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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Is Tenure Worth All the Trouble?

A few months ago, I became a full professor! Much like when I earned tenure (I just changed that word from received to earned), for a while I was in a haze of disbelief. Was the quest really over? Was anything different?

In both cases the resounding answer for me was yes. I’m really happy at the new opportunities, freedom and empowerment the promotions have provided.

Our blog focus on real difficulties, impediments and challenges the road to tenure can contain for women.  In a later post, I’ll talk about why entering grad school significantly later than most people may have made the road a bit smoother for me than some. Meanwhile here are my top 3 reasons each promotion has been awesome.

Three reasons becoming a Tenured Associate Professor was Awesome

  1. I could explore research, writing and outreach projects that may not lead to grants or publications, while continuing existing productive projects in order to continue to advance in scholarship.
  2. I could take on a position in the upper administration and develop new initiatives for my institution, which was viewed favorably in my review for Full Professor. In this position I regularly interacted with the Dean and Associate Deans and work with faculty of all stages. It gave me a new appreciation and a more holistic view of my institution.
  3. I could say no to “being a new shiny happy prof face” for visitors and parents because there were new people to do that, while saying yes to some important all-campus committees.

Three reasons being a Full Professor is Awesome

  1. Interacting with other professors feels different.   At a recent conference I had more confidence to approach other full professors as a peer. I still have less experience, but many of them are my age (or younger) and it feels nice to (at least in my own mind feel like I) belong at the table. After I served on a career panel, many untenured professors came to me to ask advice. It was great to be able to share my experience and be generous with my time.
  2. I can serve in roles that are important to my institution, such as member of the tenure and reappointment committee or Dean.
  3. I have been freed from the looming promotion-centered hoops that must be identified, understood and jumped through. That is so liberating. I can take greater risks in my teaching and research without fear. Teaching evaluations will inform my practice but not threaten my job status. I can devote time to professional service at a national level.

Can you be physically incompatible with a career?

For all that academia is a ‘brainy’ pursuit, many disciplines also rely on an impressive array of motor skills and physical abilities. Perhaps you need to be able to carry those archaeological samples out of a desert canyon, or you need to be able to dissect a fruit fly’s brain under a microscope. I remember an old Grey’s Anatomy episode where a resident was dismissed for not having a surgeon’s “hands”.  In an ideal world we could surmount, bypass, or move any physical barriers to our academic dreams – but is that always realistic?

Sometimes it just means altering one’s expectations. In one of my prior research positions I mentored a student with cerebral palsy. The project they worked on required many different abilities that I took for granted in myself and other students – the ability to perform precise measurements quickly, walk long distances quickly, and enter data quickly (you are probably seeing a pattern here). Ultimately he could do 95% of what all of the other students could, it just took him a bit more time and effort. In the end his project went so well he came back for a second summer, and it was a rewarding experience for both of us… he on track for a successful career in science. Continue reading

Guest Post: Publishing without supervisors

Today’s guest post is by The Blundering Ecologist, a Ph.D. candidate at a research university in Canada. In addition to research, she is passionate about asking uncomfortable questions and learning the rules so that she can break them properly. 


I can’t do this.

That was my only thought when my class professor told me on the first day of classes I had to list my M.Sc. supervisors as co-authors on all the work I submitted to his class. I anxiously took notes until class was over. Loitering in the hall, I waited until all the other students had left so that I could ask for his advice. Why was I supposed to list my M.Sc. supervisors as co-authors when they have not significantly contributed to my work?

“For my dissertation my PI was just like that. The whole four years I struggled alone and the last thing I wanted to do was put his name on my work. In the end, I didn’t have the guts to publish alone. It was just easier to put his name on it.”

“I can’t do that.”

“I mean, if I was you, and I had the [expletive] to do it I would go back and publish without him… Put him in the acknowledgements. That would really show his co-workers what kind of researcher he was.”

“But, for now?”

“For now, put their names on your work and keep your head down. He has complete control over your M.Sc. and the headache isn’t worth it… at least, not yet. Don’t make things difficult for yourself.”

One of my supervisors was an urban geographer (primary M.Sc. supervisor) at my university and the other an ornithologist (secondary M.Sc. supervisor) at a university in another city. My M.Sc. work was in Ecology and on mammals. My project was handed to my primary M.Sc. supervisor from the funding agency. The funding agency’s questions were clear and decisive, all I needed to do was the fieldwork, data collection, statistics, and interpret the results.

Twelve months later… Continue reading

When should you (or your students) defend?

At first shrug, this sounds like a simple question: when should you defend your dissertation, whether that’s MS or PhD (or other terminal degrees like MFA)?  If you’re an advisor, when should you let your students defend?

The ‘right’ answer could be: when they’re ready. Of course! But the timing of that, in practice, is far more complicated.  I strongly believe part of good mentoring is helping students move onto The Next Thing – whether that’s another degree, a postdoc, an academic job, a non-academic job, or something else.  So the timing of students’ defense and graduation should help them get there.

What’s so complicated then?  Lots of things. Continue reading

Life After the Job Market

At this time last year, I was waiting anxiously for a large research university in Texas to call. At this time two years ago, I was waiting anxiously for a comprehensive university in Georgia to call.I felt like a lovesick teenager, constantly checking my phone, my email, the department website, anything that would give me some idea of what was happening. In both cases, the offer had been made, and I was second choice. Long negotiations left me in limbo for months after promising campus visits. I must have known on some level that this was the situation, but hope and despair take turns running your life while on the job market; neither has a basis in logic. One day, I was sure I had a job, the next, I was sure I would never get one. Both schools kept me on the hook until mid to late April before finally letting me down easy. The second time, I knew I was done. I accepted a job offer at a Community College and have been making sense of that choice ever since.

I love quit lit. It got me through those final months when I knew I might keep trying indefinitely for that tenure-track research job without ever getting one. Continue reading

Crushing hopes and dreams since 2013

I’ve been an academic advisor, teacher, and research mentor for three years now. I’ve done ok at figuring out the nuts and bolts of teaching and advising, and I’m doing better with understanding how to be there for students as an empathetic ear. As a teacher and research advisor I’ve gotten more flexible about my expectations given the fact that most of my students are non-traditional. Overall, I think I’ve made progress in learning how to be supportive and encouraging of students’ goals, while also realistic.

Each student comes into college with their unique set of abilities, resources, and drive to succeed.  They also come with a set of expectations – perhaps simply of achieving a degree, or of getting straight As in their chosen major, or of getting into a top graduate program.  Many students at my College are high achieving and could fit in at any top-tier university, and they achieve their goals. Others are relatively apathetic… ‘Cs (or Ds) get degrees’; they aren’t going to do that well, but they’ll pass the classes and get a bachelors, also achieving their goals.  Others realize for themselves that they are not reaching their own expectations in their chosen major, and transfer to another department of their own accord.

The students that I continue to struggle with teaching and advising are those that are not achieving their own college expectations but can’t make the hard decisions that entails. Even worse are those whose college expectations for themselves were mismatched with the expectations of the program or the career they have chosen.  Continue reading