Unofficial mentorship

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.


26 thoughts on “Unofficial mentorship

  1. I believe the best approach is, as you’ve done, to leave your door open to all. Then be a good listener providing logical feedback. In other words, do not get caught up in all the angst because it isn’t yours- it’s theirs. Present well grounded options for them and leave it at that. If they follow your advice- great. If not, so be it.

    • My angst is partly because of their emotional state, but the bigger issue is my own feelings of powerlessness to help. I think I CAN help in some ways, but not to the extent that I wish I could. For example, I think my advice is reasonable and many of the students do take it…the problem is when they try to implement some of my suggestions, their advisors are not as reasonable (in my mind). But then yes, after that step, my advice isn’t generally followed. i.e., students are hesitant to escalate their concerns to higher-ups, for fear of retribution and downstream career consequences.

      • Ah, I had not considered how opposing advisers would respond. That can be a sticky wicket for certain. I would say in those cases. that if you already know how an advisor would respond, then try the following:

        1) Stay out of the fray- you’ll only get burned, and then you are stuck with that colleague for a couple of decades, or
        2) Build a bridge with the student, but don;t blow up the bridge with the advisor. In other words, you need to build a bridge to that advisor before building one to the student.

        You can maintain confidentiality and not reveal the topic of the potential chats and still build such a bridge. You might say something like, “I’ve noticed Katrina has been down in the dumps lately. I thought of maybe approaching her not as a faculty member, but just as a friend because we have much in common. Since your her advisor, do you have any suggestions how I might do that?”

        Now, the advisor will feel involved and important. He/ she will appreciate your thoughtfulness, and instead of pissing him/ her off, you now have built a bridge to the future.


  2. I’m a final year engineering student too and I can identify with the problems. At so many points, for projects or research assignments or mini projects, I end up consulting a female faculty member even if she isn’t my guide.
    In fact my college has been female mentor (separate from project guides) whom any female student can approach for any guidance.

    • I’m interested in knowing more about the female mentor. You say that your college has a female mentor whom any female student can approach for guidance. Is this an official role that the faculty mentor plays for the college? If so, that’s a nice idea. As the CHE article I linked to in the post pointed out, one of the issues is that all of these interactions constitute the “invisible care-work” of the department. So it’s something that can take an enormous amount of time, but is not reflected anywhere on my CV. Having some sort of official role could help solve this issue- it still takes the same amount of time, but I can count it as “service” (and perhaps reduce my service work in other places).

      • Yes, Engineering is a four year course and through the years, a mentor from your field is assigned to every 10 students. It even applies to the boys.
        Male students have male mentors and female students have female mentors.
        At the beginning of the first year, every student is required to fill a form about his/her personal interests, hobbies, fears etc. The form varies from mentor to mentor.
        You are required to have at least 2 mentor meetings in a semester. My mentor used to have them during lunch so we could share lunch an talk freely in her cabin.

    • Unfortunately, my experience as a female PhD student has been the opposite: the female faculty in my department tend to be of the “I sucked it up and got through it and so you can too” crowd. My most encouraging and helpful mentors have all been male.

      (I blame this more on demographics than on any generalization about people. There are many more male faculty here, and consequently there’s greater diversity of personalities among them than among the female faculty.)

      • The same for me too. I am a woman, have a mixture of male and female mentors, and with the men, I can talk about emotions, life choices, fear of failure, touchy-feely stuff. The women are more like “it was difficult, I made it, so will you, suck it up.”

        DrMsScientist, I’ve seen that a trap for many female scientists is that they start doing too much of the equivalent of housework in academia – and they volunteer to do so. I am trying to maintain my boundaries, I am available to my students but not random people. Serving as a sounding board is very important, and a great form of service, and can sometimes be crucially important to people whom you are helping, but you might want to either draw the line or make it visible and organized somehow. I have a background in mental health. It sounds like some sort of coaching / supervision might help you with some of those difficult feelings and emotions and situations. That’s how people who do psychotherapy for a living cope with dealing with tough and negative things.

