It takes a village to mentor an academic

“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.

21 thoughts on “It takes a village to mentor an academic

  1. I think, with your experiences and the way you have analysed and handled them as a student, have made you part-way to be kind, fair and wise mentor. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

    The University that I belonged to, here Downunder, stipulated 3 staff members on a thesis panel for PhD students. One was the primary supervisor, and the others could be chosen according to need – perhaps someone in a related but slightly different discipline (our dept did a lot of cross-disciplinary research), or even someone from another university. It wasn’t always perfect, but it did mean there was always someone who was one step removed from day-to-day work that the student could refer to.

    I also don’t know anyone who hasn’t had a year of ‘the blues’… usually the year before the final one. I was doing my PhD as a mature aged person, with a part-time teaching position in the same dept. When I got to that stage, my supervisor had a similar reaction to yours – in fact, he also said ‘no-one will think less of you if you pull out , you are already working here as a professional’. I went away and thought ‘HOW DARE HE THINK I’M GOING TO PULL OUT NOW!’ and it re-lighted the fire in my belly to ask for what I needed to finish off.

    Wonderful, thoughtful post. I’m sure we can all take some of this to heart to help us in our professional relationships. Keep up the good work as part of the village.

  2. I had another thought about relating to men and women differently. You have given me food for thought about something I had forgotten about.

    Once, one of my colleagues was a widower raising 4 kids on his own. At various times, he would come and chat to another female colleague and I about ‘kids’ issues’ (the three of us were friends and our offices were close to each other). I particularly remember he would keep us informed of the detailed planning of his daughter’s wedding, and we (she and I) mused at the time that he was excited and wanted to share, but didn’t feel comfortable discussing such issues with is male colleagues/friends.

    It isn’t just students who relate differently to men and women about personal issues, perhaps.

  3. This is a wonderful post. Your sentiments echo mine completely. I had the same relationship with my PhD mentor (a WONDERFUL mentor), and also vowed never to cry in front of him. However, I wish that I had sought out more mentors to fill those other roles. Now, as a new-ish faculty member I have many people I go to for different advice, and I find it so valuable. I also like that no single one of those mentors knows the full extent of my ‘issues’ (ie. one person I discuss career decisions with, another for teaching advice, a different for work-life balance, etc) – I think that makes it easier for me to talk to each one of them without feeling like a complete moron🙂

  4. Thanks so much for this post! As a new professor myself, I found it really helpful. I had no idea that students’ personal lives were discussed by faculty, even though that makes sense. I’m also starting to find that a network of mentors is so much more powerful as a model than just having one main mentor.

  5. As a not-that-young-anymore male faculty member, it seems that I’m less likely to invited in to the personal relationships when I’m working with my students, most of whom are women. I think any mentoring relationship sits somewhere along a continuum – one one end is the “we deal about professional stuff only, about what/how/why to do research and career” and the other end is more of a “personal coach” involving integration of all of the personal aspects that affect professional trajectories.

    Because of the inequity and disparities experienced by women in academia, which could emerge directly out of the personal aspects on by all parties, having a mentor deal with students personally is important, in my opinion. If I don’t have that relationship with some of my students, I do try to make sure that they can find more experienced mentors that can help them develop their own view for their goals and approaches to their careers.

  6. While appreciate the overall message of this post (find multiple mentors/sponsors), what is this fixation on not crying in front of your professional mentor (advisor)? We need to get past this; this is no badge of honor. Are you telling me that as an advisor your opinion of someone would be damaged if they broke down and cried in front of you once or twice over the course of several years? I’m not talking about someone who cries at the drop of a hat, or someone who is always coming to you with one personal problem or another. You are not their therapist, that’s fair. But maybe you need to do some soul searching and figure out your own issues with crying before you project them on to your students. And what an unprofessional lot to be gossiping about students’ personal lives in the context of performance evaluations! I really expected better — this should be shut down at once. I guess that’s why we have all of these PC laws: to force people that should know better to act like professionals.

    • It might not have been clear from my post but I do not judge when others cry in my office; it is an understandable way of expressing emotion or reacting. I just personally (basically for reason #1 in d.’s comment on 9/10) wanted to keep that action private from my advisor(s). I think a challenge for academics, and likely for those in any job where the job and life and worldview are very intertwined, is keeping personal and professional matters separate. Advisors need to decide how much to ask about their trainees’ personal matters, and how much of the advisor’s own family life to share in the office; this changes and morphs over time, but it is worth thinking about from time to time because it does come up when working closely with anyone over years, and when work can happen evenings and weekends and during travel. Students need to also think about what facets of their personal life to share at the office, when and how. The job can become closer to being a therapist at times than one might initially think, depending on what is going on for the student personally at a given time.

  7. Why not cry in front of people? Let me count the ways. (I don’t agree with them at all except #1 below, but they are real effects noted by some real people, and some people prone to crying may not want there to be any misunderstandings).

    1. Crying is private and some people (like me) don’t like doing it in front of anyone.

    2. It is sometimes perceived as though the cryer has lost control, and the student may not want to be seen as losing control (even if this isn’t true, it can be perceived thus).

