Mentorship Matters

While good mentorship throughout our lives can dictate our general trajectories, it seems that grad school is a particularly critical time in which mentorship can make or break your career.

Premising that mentorship of young researchers is perhaps the least remarked upon focus though fully deserving of recognition among all lab activities, Nature‘s guide for mentors details its applications for mentorship awards, and provides a list of good mentoring practices based on the opinions of more than 350 scientists writing as the nominators and nominees for the awards. Although these awards are for scientists, these mentorship best practices certainly transfer to other fields as well. These include traits such as being a mentor for life, personal characteristics (enthusiasm, sensitivity, appreciating individual differences, respect, unselfishness, “support for other than one’s own”), good communication, open-door availability, inspiration, optimism, balancing direction and self-direction, questioning and listening, being widely read and widely receptive, and encouraging mentees to take up activities outside of their field, to celebrate their successes, to build communities, to develop skills, and to network.

Now, that’s a lengthy list, I realize; though many of those good-mentor qualities seem to simply fall under the “Be a Good Human” category—i.e., care about your mentee. However, I can’t discount the overabundance of work mentors have, themselves. People have different workloads, different personal-life issues, different backgrounds that have built different levels of different social skills…so, yes, a lot of, well, difference.

What’s concerning is the power that mentors in graduate schools hold over their mentees—the power to make or break one’s career. Before entering graduate school, for example, I would’ve rolled my eyes at the what-I-once-would’ve-thought-to-be-outlandish case presented in our module’s “The Ethics of Mentoring” case study by Dean DePauw and Dr. Fowler; I mean, I could’ve guessed a graduate student would be overwhelmed, that their advisors would be busy with their own work and at times not give proper attention, and would have some demands that would seem unreasonable. However, the build of the case study advisor pushing off a dissertation, not giving due credit to the student for research as the lead author for an article, not being willing to write a good letter of recommendation when the student wants out, and silencing others who might have otherwise supported that student…that’s just toxic. And while it certainly is toxic, I’ve encountered numerous cases in my higher-ed experience of peers dealing with this exact situation. And their stories can pretty much be told verbatim to the aforementioned case study.

We’re all a bit (maybe more than a bit) stressed in academia. So, knowing this and knowing the common nature of problematic mentor-mentee dynamics, we need to be making greater systematic efforts to prevent the creation of unhealthy learning environments. I’d imagine, beyond fiscal needs universities clearly have, this would mean more departmental faculty discussions concerning measures of building healthy relationships, more encouragement of students to organize and bargain collectively for their student rights, and more encouragement of students to voice their opinions in institutional governance, too.