I am excited that we get to talk about mentorship this week. I have had experiences with many different mentors, and there were definitely some differences in the quality of our mentor-mentee match and what I learned from each person. I value the opportunities I have to mentor my students and to help them forge connections with others in the field as they look toward graduate school, internships, and jobs.
Two mentors specifically come to mind in thinking about what Alex wrote about selecting a good mentor and dealing with a toxic mentor. I am going to be intentionally vague about who I am speaking in an effort to respect both mentors.
I’ll start with the person who was perhaps not the best choice for me. This person would probably fall into Alex’s categories of “the avoider” and “the dumper.” This person practiced a pretty hands-off mentoring style, and at times I felt like other priorities and projects were more important than mentoring me. For a mentee with more experience and fewer distractions and stressors, this mentorship style might have worked, but looking back, I needed a more hands-on approach with more guidance and oversight to be able to perform at my best at that time in my life. When I was self-aware enough to ask for more guidance, I typically found that this person had a full schedule, and the person was often unprepared and frazzled when we finally did find time to meet. I sometimes felt like I had been thrown into the deep end of the pool, and this came back to bite me when my mentor realized some of the mistakes I had made. Thankfully, this person was well connected in the field and could introduce me to other mentors who provided more feedback and opportunities to help me grow, all of whom I still collaborate with and learn from.
One of the people I met through my mismatch with this mentor was someone who turned out to be a wonderful mentor. To use Alex’s example, this person was kind of like Yoda in a few ways. The person was well respected and well connected, and this allowed me to spread my network even further and meet new collaborators. Unlike my first mentor, though, this person did not pass along the responsibility of mentorship to other people. This person gave me an active role in projects and allowed me to take on challenges with appropriate supervision and guidance. Even though it was probably more of a draw on this person’s time than a collaborative benefit, this mentor devoted thought and energy to projects that I spearheaded. This mentor wasn’t afraid to call me out when I wasn’t performing at my peak ability, and I was receptive to this feedback because of our relationship, which was built on mutual respect. I remember one instance in particular in which my emotions and stress overwhelmed me and I was tempted to give up on a project, and this person gently challenged me, reminding me that I could solve the problem if I just kept working on it, and allowed me to come back and try again when I calmed down.
I can take what I have learned from these two very different mentors and apply it when I am thinking about what kind of mentor I’d like to be to my own students. Firstly, I want to develop a relationship based on mutual respect in which I can freely challenge students and feel confident that they will trust my intentions and not get offended or feel like I am trying to talk down to them. To me, learning to be receptive to constructive criticism and guidance is key for developing as a professional, and it is not easy or comfortable for people to get better at doing this. Secondly, I want to take time to help my students get opportunities or forge connections, even if it takes away from something else I am doing or doesn’t directly benefit me. For example, if a student in my class was interested in research, I could help connect them with someone in the department who studies their topic of interest. I could also meet with students in office hours if they wanted to talk about graduate school options or get my advice on writing essays or taking the GRE. I think it is really important to remember that just because you only play a small role in a student’s life, you can still make a big impact, especially if the person who primarily supervises their work does not serve as the ideal mentor for that student. Your willingness to work with them could make a bigger difference than you think.