    3. It is sometimes seen as a sign of weakness, and a verification that women are weak. The student may not want to run the danger of being seen that way.(Same rationale as #2).

    4. Some people (men and women) just cannot handle people crying, and they get so embarrassed that future meetings may be therefore made awkward.

    5. At least two of my more mature male colleagues see younger women crying as an attempt at subterfuge and complain that they played a ‘little girl trick’ to try to get their own way. ( In the cases I saw, this was blatantly untrue, but the men could not separate themselves emotionally from that feeling they had.)

    6. No-one looks good while crying, and those who have pride in their appearance would not like to be seen in a dishevelled state in front of someone in authority.

    7 etc …. feel free to add your own reasons.

  8. Oh, d, as a woman in science my lot is *precisely* to be misunderstood! No one *wants* to cry in front of their advisor, but if it happens, it happens. And as long as it doesn’t happen on a regular basis, it really isn’t a big deal. I think most advisors feel this way, including men. (Sorry to hear your colleagues are such throwbacks.) There a lot of very important things to focus on in grad school — not crying in front of your advisor ain’t one of them. We really do need to stop shaming ourselves about this as women.

  9. @anon …. re misunderstanding… EXACTLY … but some people do not want to add to that misunderstanding, or be the brunt of it, until and/or unless the culture changes. They should not be chastised for trying to ‘not cry in front of people’.

    And to add to hansb8ng, as mentioned, these are not my opinions, and many times over 20 yrs I would arrive half an hour before giving an early lecture to find a student (some were male) outside my door in tears – although I wasn’t their adviser, and sometimes didn’t even know them personally – they saw me as someone who could help them resolve the issue of the day without judgement. (If it wasn’t something to do with my class, and it often wasn’t, I would just make phone calls to the appropriate helping person in admin, or student services, or the counsellor, or whatever and provide kleenex). So crying is OK with me, but still not by me in front of others. The reasons don’t really matter, if some of us don’t want to do it.


  10. @ d. and hashb8ng: But how on earth will the culture change if we keep telling women it’s unprofessional to cry in front of their advisor?! And like it or not, that’s what you’re (collectively) doing when you have a post up saying, “I made it a goal not to cry in front of my advisor,” or “these are the reasons not to cry in front of your advisor.” Really, the change should start with *you* — the advisors. You are the ones that should be telling your students, “If for some reason you have a very bad day and break down and cry in front of me, I won’t think any less of you as a scientist, because I myself have cried on several/many occasions, and I don’t think I’m a lesser scientist for having done that. Whether you keep it a secret from me is really beside the point.” Of course, you have to really mean that … which means you need to get over your own sense that crying in the office is always unprofessional.

    And FWIW, neither of your comments came across as, “crying is OK but just not my personal choice.” They came across as “crying is unprofessional and is to be avoided at all costs lest people — not us, of course, but others! — think all of these bad things about you.”

  11. hey hey, let’s call a truce – this is a side-issue in the greater scheme of things in this posting of ‘it takes a village…’; the theme being (if I am not mistaken) that it is beneficial for people to be able to find a range of mentors who can help them in various ways; and as mentors we should try to facilitate this. So, we have been side-tracked onto one minor example…. if one needs to cry, find someone empathetic and not someone who is a ‘throwback’ to times where it was seen to be unprofessional (they do exist) . Ditto with other – more important – non-crying matters.

    It is a great post, with interesting thoughts.

  12. As a female graduate student, I do in fact search out female mentors to talk about my work, yes, but also family balance/planning, and personal issues. I ask some male mentors about these family issues as well, but there are obviously some issues, like giving birth and returning to lab, that men have not experienced directly.

    I’ve found that female profs get bombarded with personal/balance questions because there aren’t that many of them! While I think and hope this is changing with the more younger women I see getting hired, for now at my R1 university there are only 4 women that have had children and maintained great tenure-track careers. This means that many or all of the female grad students/postdocs in the department are going to these same 4 women who are thus doing more mentoring than most (and likely talking about babies a lot).

    But please, until we’ve got more female mentors please keep sharing with us your path to success! Though no one can have it all, you likely have what I want and I want to know how to get there.

    • I know this is a bit late but I just wanted to say I am having this problem right now as an advisee. There are 2 female profs in my department and very many male profs. I do not feel comfortable at all requesting a meeting with any of the male profs to talk about personal/work life balance questions but I am afraid to try to make a meeting with the female professor because of the reason you said above. I don’t want that (young) female professor to feel like she has to be a “mother” to all the women in our department when she is also a new professor and probably doesn’t have all the answers herself.

    • Completely agree with this. I am also a female scientist and I think that as females, we should help each other succeed! Instead of looking down upon women coming to you with personal advise, we should feel happy to help each other because we were once there. Why not help someone out? If I was a mentor I would be happy to help as many students as I could. It is our responsibility as women to inspire younger women, who are less exposed to the path to success in science, to thrive in this community! We should feel honoured and proud to be able to help make the scientific community a more gender neutral work place, as it should be, and a more comfortable and safe environment for women.

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