  3. You mentioned that “I’m involved in the students professional lives in some official way, as their mentor or committee member.” Have you ever been involved in a situation where you do this, but you are not the student’s thesis advisor/major professor (you are one of multiple committee members), and their advisor finds out and criticizes/ gets mad at/ complains to you that “how dare you do that, I’m their advisor, so-and-so is MY student and has no right to/ should not be getting advice from anyone else? Stop meddling and counteracting my authority with my students!”- ultimately it can backfire on the student, as well as yourself (especially if you don’t have tenure). I experienced this numerous times (sadly, colleagues who are themselves members of underrepresented groups have been the worst offenders)- and it makes me hesitant to get involved now. 😦

    • I have not yet been in the situation you describe, where an advisor criticizes me for providing advice to their students, but yes, this is one of my primary concerns in terms of my own role in all of these interactions! To be more specific, I’m relatively ok with having a direct interaction with the advisor if his/her concern is that their student has no right to get advice from anyone else. I think they are wrong, I would be happy to have that discussion, and I know I would be supported by my higher-ups on this. The bigger worry is that the advisor will actively work to undermine me in more subtle ways, without directly confronting me on what they suspect my role is. I think this concern applies regardless of my formal or informal role in students professional lives- in some cases I am on the students committee, in other cases I have some other official mentor role, but in many cases, I’m just a friendly faculty member. I think I’m buffered a bit in those cases where I have a formal roles, but regardless, all of these interactions add up. A particular concern is that, in some of these cases, the “last resort” strategy is to switch advisors.

      • When I was working on my doctoral degree, i sought advice from two of the “higher-ups” regarding concerns about my mentor. I was assured by both of them that our chats were confidential and no one would ever know. I found out later they immediately contacted my mentor and repeated the details of our conversations? Backfire??? Ubetcha- big time.

  4. I don’t know you. But as someone who had to seek “outside” counsel, thank you so much for doing this. The fecal matter hit the proverbial blades towards the end of my PhD, and I know things would have gone much worse if I had not talked to an informal mentor. My two female committee members were helpful, but it was the male former-chair of my training grant that really helped me out. I’ll be forever thankful to him.

  5. “Snap” to all of this. You are doing a great job investing your own time and emotional energy into trying to maintain a supportive environment.

    But what really worries me is the perpetuation of “several” harsh mentors, and the idea that this harshness is the norm or is necessary into the future.

    I assume that these advisors are also harsh to their male students. I worry that this perpetuates the situation to the next generation – hear me out. What do the unhappy male students do? They probably don’t talk to a female mentor, official or otherwise. They probably don’t talk to another male mentor, whether on their committee or not. They possibly whine to each other, in informal situations away from the lab. They possibly think (as the harsh advisors possibly also think) that it is a hardening-up process that is necessary to survive in the big bad world outside. So they (and some of the female students in private) try to harden up so they can survive, as they perceive it. So when these “hardened, surviving” students become mentors and advisors themselves, then they perpetuate the situation of trying to toughen-up their students without realising their strategies are having the opposite effect.

    (And I can think of one female advisor in my former department that had similarly harsh attitudes to her students, though she was supportive of women, she had done it tough and she thought everyone following her had to do it tough too. I counselled several of her students over the years in similar circumstances to the above – the difference was that she had their interests at heart, and once the immediate frustration was over, she would calm down and explain what she wanted them to do next.)

    Is it possible to bring this up in open discussion, so that the advisors get an idea of the harm they are doing? Is it possible to suggest different strategies that may help all the future generation can be gently suggested? I know it won’t work in all cases, many such people are resolute in their attitudes and convinced they are effective “leaders”. But even if it helps to change the attitudes of a few peoplethat will perpetuate into the future. And it will help the “tough” male (and female) students too – or those that are not so tough, but think they need to pretend to be.

    • Yes, exactly, I agree that these issues can have cascading effects. In my case, I think we can start to have some open discussions, but I’m not yet in the role where I can lead those discussions. But luckily, I have supportive higher ups who ARE in those roles and they have started to bring up some of the underlying issues- not pegged to any one person, but rather as an open discussion about the overall climate in our program.

