates have done well needs to consider other factors.

The success of our graduates is primarily a testament to their talents and hard work. There is no doubt about that.

Even so, we (the professors) like to think that we had some role in launching these careers. I should say here that I am using the research group 'we', although I am the youngest professor in the group and #3 in terms of number of PhDs graduated, so the credit primarily goes to my colleagues.

In any case: What, if anything, do we do that maximizes the chances of post-graduate success for our advisees? Earlier today, I discussed this with one of my research group colleagues, the most successful mentor of us all. We came up with the following, only somewhat-self-serving hypotheses:

1. We encourage our advisees to consider their doctoral research in a broad context. We expect that their research talks (in the department, at conferences, in job interviews) and published papers will start with an explanation of why the work is interesting and important. This sounds basic, but it is surprising how many people (at all career stages) don't do this. Anecdotal evidence from a recent graduate who has been interviewing for faculty positions confirms that this characteristic of our group members is noticed and appreciated, particularly by those whose research expertise is not closely related to ours; this can be an important factor in job interviews.

2. We work with our advisees to find interesting research topics. Some grad students work on part of a much larger project, but there is nevertheless something special about each project. We therefore try to find a balance so that the student is at the same time closely identified with our research group and yet can get credit for their own work and ideas.

3. A combination of 1 & 2: we encourage breadth and depth in the research topic, so that most of our graduates who seek academic positions can apply for a jobs in more than one subfield. This increases the number of jobs for which they are qualified, and increases the number of funding programs to which they can apply, the journals to which they can submit papers, and the courses they can teach. It can also lead to more varied future research topics, collaborations, and other fun things like that.

4. Most of our graduates are supported by a combination of research and teaching assistantships (and some by fellowships), resulting in a range of experiences that are desirable for being competitive in academic jobs. Many also help mentor undergraduates in research. We encourage them to participate in workshops and courses designed to prepare grad students (and postdocs) for academic careers, if they so desire. Nowadays, it is important for academic job applicants to have teaching experience: for most jobs, they need to include a teaching statement in their applications, and I (as a letter-writer) am specifically asked to describe the applicant's teaching and mentoring abilities, even for applications to Major Big Huge Research University.

5. We push them to publish, attend conferences (and present their research), and write proposals. I had to think about what verb to use in that statement: encourage? (not strong enough), force? (too strong); 'push' is probably about right, implying some force but not excessive force (I think). The other options was pull/drag. In any case, we very strongly encourage, semi-force publications, conference participation etc. no matter what the career goal of the individual. This is important because (1) career goals may change; you want to have as many opportunities as you can and not close off any options; (2) the research group will cease to function at its current level/scale unless everyone participates as much as possible in communicating interesting research results.

I have stated many times in the FSP blog, and probably here in Scientopia as well, that I view a research group as a community: a community of people who work together and who, by the work of the individuals and the group, help each other. Today's topic is a great example of the community concept: If graduates of our research group are successful at getting good jobs, this becomes widely known and attracts new excellent students to our group, and the cycle continues for as long as we are fortunate to have ideas, students, grants..

17 responses so far