“Do you think grad school is a good time to have a baby?” This question came my way at a meeting last week, with a graduate student early in her doctoral work who was meeting me for the first time to ask me to join her thesis committee.
Labor Day has passed and the research-filled summer has given way to meetings: undergraduate advising meetings, graduate advising meetings, meetings with students interested in my classes, TA meetings, meetings with collaborators, and meetings with prospective graduate students who are planning to apply to my department’s graduate program this year. Whew! Things feel busier than ever before for me, because I have an 8-month-old daughter at home and am back from a semester of leave from teaching (although different from maternity leave, I’m grateful for it).
I can’t tell you whether it’s statistically significant, but it seems to me that in these meetings, female students who I am professionally connected to (I’m their advisor, instructor in a course, committee member, quals examiner) invariably ask questions that cover a range of personal topics. Some are asking me about whether to go to grad school, when to time starting a family, how to get into a grad school near where a partner has a job or has started school, secrets about “how to do it all”, whether I used a doula at my child’s birth (I did, a topic for another post).
At TSW we’ve explored mentoring in multiple posts, including striving the be The PI That Taught One to Get S*** Done and Do it Well Without Abuse and how to avoid the abusive PI (and what to do once you find yourself in a lab run by a toxic bullying PI). As this year begins, I’ve been thinking about mentoring from another angle: the I Am Not A One-Stop Shop mentoring angle. My hope? I want young academics, men and women, to build a network of mentors. My advice to graduate students? Find multiple mentors; at the very least have a faculty member besides your major advisor that you talk to for a second opinion on professional matters, and with whom you feel comfortable talking about your personal life.
My graduate PI has always been an amazing mentor for me; I still run many work-related questions by him. He is a sponsor and goes to bat for his students. He has trained a large number of graduate students — male and female — over a long productive career. I have immense gratitude and fondness for my grad PI….and one goal I had in grad school was to never cry in front of him. I spent many hours crying in my office, or sneaking away from the department to cry discreetly after a bad meeting or a rejection from a journal or just wondering if I was ever going to finish. If I had shed tears in his office, I know it wouldn’t have been anything he hadn’t seen before; I’m sure he would have quietly handed me a box of tissues and been sympathetic. But I worried that he might not be able to separate my professional persona and my private one if I showed him both. Would he expect less from me if he thought I was worried about something in my personal life? I don’t know, but I do find it sometimes hard to separate these things as a PI myself.
To fill the niche of personal mentor, I sought out a younger (it happened he was male) faculty member to talk to about more personal things: how to balance working hard with having fun, how to choose a postdoc lab in a city where I might find a good dating scene, how to dress for a postdoc interview. I also sought out older graduate students with whom I felt secure sharing my feelings. And I built my first network of mentors.
When my department reviews graduate students, we often discuss personal matters: upcoming marriages, births, losing a parent/sibling, illnesses. I really wish these matters came up less often in the context of reviewing student performances; such information can contextualize why a student might be struggling, but sometimes it’s just gossipy or even catty (“he isn’t in the lab much because he’s visiting his out-of-state girlfriend”). These personal things come up a lot when a PI is wondering about why a student isn’t meeting some milestone: defending in the next year, setting up quals, presenting at conferences. The hardest thing about managing a lab is drawing the best out of lab members whose motivations are all different, and different from the PI’s; we pounce on any extra information we have that could explain lacking productivity, even if there is another reason for it. Worse yet, this gives PIs a reason to not seek a solution (it’s taboo to comment on a trainee’s life outside the lab to the trainee, but not to other colleagues) and let the problem fester.
I did go through five years of grad school without crying in front of my advisor. But I had a period during my fourth year when I told him I was very unhappy and strongly considering taking a leave of absence. I didn’t explain the source of the problem. My advisor listened, and gave me purely professional advice (basically, “you’re close, and I worry you wouldn’t finish if you left because it’s hard for anyone to do that”). And then he told me that graduate school is such a long process that he’s never had a student go through it without some personal event affecting him/her negatively, and said “the most important thing to me is that you be productive and enjoy your work; just let me know what you need in the office to make that happen and I’ll provide it.” It was the best thing he could have said, and it made me realize that the way to talk to him about a personal matter was to explain how it was keeping me from being the best graduate student I could be.
I chose not to go to my graduate advisor for personal advice, and I’m glad I made that choice and sought out others to fill that niche in my life. I continue to find having multiple mentors useful at work: I have two great grant-writing mentors, one senior colleague I run my pedagogy questions by, two I bounce management questions off of, one I talk to about being a professor and a mother. Most are in my department, but a couple aren’t (which is key). I find seeking help from many individuals, each for different parts of the job, means I get great advice and also can integrate it all on my own, deciding what to take in and what to take with a grain of salt. Having a village of mentors makes me feel more in charge of my career.
I wonder if my male colleagues are often drawn into their students’ personal lives; it seems to me male professors have more of a choice on this matter, while women faculty are sought out to be role models/mother hens/sages leading the way. If I have my druthers, I want to be a mentor who is kind, fair, and who makes my lab members’ professional lives as pleasant as they can be, but who doesn’t make their personal lives my especial concern, and one whom trainees in other labs feel they can approach with personal questions.