An elephant in the room: how we set ourselves up to be bad at mentoring

If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this post, it is that the most important component of mentorship is self-awareness.

But before we get to that, I want to start out by saying that I have had to provide myself with all of the training that it takes to become, to be honest, an actively good mentor. I think that needing to self-train on mentorship is common, as it is not one of those things that are usually taught as part of grad school. Especially in STEM (which is where I do most of my work) you’re lucky if your program is forward-thinking enough to give you the basic training of how to instruct undergraduates as a TA. Personally? My starting place for my self-training in mentorship has been “Mentees should not experience harm as a result of interacting with or being trained by me”.

The purpose of this post is not to provide a template for mentorship, but to first point out some underlying assumptions that allow us mentors—usually inadvertently!—harm our mentees. And then to provide a few examples of what toxic behaviors can be, and what non-toxic alternatives are.

Academic culture sets us up to harm our mentees. Regardless of any training, experience, or interest, a lot of academics in STEM (and, I’m guessing, elsewhere in the academy) end up having ‘mentor’ in their job description. Being a mentor is often incentivized by funding institutions, but rarely, if ever, defined. And in the pyramid scheme of academia, even if you’ve actively wanted to NEVER mentor people, it’s rare to end up in a position where you have no responsibilities for mentoring junior colleagues. The lack of training in mentorship brings with it a lack of general agreement about what ‘mentorship’ means. For some, it means that the mentee can expect weekly meetings and availability for deep personal conversations. For others, it means that the mentee can expect a spot at a lab bench and funding to do projects, which will be coauthored with the mentor, though little other interaction will take place. I think we can agree that there’s a lot of room in there, and that’s before we even begin talking about the fact that mentorship is marketed very differently to potential-mentees than it is to potential-mentors.

So the important first step in any productive, healthy mentorship relationship is to negotiate explicit expectations—for both people—and then stick to them. As the mentor, that’s your job: you get to say what you’ll be on the hook for, but you have to make sure this happens. And if you want to be a responsible human, I think you should really support them in advocating for what they need from you, rather than take advantage of their deference to keep your burden minimal, but that’s just my opinion. You have the power—use it to be crystal, written-contract clear about what, specifically, you are willing to be relied on to do.

When I was in grad school (up until this past year), it was common for grad students to remind one another that our PIs “just don’t remember what it’s like to be in grad school anymore”. We said they didn’t remember, rather than that they didn’t care, because we preferred to believe our PIs to be ignorant, rather than uncaring—and who could blame us for that? To our shame, we emulated their lack of concern by talking down to and dismissively about undergraduate students. Disdain for junior colleagues has been encoded as a way to show coolness and sophistication in parts of the academy. We see it modeled, we are socially rewarded for practicing it, and—crucially–it is an especially common coping technique for people experiencing flares of impostor syndrome. This is too bad, but it’s a rare person who doesn’t engage in it.

This behavior harms the people who are on the receiving end of it—and the people we mentor are in a vulnerable position to begin with, especially with respect to their mentors (more on this in a second). So we’re not talking about a little bit of hurt feelings here and there—we are talking about potentially life-altering shifts in goals, self-concept, and confidence. And this is because, I’ll argue, that people in the role of ‘mentor’ usually do not understand the amount of power we have. Because, though we are not often reminded of this, mentorship is more than supervising cognitive development, mastery of content, and the acquisition of discipline-specific skills. It is more than helping mentees develop and follow a career trajectory, or even demonstrating “soft skills” that will help them get there.

Truly, we do not get it. We are set up to not get it, true, but we spend our lives in pursuit of ‘getting’ stuff that very few people understand, so I promise you, we can handle this. No academic work happens in a sociopolitical vacuum, and nor does academic success. But by the time we are sitting on the mentor side of a desk, much of the privilege that comes with that seat is so normalized to us, that we forget it. Sure, we can absent ourselves for active discussions about our mentees’ personal struggles (see “expectations”, above), but we do not get to pretend that intersectional power dynamics are absent (a) outside our sphere of influence (e.g. outside the lab) (b) inside our spheres (e.g. inside the lab), and (c) in our interactions with our mentees. Because of our senior position and relative social power, we exercise tremendous power academically, sociologically, interpersonally, and in terms of the developing identities of our mentees.

