Blurred lines in the field

A six hour car ride to a field site. A fourteen mile hike in the wilderness. Two months living together in tents in the middle of nowhere.   These types of experiences are common to those of us that work ‘in the field’ – i.e., not always stationed at our home base. And they all lead to situations where the lines between mentorship and friendship are likely to become just a little bit fuzzy. Let’s be honest, you can only talk for so long about experimental design. Now that I’m in my first summer of field work as a professor, and looking at the friendship-mentorship boundary from the other side, I’ve been thinking about where that boundary should be, how to set it (in the field), and how to reset it upon return to ‘normal’ life.

snoopy-campingAs a graduate student I didn’t feel much of a need to filter myself in conversations with my student assistants, peers, and mentors in the field. Most of my time was with undergraduates that were assisting on many projects, so I didn’t feel directly in charge of them. We lived together in houses and field cabins and also socialized with each other (watching movies and TV shows, hiking, going out to dinner). Even though I was their ‘boss’ in some sense of the word the presence of the ultimate ‘boss’ (my major professor) was felt strongly.   This allowed me to end up more firmly on the friend side of the friend-boss boundary.

That changed a bit in my postdoctoral positions, where I was more of a true authority figure. Even so, by living with four undergraduates for three months in a one-bathroom house I became friends with my students. We were each others primary social circle, so naturally we did non-science things together. I still had a little bit of cushion because there still were two PIs who, though only present sporadically, were the ultimate ‘bosses’ on the project. Nonetheless I did feel the tension a bit more. When my students went off to party with other field assistants I wished I wasn’t in the house to know how drunk they got or how late they stayed out. At this stage I started becoming a potential letter-writer for these students, and although I’m glad they had fun social lives, I didn’t necessarily need to see it. Occasionally my friend/buddy and mentor/boss sides conflicted, as I had to be disappointed boss the next morning after a big night out.

Now I’m the ‘big boss’, as it were. I don’t have any months-long field campaigns planned yet that will involve students, but I am driving to distant field sites and working long days with a few undergrads. Thankfully, we’re not living together, so there are fewer opportunities for work-life conflicts. These students were in my classes in the past and will be again in the future, which means that whatever our relationship is this summer it will need to go back to a standard student-teacher one in the fall – I can’t show favoritism or be more casual with them.

So what is the best balance? Part of mentoring can, and should be, discussion of other issues relevant to pursuing a career in your field inside or out of academia. Those discussions always have more meaning when grounded in real life experiences, and in those situations sharing personal stories can be a big help. However, there is a fine line between over-sharing and providing a role model. I’ve been trying to discover my students’ goals and career aspirations and then starting conversations about how to reach those goals. Any question they directly answer me I answer as completely as I can without getting *too* personal. And when we run out of academia- and work-related topics I try and steer conversation towards relatively neutral territory, such as movies, music, and travel.

One thing I am a bit concerned about is returning to regular classes in the fall. I will know so much more about these students, and it will probably be instinctual to ask for their help or call on them in class because I am comfortable with them. I will have to resist those urges so that I don’t seem to have favorites. At the same time I can’t be harder on them because they ‘should know better’. My mentors have said that, in general, students are good at instinctively resetting those boundary lines during the school year, particularly in class or group settings. However I have heard stories of students who didn’t reset the boundaries and eventually needed awkward reprimands.

Given my experiences here are a few thoughts for both students and mentors:

As a student, keep in mind that even if you aren’t technically ‘on the clock’ when not actively working, your behavior is going to be noticed by your mentors. Everyone needs to blow off steam, but you don’t want to lose the respect of your mentors or future letter-of-recommendation-writers!

As a boss/postdoc in charge/professor, remember that it’s ok (actually, better) not to be involved all of the time. You are not in the field with your students to become their BFF. Do everything you can to arrange sleeping/living arrangements so that you aren’t sharing space with your students. And resist the urge to go out and be their buddy all of the time, even if that means you’re the one staying in bored. At the same time, you will have a lot of unparalleled opportunities to mentor your students and get them excited about your research, so take advantage of it! Lastly, if you are sharing living space with your students, try to make work-time and play-time clearly defined. Even if they see you working in the evenings make it clear to the students that they have free time and aren’t obligated to keep working. And if at all possible give your students a break from you. Take a few trips to work on other projects, or sent them out to see some local natural wonder. You will all be happier and healthier for a little space.

How do you balance friendship and mentorship in the field? How do you keep your students happy and productive? And how do you reset those boundaries after field season has ended?

9 thoughts on “Blurred lines in the field

  1. Awesome post. As someone who tends to gravitate more towards friend than boss in my professional relationships, this is really good for me to remember — especially because I’m close in age to some of my grad students!

  2. I’ve recently made the transition from resident to attending, and was a medical student not long ago. Here are the things that I’ve noticed:

    1. Everyone pays more attention to you and your emotional state. That means if you are angry, or flustered, or frustrated, emotions that once mattered to no one but yourself diffuse through your entire team in a heartbeat. Once you’re the boss, you shouldn’t slam down phones or scowl or curse or complain. It disturbs people. Scares them, actually.

    2. Successful bosses are friends with just about everybody. They don’t suffer complaints of favoritism because they are open, kind, and interested in all the world. Cool reserve sounds like a great strategy, but often breeds resentment and hostility from people who feel you don’t approve of them and are looking down on them.

    3. Smart people rarely need your brain to plan their day for them. But when shit goes south, people look upwards, and they want to see that you’re calm and you have a plan. It doesn’t even have to be a particularly good plan. But it’s there, and they don’t have to come up with it themselves. That diffuses the sometimes paralyzing tension of the emergency and lets everyone function.

  3. In a worst case scenario example, the student-PI relationship blurs into ‘best friends’, and the closeness (or inappropriateness) that began in the field continues in the lab. The PI and student can essentially become a clique within the lab, and to other (potentially less senior) lab members, the student becomes essentially the gatekeeper to the PI’s good opinion of everyone else, thus determining how resources are divided, who gets fired or hired, who gets what unpleasant task or awesome project. From personal experience, this is very counterproductive and causes lots of resentment. This can happen in the classroom just as easily. Just something to keep in mind if you feel the lines blurring.

    • yes, this would be an extreme and unfortunate outcome, but i think an “even worse case scenario” would be if real animosity developed between member of the team that had to work together again back in the lab.

  4. So I have a related question for you and others: what about alums? Let’s say your grad student graduates and stays in your field, with the ultimate goal of landing a faculty position. You will obviously be asked for a letter of reference, and may even have to provide such letters at various stages in this person’s career. Does that mean that you can never be truly friends with this person? Does the shadow of “this person may/will evaluate me” always hang over the relationship? Or is it somehow different when you are no longer this person’s “official boss”?

    • That is a good question, and one I am struggling with as well. I think I would be comfortable being friends with someone who I could write a fully positive rec letter for when they graduate (before we become good friends), and then just update it as necessary with simple career stuff. It would get more iffy if I liked them as a friend but had misgivings about them as a colleague.

  5. Did you get much training you and the other lab members got from your PI on these issues back when you were a grad student and then a postdoc? If not, do you wish you had?

    • At least for me ‘training’ on anything besides grant and paper writing and experimental design wasn’t really part of my education. I do think there are a lot of other ‘hats’ we wear as academics for which training would be really useful.

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