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.
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
My personal statement glows with enthusiasm. My commitment to neglected infectious disease and immunology, and thus academia, is abundantly clear. At twenty-one I am confident my self-declared global citizenship would be unappreciated in the sterile cubes of industry. At twenty-two, before leaving the hallowed halls of elite undergraduate studies, I am self-assured a PhD is the best way to become a game-changing expert in a world of inequitable health care. At twenty-four, mid-way though preliminary exams, I feel the same. My twenty-third year, I did not. What was different that year, was who I considered my mentor.
I was a mentor for the first time in 7th grade. I was bad at it. The guidance counsellors saw the obvious maturity differences between the newly arrived 6th graders and the departing 8th graders at our junior high school and devised a mentorship program to create a stronger community. While I can explain a lot of my shortcomings in the program by my universally shared social discomfort and the internal conflict between my desires to academically excel and rebel, my lack of training certainly didn’t help. Continue reading
It’s been over a year since I decided to quit my PhD. There are so many things I’ve learnt from reflecting on what made me feel like such a failure, and many things I wished I knew at the time.
The most important thing to realize if you are thinking about quitting a PhD for any reason is YOU ARE NOT A FAILURE. This is the feeling that stuck with me the longest and is really counterproductive to making any decisions about quitting and what you might do after. There are so many reasons to abandon a PhD, all of them legitimate, and none of them are failures. I mostly conquered this thought of failure through realizing that I am not the first, nor will I be the last PhD student to move on. Continue reading
Graduate school was a rough transition. After college, I struggled to find my footing with the relative lack of structure of a graduate curriculum. The lab I chose for my thesis research turned out to be a powerful source of support that grounded me as I navigated this transition. The incredible group of grad students, post-docs and research technicians in this lab made failed experiments and projects, uncertainty about whether I could be a successful scientist and other struggles more manageable. They also contributed to a fantastic intellectual environment that was utterly rigorous, willing to question accepted scientific premises, pushed members to think critically and deeply about their own projects and celebrated hard-earned scientific accomplishments. This environment seemed to me the best of what science could be and convinced me that if I could, this was what I would want to do as a career.
The lab that I performed my post-doc convinced me that my experience in graduate school was not an anomaly. I joined a young lab, which included one other post-doc, a graduate student and a research technician. I confronted additional failures (an inability to get funding in my first year, dissatisfaction with my project and its progress, difficult conversations with my advisor). However, being able to talk about these issues with the other members, who were experiencing similar challenges, eased any sense that there was something wrong with me and my approach to thinking about and doing science. In addition, as my and other projects in the lab began to blossom, the intellectual excitement and thrill were palpable and cohesive forces.
This emotional reliance on other lab members, people who were usually at somewhat similar life and career stages, became obvious to me when I began staffing my own lab as a PI. I was suddenly aware as PI that I occupied a very different place in the relationships amongst the members of my lab. Continue reading
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
My department has several wonderful faculty, working in a variety of areas, producing great work and supporting their students. There are also a handful of faculty who are not as great: toxic toward their students, condescending, generally hard to work with. As luck would have it, they are all in the same subfield, which I happen to have an expertise in, too. From my perspective, this has been a rather sad discovery: on paper, this is a great career opportunity. I am at a place with multiple famous researchers, who have work that clearly and obviously interfaces with my own, and who would be great people to talk and work with. However, it became clear early on that they are anything but great to talk to, so I have been keeping one-on-one interactions to a minimum and instead have opted for large group meetings and presentations, so I still get the feedback on my work that I require. I’ve also been cultivating interactions with others on and off campus. I feel like I’ve been fairly successful at that, so it’s not what I want to concentrate on in this post.
I feel particularly bad for these professors’ students. Over the time that I have been here, several of them have reached out to me. Some simply looking for a sympathetic ear, someone who can help them navigate their difficult relationship with their advisor. Others needing a confidence boost, after being repeatedly told by an advisor that they were not good enough. With some, I have also begun a more substantive advising relationship, since I have expertise in their areas of research. And this is where it gets tricky: some of these professors are also isolationists–they have told their students that they shouldn’t talk to anyone other than them. So, I have been meeting with students “off the books,” because I want to help, but this entire situation is clearly unhealthy. Continue reading