This post has been rattling around in my head for months now. The seed of it started a year ago, with this post. Then, it sprouted with the first visit from a grad student to my door this past semester, asking for advice. And then there was a meeting request from a second student and a chance encounter with a third student, both ending in tears. Finally, it fully flowered after I met individually with two other grad students, all seeking a similar set of advice, with more tears (on both their part and mine). Some of these meetings fell under the guise of official mentorship (e.g, I’m involved in the students professional lives in some official way, as their mentor or committee member), whereas others were requests for informal mentorship. But in all cases, I realized that the students were able to be much more honest and open about their issues with me than they felt they could be with other faculty.
The common themes? All were female students in labs with male PIs (though I have also served as an unofficial mentor to a male grad student in the past). Second, these grad students all wanted advice on how to deal with their difficult advisors*. But the most devastating theme to me? All of these women are spectacularly intelligent individuals, and none of them believed they were smart enough for grad school.
Somewhere in the middle of all these meetings, the Chronicle of Higher Education published this blog post about the invisible care-work that women and underrepresented minorities do, and I realized that this article described my experience exactly. My discussions with these grad students sparked in me much angst, anger, self-reflection, and also pride. Angst that I felt powerless to do much other than be a reasonable sounding board for the students, angst that these lovely women were so distraught. Anger at their advisors for (in my view) contributing substantially to their students lack of confidence in themselves as scientists. Reflection about my role in my local academic community and the responsibilities I have as a faculty member to help boost up those coming after me. Pride that students see me as someone they can talk to openly and honestly. And also, selfishly, pride that my own graduate students seem to be much happier with me as an advisor than these students are with theirs. (Famous last words, right?)
So what have I done about these situations?
In many cases, I think my appropriate role IS simply to be a sounding board- someone with a different, outside perspective on situations, who can provide a different set of advice (or in some cases, the same advice that the student just doesn’t want to hear). In a few cases, I encouraged the students to talk to others who did have some sort of power to make a difference- the department or graduate coordinator or chair, the campus ombuds, etc. And separately, I confidentially conveyed my own concerns to the powers that be about those situations**. But mostly, I provided a much-needed morale boost. My own PhD advisor remarked at one point that 75% of her job as an advisor was cheerleading. At the time I thought that was funny and also pretty self-deprecating- she was much, much more than a simple cheerleader. And yet, I now see what she meant. There have been so many times I felt I couldn’t do something- learn a new method, push through a publication, lead a project, etc- but knowing that others believed I could do it, even if I was skeptical of myself, sustained me through the difficult times until I figured it out.
Personally, I’ve struggled to find a healthy way to deal with the mess of emotions (especially the angst and anger) that these meetings engender. After the first few left me feeling unfocused and out of sorts for the rest of the day, I started to schedule these discussions for later in the day so I can simply leave work and go for a walk or run and “be in my head” for a bit to process my own emotions. But honestly, this is still something I struggle with and at one point, I thought about simply saying no to these sorts of meetings (unless I had some official role in the students professional life). But, that wasn’t the solution for me. What’s the point of being a faculty member if I can’t use my place of power*** to help those lower down on the academic hierarchy?
* Note that none of these situations involve sexual harassment and mandatory reporting.
** Which I do think will have an effect, though it’s slower moving than a direct, student-initiated intervention would be.
*** Power is relative. In all cases, the students advisors have tenure whereas I am untenured.