The details matter

This week I found myself incredibly satisfied with my advisors mentoring. I know, that’s so rare for so many students. I often feel like many graduate students get a laundry list of tasks to complete with no actual instruction from their advisor. That’s how my master’s advisor “mentored”. But this method leaves students with a learning curve for so many things, particularly if the student has been instructed to do something that is completely foreign to them.

I know advisors were in our shoes at one point in their lives, how could they possibly have forgotten so quickly how much they struggled with what seems like everyday tasks for them now. I like to believe that maybe they are just really smart and never went through these struggles. But there is also the possibility that they remember and they know that they learned the most when they struggled. Or worse, they know and don’t want to take the time to do some real mentoring.

Let’s go back to that part about advisors being really smart and not knowing that their students struggle sometimes. Do these people make the best mentors? In my experience, the answer is no. They also make the worst professors. These people also seem to be the norm in academia. What are us laypeople to do!? The best mentors I have had in college/grad school are honestly those that have been doing their job for the shortest period of time and are the least far removed from the learning portion of their lives. I have occasionally had a professor that has admitted to struggling with material and found a way to teach it that is not confusing. I have also had professors that have taken the time to make a nice lesson plan.

That’s it, that’s the key to being incredibly smart and being a good mentor/teacher. Taking the time to consider how their teaching methods come across to their students and acting on it. But many professors are lazy when it comes to teaching and would rather be doing research. This is such a backward thought to me. I feel like if you take the time to engage students in class and ensure that you have reached them, then they are more likely to go to graduate school. Once the student is in graduate school, they will be happier if their advisor takes the time to teach them good research practices, valuable resources, and doesn’t make them feel like they are always behind by not taking the time to teach the proper methods.


2 Replies to “The details matter”

  1. Thank you for your post Deb! I honestly agree with a lot of what you identified, and personally feel that it comes back to the idea that there is only so much time in the day. I don’t think any professor goes into a class or meeting wanting to be a bad teacher or mentor, I believe it is a side effect of the valuation of academia – especially at top tier research universities. If most of your pay, valuation, and expectations are tied to research then it is natural for research to take a disproportionate amount of your time. This leaves very little time and even energy to work on the deficiencies that result in bad mentorship and teaching. I think to fix this problem its just as much on the system/expectation as it is on the professor.

  2. I think a lot of this comes down to that exercise where you get people to give directions for how to make a PB&J sandwich and then inevitably, as you try to enact their instructions as someone naive of sandwich making, there is some major step missing, like take the top off the Peanut butter. And it is like that for advisors. If there is something that you know how to do very well, and you do all the time, it very hard to break it down into component parts, indeed part of what it means to know something well like that is that it becomes a seamless, thoughtless process, and thus almost impossible to see as the collection of little steps that it is. I feel like this sort of problem is inevitable, and also wonder if the solution does’t sit with the advisor, but rather with say the department. Perhaps careful instructions should be built into the things themselves, so that when it comes time to complete a plan of study, even if your advisor isn’t good at giving directions, there is, say, an instruction sheet you can use as a check list.

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