      • Sounds very positive, thanks for sharing – and thanks again for putting your time and emotion into this little project. I hope it encourages others to have open discussions even before they are in the position to “lead” them. Just being open must help in the future.

  6. At the time when I was earning my doctorate, my male advisor was less than helpful. Granted, he was less than helpful to my male counterparts as well. He did not start paying attention to our research until the year prior to graduation. He would make assurances that he did not keep with any of us. Moreover, he did not tell his students that they really should try to get along with one and other. (Let me assure you that taking students that were not playing well with one and other, getting them to explain their grievances, and telling them to play well with one and other would have gone a long way to fixing many of the problems in this laboratory.)

    The most egregious problem was that of data and experiments being deleted deliberately by fellow graduate students. After the third occurrence, I started backing my data up as soon as I completed said experiment and getting that backup out of the lab….never to set foot in the building again.I made him aware of this problem and he did not fix it. That data was his livelihood too so he should have addressed it.

    Moreover there was the sexual harassment of women in his laboratory by at least one of his graduate students. This behavior is unacceptable in an academic environment and in the “real” world. He did nothing to stop it. Even when it was brought to his attention, he spoke to the offender once. Never did he ask his female graduate students if it had continued. (The harassment continued anyway.)

    I would have loved to have a female mentor however, none of the women in our department were particularly approachable. At least I did not feel comfortable enough to speak to any of them about my advisor. It was generally agreed that he was challenged as an advisor. He sat on a paper of mine for over a year before even looking at it. That’s one example. I have oodles of others. I zipped my mouth shut, did the work and got it done. He, however, was not supportive at all. Hostile describes the environment in his lab.

    Just having an ear to talk to would have been helpful. I would not have wanted my comments to be repeated to him, though. The department I was in was challenged anyway. I hope that there is a better support network now than in the past. That support network would have helped me overcome some of the challenges. I never heard him tell any of us that we were competent scientists. Hearing encouragement and positive reinforcement would have helped. Women need to hear it more than men especially during the college and graduate school years. And frankly, women don’t get that reinforcement. I know many many women that would have been competent scientists but without that positive reinforcement, decided that they were not good enough to be in the sciences.

  7. yes, so “So what have you done about these situations?”
    Well for one thing, beside providing moral support to the needing students, you wrote that post, which I’m sure is going to be helpful to countless more. The depreciation and self-depreciation of female students sadden me, and blogs like yours are helping things change. Thanks.

  8. I experience this a lot also and it is almost always related to interpersonal conflict; often with the supervisor. It is exhausting work! I like your suggestion of making these appointments near the end of the day because like you if they happen during the morning they completely derail my productivity for the rest of the day. I have also taken to asking students what they want to discuss (in general terms) when I book the appointment to avoid being broadsided by these discussions; I find them particularly difficult if I am not expecting them. This has been a large component of my “unpaid emotional labour” during the past few years. Like you, I think that it is absolutely important to keep doing it.

  9. Seems like many people are making a difference, one box of Kleenex at a time! Well done all of you who are trying to change the “toughness” culture.

  10. As a junior female scientist I’ve been in this position frequently and I want help these students, I think it matters and I care about these students. However, it bothers me is that not only does this mean my junior male colleagues don’t have this time and emotional burdens of this work but also they don’t learn the skills needed to help students of all genders. Most of my colleagues are good people who want to support their students but since there is an assumption that when a female student is having problems that fall outside the science itself that they will, and should, turn to a female faculty, it means that the men don’t have to develop the ability to work with that student through these issues. All of the very smart men I know are capable of learning these skills, we’ve just exempted them from having to do so. I think there should be more formal training for faculty and higher expectations that advisers and other faculty (male and female) will when necessary be able to talk with students about issues outside just the science. Universities need to stop relying on the informal, uncompensated labor of women to help students and male faculty need to recognize that they can and should develop the skills to help ALL of their students.

  11. Pingback: Being a shadow advisor | Tenure, She Wrote

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