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.
As 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?