What kind of a mentor do I want to be?

Remember those teenaged fights with your parents that inevitably ended with some iteration of “I will never forget what it’s like to be a teenager when I’m an adult!”? In spite of our best intentions, I think we are doomed to forget, to some extent. Now, as I prepare to start my first faculty position, I find myself trying to remember all of those things I promised myself during the struggles of graduate school, when I fantasized about what kind of mentor I wanted to be one day.

I count myself lucky to have had a fantastic mentor. He remembered to praise (a rare trait), gave good feedback, and was supportive. I was able to talk to him about my  family troubles, or a problem with my health (perhaps that is as much a testament to my being an over-sharer as it is to his emotional intelligence). We had open discussions about my anxieties or fears. He always listened, gave me constructive feedback, offered validation when I needed it, and pushed me to do better.

Our lab group was close. We had weekly lab meetings, but we also celebrated birthdays, had going away parties, signed sympathy cards, and went on annual retreats. I think a lot of that was a testament to the fact that our PI cared about developing a broader lab culture, but it also had a lot to do with the fact that I, as lab manager, took a lot on myself to make sure that those things happened. I think the lab was stronger for it, ultimately, and it was worth it in spite of the opportunity costs of baking cupcakes.

Not everyone has that kind of an experience. Not everyone wants it, which is fine. In fact, as I write this, I wonder if my advisor wouldn’t have preferred if I didn’t feel like I could tell him anything. Not everyone wants an emotional relationship with their graduate students as well as a collegiate one. For one, as I quickly learned as lab manager, it’s sometimes difficult to be taken seriously when you’re also friends with the people you’re supervising.

I’m also aware that my advisor was probably able to get away with it in part because he was a guy. Women tend to get shunted into the roles of therapist, caregiver, organizer, and nurturer, rather than leader. While I think of my advisor as a friend, I was able to take him seriously as a supervisor even as I recognize that this may be more difficult for me as a PI myself.

Which brings me to the question I started with: What kind of mentor do I want to be? Relatedly, what kind of female mentor do I want to be? When I read Dr. Isis’ post on this topic over at LadyBusiness, I found myself nodding vigorously as she described a female mentor who grabbed her by the shoulders and chastised her for not being more assertive in a meeting. Sometimes, we need to be shaken out of our internalized sexism, our self-doubts, our self-sabotaging behavior. We need to lean in.


When I shared the post with a friend, her response surprised me. “That’s really fucked up! Who does that? Who thinks it’s okay to physically assault their students that way?” It shook me — figuratively. I realized that, for some, the idea of being “the mentor I need to be” (Dr. Isis’ words) means taking on what are stereotypically considered masculine characteristics: aggressive, rational, unemotional, driven. I’ve seen advisors who are relentlessly hard on their students. In one memorable incident, a colleague told his old PI’s new student, “Good luck. You’ll get a great training, but there are much less dehumanizing ways you could have gotten it.” Many of this student’s PI’s are little carbon copies of her; in another meeting, I watched two of them aggressively take down a master’s student during a talk Q&A, obviously embarrassing her in front of the audience for what was clearly her advisor’s poor mentoring.

Is it just that we punish women when they behave in ways we consider admirable (or at least tolerable) in men? Or is it that some women have struggled though so much sexism that it’s hardened them, and they feel like they have to temper their own students to not just survive, but succeed? I suspect it’s a little of both. You see the catch-22 here, right? If you’re too hard, you’re a bitch who’s had to become more like the boys in order to succeed. If you’re too soft, you’re not taken seriously, or you’re buying into the idea that women are more nurturing because that’s the  diversity we bring to academia: a kinder, gentler way of doing things.

As I write this, I suspect the kind of mentor I want to be is the kind of mentor I already am, to an extent; one who blends both the emotional and the rational, the hard and the soft, the aggressive and the compassionate. I’ll likely have problems being taken seriously that my advisor didn’t have, and I’ll have to figure out how to recognize that when it happens and stop it before it becomes a serious issue. I like to think that the attributes I’ve listed are like little dials that can be turned up and down to meet the needs of individual students– that the kind of mentor I need to be will vary depending on my student. I don’t think I want to be known as the Funny PI, or the Hard PI, or the Motherly PI, or even the Badass PI as much as I’d like to be The PI That Taught Me to Get Shit Done and Do it Well Without Dehumanizing Me.

