Mentorship in odd places
Every morning, my husband makes coffee for me. The reason why this is so special is because he has to run around like a crazy person to get to work while I sleep in for another hour and then work the rest of the day from home. He could just go to work and drink the coffee at his office and leave me to my own demise with our complicated little coffee pot, but he doesn't. People used to say that we did these little things for each other because we were "newlyweds" and that it wouldn't last. We've been together now for 8 years; we've spent 6 of those years as husband and wife, and yet, I still get coffee.
That's why I am able to finish this bizarre process of getting my PhD.
We look in weird places (i.e., advisors and our program) for support, but sometimes the support we need is off in a corner, small but mighty.
My advice to new grad students is to not expect your mentorship to come from your mentor. There are definitely good mentors out there, but just as all teachers are not good teachers and not all doctors are good doctors, your particular mentor may not be very healthy for your progress.
If your advisor is lacking in social skills or mentoring abilities, look for the support you need elsewhere. You might find help from another faculty member or a family member or a friend or a peer.
My mentorship and support has come from many odd sources. The day I realized that it was not going to come from my mentor, I went hunting.
I found technical help from research assistants in random labs and from fellow students.
I found the phrase, "when are you doing X again, and do you mind if I watch you?".
I discovered that my husband is great at helping me put together my presentations and posters. I learned to send rough drafts out to my mother or friends who were always good at writing. Who cares if they don't know what the X gene is--they know the difference between affect and effect.
I sought out junior faculty who were eager to help, as they still remember what it is like to be a student. They would spend countless hours looking at my data and helping me figure out how to fix problems. To date, my advisor has never looked at any of my raw data or numbers. He has never looked at my protocols and never offered advice on a technical problem other than, "well it didn't work so you obviously must have done something wrong". I used to think that I was hurt by this, somehow--that it impeded my progress. Now I realize that it didn't really hurt me. I found the expert advice I needed to move forward; it was everywhere around me except for my lab, but it turns out that location isn't really important at the end of the day.
I spent a lot of time upset that I didn't have any guidance--I didn't even have the pat on the back that all of us crave. I felt like I was killing myself to get approval, to be the student that all mentors want to have. This type of thinking leads to frustration, bitterness, and depression. These are bad things.
What I didn't realize until much later was that I did have guidance and approval. I look around now at all of the people who helped me, at the countless names listed in my acknowledgements. How could I have been so blind? How could I have let one person's lack of mentorship skills drive me so far down?
I took it personally, but why? It's not that my advisor did not want to mentor me because I was a bad student or not worthy of his time--he just didn't know how to mentor me. It's not that my geometry teacher didn't want to teach me about proofs, he just didn't know how to teach me about proofs. I didn't take it personally when I was 12, so why should I now? Silly rabbit.
It doesn't really matter where your support comes from; you may think it does, but it doesn't in the long run. Your job is to get in, get out, and stay healthy during the process.
So, my little grasshoppers, learn from my struggles. Your advisor is not your mother or father. You do not need approval or food or shelter from them. It's nice if you can get those things (well, maybe not the shelter...creepy), but if you can't, start your hunting expedition.
Be proactive and seek out wisdom from those who want to give it and who know how to give it.
They are out there.
ps This goes both ways. Not all students are good students. Advice number two is to always be introspective and evaluate how to reasonably improve yourself--not for the approval of your mentor--but for the sake of becoming better at what you do. We'll talk about this more when I'm a mentor venting about students;)