Being a shadow advisor

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


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.

Continue reading

On my role/effectiveness as a mentor

Graduate students are one of the best, and one of the most difficult aspects of my job. I constantly wonder if I’m doing it right. I worry because I care about the students. I care about whether they are learning and growing as scientists, and I care about them as human beings. I also care about their scientific output. In fact, as a lab-based scientist, I am dependent on the work that they do.

There are a two main flavors of my worry. First, Am I doing enough for their scientific development? Second, am I falling into the trope of the over-demanding pre-tenure faculty?

The first of these generally has two main steps transient* frustration with a student triggers a longer spiral of second guessing myself as a mentor.

The frustrations are usually normal** day-to-day things. Mistakes, failure to take notes of discussions, failure to locate notes from discussions, needing to repeat instructions that should not need to be explained again****, slowness of writing, oversharing about personal issues, failure to talk to me about research-related questions, and lack of keeping up with the literature, for example.

But then I start wondering: Is there something about what I am doing that could fix some of these problems? Am I giving my students too much room? Or am I micromanaging? Am I applying too much pressure? Not enough pressure? Is it contradictory if I am working on something up to a deadline, but demand they have drafts to me early? Continue reading


Each year we welcome new faculty to campus. Some are beginning the tenure process, some are visiting (including postdocs, adjuncts and folks on sabbatical) while others are making a mid-career transition. Hopefully when you arrive, orientation helps you understand the culture of the place. The topics tell you what is important to the institution. Hopefully you can start to get a sense of what is expected of you by many different constituencies – the administration, the faculty, your department (and chair), the staff, your students (both in courses and those whose research you supervise) and your advisees.   Orientation also can help you understand what kind of support you can expect from these same people.

So what do you do if your institution does not have support structures in place that you think you might find helpful? Most institutions have someone designated to mentor faculty development.   It could be a vice-provost, dean, associate dean or head of a teaching and learning center. It might make sense to check in with this person and ask what is possible. Would you like a mentor outside your department? Would you like to set up weekly lunches with a group of junior faculty? Would you like to have a writing group that helps keep each other on task and productive?

Here are a couple of suggestions to start the teaching year, especially for those on the job market or tenure-track: (1) set up some peer observations and (2) make plans for formative assessment. Continue reading

Guest Post: Every Student Uses Your Access Statement

Today’s guest post is by Sandy Olson, a scientist, disability activist, and freelance writer.

Accessibility is important to create a welcoming environment for learning for all people. While aimed primarily at people with disabilities, accessibility options can benefit everyone. They can help students who do not, for whatever reason, identify as disabled. They can also help create a more comfortable atmosphere for discussion and learning. To learn more about accessibility, and accessibility statements (AS) in particular, I interviewed a number of teachers and students in the US and Canada.

Who qualifies for accommodations?

In order to get accommodations for disabilities at colleges and universities, many students need documentation from a medical doctor. Seeking documentation adds a burden on students with disabilities, who are already expending more time and energy just to attend school. Some students may not have easy access to medical care, or may have an uneasy relationship with doctors. Seeing a doctor may present a burden on finances, time, energy, and emotions. Some illnesses and disabilities are not taken seriously by the medical community, or can be difficult to diagnose, but can easily be addressed by simple accommodations in the classroom. For example, people with dysgraphia may have trouble writing longhand but have an easier time typing on a laptop.

More than one person said that working with the disability services office can be difficult. Continue reading

Micropromotion and some problems with protégés

Microaggression, particularly racial microagressions, have gotten a lot of well-deserved press lately in the US, as hate crimes and police brutality have raised awareness of multiple kinds of oppression – some of which is structural, institutional, and overt and some of which is individual, personal, and “small.” There is research evidence that despite seeming small, microagressions add up to a large psychological burden for victims, whether they are being targeted for their race, sexual identity, gender, or other perceived differences.

Lately in my workspace, I’ve been thinking about an opposite: micropromotion. I’d define this as small amounts of praise and opportunities, deserved or not, that add up over time. This has been on my mind recently with regard to gender especially, due to a set of situations I’ve watched develop in my department and study results indicating that professors were more likely to respond to inquiries from white male (fictional) students. [Sadly, there are plenty of additional recent studies that appear to compound layers of implicit biases about women in the academy, including this PNAS study in which professors offered better pay to (fictional) male lab managers.]

After this other PNAS study came out discussing how elite male scientists mentor and employ fewer women, I started thinking about the composition of labs in my department. Continue reading

Supporting other people’s students

As I’ve progressed through academia, my relationships to grad students have changed. First, I looked up to them, then I was one of them. As a postdoc, I was friends with and also a mentor to many graduate students, and now as a faculty member I’m an advisor and mentor for my own and other grad students. So now that I am a faculty member, how can I be a good mentor for graduate students? Over the past few years, I’ve realized that I have thought a lot about how to advise my own graduate students, but I haven’t given much thought to mentoring other students.

A few interactions have made me examine this more closely. Over the past several years, I’ve had graduate students come to me for advice- in some cases because relatively serious issues have flared up in their own labs and in other cases to simply talk through more minor situations and brainstorm how to manage their relationships with their own advisors. I’m happy to know that grad students in my department feel that they have a safe space in which to consult with someone. But what is my appropriate role? (I’m talking here about general advice-giving, not more serious issues that require specific reporting actions on my part). Continue reading