Mentoring or lack thereof

The topic of mentoring has come up recently on some blogs that I read.  A lot of it is about women and minorities, and living in the research-intensive world.  I’ve never had the burden of professing while female/black/hispanic/etc., nor the privilege/burden of professing while being a “real” scientist.  So, I’m not going to link to other posts, and just do my own thing here.  I was going to write a post about how my summer is going, but maybe later this week.

First, I didn’t realize mentoring was really a “thing” until I landed on the tenure-track.  I don’t know if this was a timing thing or just being on the wrong end of academia, but hell, now even granting agencies demand some sort of mentoring plan for the graduate students and postdocs working on a funded project.  Go figure.

One doesn’t have to work with a big group to do the kinds of things I did as a graduate student (although one could), and my advisor was rather worthless as far as mentoring.  He wasn’t a bad advisor, but I didn’t have the privilege of an advisor who was actually doing research at the research-intensive university level.  During my seven years in grad school, he published two papers, neither as first author, and neither with me.  He was co-author on one of my dissertation papers that was published after I graduated.  (He actually became more research-active after I left, thanks a fucking lot.)  Ironically, despite his negligible connections, the post-doctoral research position I finally got was with someone my advisor went to grad school with.  I don’t know how much that helped, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

As a post-doc, I worked on a cool project, and I did make a fair number of connections thanks to my boss, but any advice for me to make the transition to the tenure-track was never given.  I lost my job on short notice and off-cycle due to funding issues, so I had to scramble mightily to keep my career alive.

I was assigned a tenured mentor in my (very small) department when I started my tenure-track position.  No actual mentoring ever happened, but I did follow his lead in berating junior faculty in department meetings from a position of ignorance, bailing on major responsibilities that I actually created, teaching required classes one to two years below appropriate grade level and probably not holding enough class hours to satisfy accreditation requirements, and trying to groom an undergrad to be my fuck-partner after graduation.  As comedian Steven Wright used to say in his act, “oh wait, that wasn’t me”.

Now, the good thing is that I could ignore his “mentorship” because department-level evaluation (including tenure recommendation) is exclusively the domain of the chair, and at least in my department, we are in a chair-for-life situation.  I was able to talk to my chair about things, but as far as “mentorship”, that was mostly about local bullshit.  I came into the job with enough experience that I was able to hit the ground running in my teaching, and immediately do far more research than was expected.  We did get my post-doc advisor to write a letter of support for my tenure bid, but it wasn’t required, nor am I sure that anybody on the committee actually read it.  (It didn’t help that it wasn’t a great letter, but that was probably partly my fault.)

One of the aspects of working at an institution like mine is that external validation is not only almost impossible to get, but it is not really expected.  Of course, when one takes that latter part to heart, our students get screwed over.  I’m fortunate that I have been able to maintain a tenuous tie to a collaboration with which I became involved while a postdoc, but I’ve had to work a bit to get them to understand that I can’t do research at a very high level when it’s mostly done off the clock.  Luckily, I still seem to be fairly well respected within the group.

Anyway, I’ve actually done a lot to make sure the people hired after me have had more support and information than I did, but not a lot of “official” mentoring.  I’ve sort of left a lot of that to our department chair.  Frankly, that’s been for the best because my main mentoring advice would be to try to get the fuck out of here and get a better job.  Of course, some of the things that were implemented due to the initial treatment of a colleague and I made this job a lot better for those who came later, so their job hasn’t been as bad.

As far as mentoring students, it’s a nice thought to say that mentoring undergraduates is important, but overall in academia it sure as shit isn’t.  Part of that is the necessity of focusing on graduate students and postdocs that faculty at research-intensive institutions must do (which we sometimes use in our marketing to try to get students who are considering going to a research McUniversity).

The bigger problem is that undergraduates are generally so early in their careers that “careerism” isn’t quite as important as later.  For students who are not going to grad school or a government lab, we faculty are going to have a limited mentoring impact.  We help them get their first job, but after that, we may not have a role to play.  For the students who are going to grad school, they will (hopefully) get “real” mentoring there.  Sure, these students are going to have done undergraduate research with us, but there’s an enormous difference between that and the career-building that goes along with being a grad student.  Plus, our students that go to grad school have generally also done a summer internship or REU, and that may be more important for their careers than what they do with us.  Again, we just give them the start so they can do something better.



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