I want to be a PI that holds my students accountable for their actions and pushes them to improve even as I’m flexible enough to accommodate economic difficulties, family trouble, or health and mental problems that get in the way. I’d like to be validating without being coddling, to listen without being taken advantage of, and to respect my students as developing colleagues even as I reinforce the necessary power dynamic between advisor and students. I’d like to remember to praise and not be afraid to speak hard truths. I want to create a strong lab culture like the one I experienced in graduate school; one that results not only in strong bonds, but strong science. I want my students to feel empowered, while still being prepared for the realities of graduate school and beyond. I want to be hard, but understanding; challenging, but compassionate.

I’ll let you know how that goes.

19 thoughts on “What kind of a mentor do I want to be?

  1. Lets not get all wacky and suggest that having high standards, and knowing that you need to push certain non-privileged groups, means I don’t have compassion. I’ve got compassion in fucking spades. I also know that sometimes in this game we all need a healthy dose of Rule #5 (harden the fuck up), lest we all think this is some kind of fucking wine and cheese party. I was blessed to have a mentor who had blazed the trail and was good enough to teach me that lesson.

    • Woah! I don’t recall saying anywhere in my post that you don’t have compassion. I have tremendous respect for you. I even wrote that I agreed with your post. Yeah, we’ve got to harden up sometimes; I just don’t have a good sense for myself of where that line is– somewhere between the hardening that facilitates self respect and success and the hardening that turns me into an inconsiderate and abusive asshole. I thought that balance was pretty clearly the point of my post. I don’t want to give my students — and especially my students from underrepresented backgrounds — any illusions that things will be easy. I want them prepared. But I’ve seen some people really abuse their students in the name of hardening them the fuck up.

  2. This is the phrase that perked me up:

    “I realized that, for some, the idea of being “the mentor I need to be” (Dr. Isis’ words) means taking on what are stereotypically considered masculine characteristics: aggressive, rational, unemotional, driven.”

    I just want to take care that we not assume that these can’t occur in combination with a strong commitment to the personal well-being of our students or in the absence of affection and praise. I am by no means unemotional. If anything, I hope that my emotions reflect my deep investment in their success.

    • I quoted you because I liked the way you framed being a mentor you want to be, versus being a mentor you need to be — that is, as a balance between the needs of the student and the needs of the mentor. I definitely agree with you that those characteristics aren’t mutually exclusive with warmth, praise, affection, etc.– rather, I was referring to the people who, in my experience, did feel that those were mutually exclusive. If that didn’t come out in subsequent paragraphs, I apologize. I genuinely did not mean any of my statements to be an indictment of you or your mentoring experiences.

  3. I know that you didn’t. But, as you acknowledge, we run the risk of those qualities being misinterpreted, especially in women.

  4. We will never get over the ‘gender wars’ until and unless we are comfortable being ‘who we are’, and realising our natural abilities and working to strengthen those – whether it be as a mentor, within the family, professionally or whatever. If we can be comfortable within our own skins, then gender will not matter and will not need to be commented upon.

    Having said that, I know it hasn’t happened yet. So we do need to be aware of where stereotypes are leading our behaviour, and guard against those (whether they be to ‘hard and bitchy’ or too ‘soft and cuddly’). But if we are true to ourselves, then we will do a bit of both and just be people; hopefully people who learn from our own mistakes and continually improve our behaviour and listen to our colleagues, students and friends. Really listen. Then we will also be good mentors. Whatever our gender.


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  8. Just wanted to say that as a grad student (a woman and a minority), I very much appreciate this post — especially this: “the kind of mentor I need to be will vary depending on my student…. I’d like to be The PI That Taught Me to Get Shit Done and Do it Well Without Dehumanizing Me.” You’d think it’d be obvious, but if there was One Best Way to mentor ALL students, people would have figured it out by now and passed it on — mentoring would be no challenge at all. Instead, it is, precisely because the things that will motivate one person may have the opposite effect on another. So good for you that you recognize this early on! I myself respond much better to the carrot than the stick; no one has to shake me by the shoulders in order for me to get the point. So I would probably view that as your friend did. For me, if my advisor is not thrilled with me, then that’s motivation enough for me to do better. And if he is, then I’m already thinking: “what will I do next to make him even happier?” Needless to say, I’m not a fan of the Army way: tear them down so you can build them back up in your image. Having an advisor with that kind of mentoring “philosophy” would probably cause me to drop out of grad school or at least, find another lab.

    Oh, and I really don’t see where Isis is coming from in her response to you … but whatever.

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