Why? Because if we are their mentors, these (usually) students look up to us. Our explicitly and implicitly stated opinions, no matter how ill-conceived or poorly expressed, fall from a great height on them, and stay around for a long time. Unfortunately, the harsher the comment and the greater the power differential, the longer it is likely to persist. And the operative power differential is not the one we perceive—privilege foreshortens how we perceive this differential: it’s like there’s a spyglass between us, and for us the mentee appears close, but to them, we seem to be very, very far away. So for us it may seem like just two people having a discussion on some random day, for our mentee it could be That Day That My Mentor Made That Joke About Me And I Was So Ashamed That I Decided To Not Take That Class I Was Considering. The next day, we will have forgotten about the conversation. But our mentee—and I am not exaggerating here—may never recover.

There are, of course, individuals who believe that because they had a tough time, they are entitled to give their mentees a tough time, too. This type of zero-sum math is part of what keeps the academy an extremely hostile place to people who are not sociologically primed to believe they are entitled to a place in it. We do not know how tough our mentees’ lives are outside of the academy. It’s not necessarily our place to know it, or to pursue knowledge of it (see the ‘setting expectations’ thing, above). But the very least we can do is to not add our retrospective self-validating hazing to their plates. Academia is tough, just because it has gotten easier for us after more than 15 years of pursuing it as a career, it hasn’t gotten easier in general. We do not have to make it harder for our mentees, in order for them to be good. If our mentees experience their primary difficulties to be in areas of academic content, we will have done our jobs impossibly well (or just chosen extremely privileged people to mentor).

Tough love is important, of course. I’m not advocating that everything be made perfect and easy for mentees—but unless we are hubristic almost beyond the norm even for STEM scholars, we need to acknowledge that the lives of our mentees are beyond our power to make perfect. That, we do not have the power to do. We can require tough rewrites, exacting experiments, hundreds of pages of dense reading, and that is because we care. And many people claim that hazing their mentees is a thing they do, because they care. But here’s the thing. A widespread misconception about mentoring is that “caring about” our mentees is sufficient, or in itself an indicator of a good mentor. Zoom out and think about that—caring about our research area isn’t enough to do a good job of answering questions in it. Caring about what you eat for dinner is not going to get the food cooked. Caring about climate change, global hunger, or infant mortality will not, in and of itself, address any of those issues.

Our job as mentors is not to be a buddy, an older sibling, a stand-in parent, or a parole officer. Our job is to help our mentees succeed at their goals. Or at very least, not harm our mentees while they figure those goals out. To do any of this effectively, we need to police our intentions to be certain that our impact is a match. Research has shown that it is when we believe ourselves to be without bias, that we are most prone to doing harm. Caring about our mentees isn’t the endpoint: it’s what can motivate the considerable effort that goes into being a good mentor. As mentors, we have considerable power to help mentees advance in their studies, lives, careers, and development. But we have substantially more power to do almost irreparable harm—and that’s the part nobody really tells us, when we start mentoring.

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4 thoughts on “An elephant in the room: how we set ourselves up to be bad at mentoring

  1. Pingback: Links to share | standingoutinmyfield

  2. Pingback: Sete perguntas incômodas para ajudar você a definir o seu perfil como orientador – Sobrevivendo na Ciência

  3. Pingback: Being a Better Mentor – Education Page

  4. Thanks for this post! I really loved reading this, your graduate students sound very lucky to have you. This is something that even people who think they are already ‘good’ mentors need to really reflect on. Everyone can work on improving these professional relationships.

    “So for us it may seem like just two people having a discussion on some random day, for our mentee it could be That Day That My Mentor Made That Joke About Me And I Was So Ashamed That I Decided To Not Take That Class I Was Considering.” <-This is absolutely SO true. My supervisor has made little comments that they probably thought meant absolutely nothing during the conversation, but left me questioning myself and my project the entire day afterwards. It sounds dramatic, but thats how it works when theres this huge level of respect for your superior and what they have to say.

    One important thing is please do not look so disappointed when your graduate student tells you they are not pursuing an academic career. I will never forget the look of disappointment my supervisors face when he asked about PhD applications when I was a MSc student and I said I wasn't applying to any.

    Graduate school can be a very lonely, anxious and difficult time (or maybe its just me). Even if you don't feel like you can ask your mentees about how they are feeling / their mental state, kindness and genuine care in daily interactions from a supervisor goes a long, long way. I'm going to remember my mentor's level of kindness more than their explanation of a paper or anything else 20 years down the road when looking back on my experience.

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