Thursday, April 20, 2006

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;)


At 11:48 AM, Anonymous Katie said...

This was beautiful - absolutely lovely. I too struggled with wanting more from my mentor, but eventually realized that seeking support from other sources was also quite valuable. It sounds like you surrounded yourself with a wonderful group of people. Congratulations! :)

At 12:16 PM, Blogger Katie said...

First of all, if a man makes you coffee, treasure him! A man has always scored points with me if he is willing to make me coffee--especially if it is french pressed!

Secondly, I really appreicate your advice to grad students. I will heed your advice, especially since so many times I feel "alone" in this whole Ph.D thing.

At 12:48 PM, Blogger Pink Cupcake said...

You're so right. I think all new grad students should be issued with a copy of this post! It would certainly save people a lot of the stress of struggling to get support from an advisor when (for one reason or another) they are incapable of giving it.

Oh, and I think it's just lovely that your husband makes you coffee every morning. :)

At 2:38 PM, Blogger Starving for Wisdom said...

What an amazing post. I have a coffee making husband too and he helped me get through undergrad when I returned, confused, at 29 years of age. Now we are heading off to grad school that will entail a move for both of us and countless cups of coffee and feild seasons away from him that I'm optimistic I will learn to survive. Thank you for articulating this so beautifully and for the wonderful advice.

At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why are you sleeping in an extra hour?

At 3:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, and good advice. I've been very fortunate in my M.Sc, but soon (I hope) I will start a PhD, and I will keep your advice with me.

Thank you.

At 3:35 PM, Blogger she falters to rise said...

Anonymous--because I'm working from home now, I don't have my usual 1 to 1.5hr commute time (one way). That gives me two more hours in the day, one of which I use for some much needed sleep. Ever since I set my defense date, I haven't been able to get to sleep, and when I do finally fall asleep, I wake up constantly through the night. That extra hour in the morning is so wonderful.

My poor husband still has his crappy commute, so he doesn't get the luxury of sleeping in. Maybe if he and I weren't that kind of people who like to get to the office before 8am, he could sleep in a little, but I don't think that we will ever change when it comes to early starts.

For those of you thinking of going to school in a city with no parking, remember that a 2 mile bus ride with two transfers can take a damn long time.

At 3:45 PM, Anonymous angiebean said...

Way to stay postivie while writing your thesis! This can be a very stressful time, but it looks like your husband can be a great help.

Good Luck!

At 4:30 PM, Blogger pughd said...

This is nice. I have a fairly distant advisor and some times it bugs me. But I like to tell myself that
1) he must think I'm responsible and independent to let me do all of this on my own
2) part of grad school is moving from student to professional which involves developing a good deal of independence - better to not have an overbearing mother hen
3) it feels good when he has to come to me for information or I can teach him about my area of research.

Thn there are the times when I worry that distance is a sign of disappointment - that maybe he wishes he hadn't brought me on in the first place. The hardest part is seeing a distant advisor work really tightly with other students. But I suppose I'd rather be kept at arm's length than strangled.

Anyway, sallyforth and good luck!

At 5:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I appreciate this post as I am in the middle of my PhD. I agree with what you say, but sometimes when you are starting out it is hard to know who to go to collect necessary information. Secondly, it can be quite frustrating to see an advisor begin to really advise, lead and help a student who comes in after you. Sometimes it leaves you feeling like, How come they help X out so much but were not around for me?
-not trying to be bitter, just saying...

At 5:14 PM, Blogger Sakshi said...

Great Advice. I agree completely. Since I went through a lot of similar stuff, I am amazed why I never wrote about it before. Now you have motivated me to talk about life as a graduate student.

At 5:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will take your advice and tuck it safely away. Hopefully I will remember to take it out when I need it.

I am about to move across the country to start graduate school. I will have never been that far away from my family and friends. The school is extremely intimidating, my advisor will be very busy, and I am very nervous about starting.

It is so reassuring to hear advice like this. Thank you.

At 6:11 PM, Blogger tikistitch said...

Pharyngula sent me. Beautiful! can be quite frustrating to see an advisor begin to really advise, lead and help a student who comes in after you. Sometimes it leaves you feeling like, How come they help X out so much but were not around for me?

Agreed. I had a similar experience, with a mentor who lavished far more attention on a handsome, popular male student than the shy, nerdy girl (ie, me). Many tears were shed! However, things seemed different when we were about to graduate--studly male had no clue what to do, as he'd always been spoon-fed, whereas I had several good offers.

At 7:02 PM, Blogger Ed Darrell said...

Tom Peters and a dozen other guys have written entire books that were not so clear as that post on what to do when you need help, in an organization.

Thanks for putting it down on electrons.

At 7:03 PM, Anonymous Zbu said...

Pharyngula sent me as well. I was planning to go to grad school as well and have been freaking out about it to such an extent that I've started a few ideas about my papers right now and started gathering materials like a madman. Sure, it's in the silly field of English (Cultural Studies, Film Studies, something wacky) but still I find this helps me.

Thanks for the heads up. Now I just got to figure how to pay for this thing. ;)

At 9:07 PM, Blogger Honeybee said...

Very nicely written and concise, very good advice. I was only just starting to learn some of these things myself, in my third year.

At 11:27 PM, Blogger christina said...

Thanks for your post.

I'm going through this right now. I am out of town, so my husband can finish up at his program. For a while I was sending an email a response from my advisor, nada, for 5 months (even to emails that said..."I know you are busy just say yes or no"..Arggh!)....Finally, I stopped emailing, which was pretty silly I admit now. Well, I haven't got nearly enough done this semester because of being a little depressed by this disconnect...our annual meeting is coming up, along with a presentation on my part that I am not really all that happy about.

Still, today after talking to my hubby, I realized the worst she can say is "I'm disappointed." In turn, I can respond that, I need a little more from from her, like a resonse to email once in a while even though I am out of town.

I have also realized that it is more important (maybe not academically, but emotionally) that I am happy about the amount I am accomplishing (though I would also like her to be pleased).

Well, this week has been an all-around wake-up call, and things are going better.

Thanks again for your post, it's nice to see that we are not alone.

At 2:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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?

After having seen this in three or so different places, I decided to check it out since one said it was short. Very well written, and definitely the procedure I ended up settling on.

I'm you still have the ambiguity. It's quite depressing to see one's advisor panic when you come in to ask a question. Eventually one can get over the knowledge, but seeing latent tendencies of ugly things and being shown by behaviour that you are not nearly as important as this or that can be devastating. I wish I had a stack of names to put on, but it's so small a subfield that there's almost no one to ask, and one can't exactly walk up to the competition and inquire...

Good luck!

At 2:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

er, I'm you --> I'm glad

At 7:52 PM, Blogger Edie said...

You make me smile because you are working toward your PhD and you appreciate your spouse for working so much to facilitate your work. I'm the spouse in my own equation, and it can be tiresome. You are very nice to notice. I hope your husband reads your blog; it would certainly make me feel "worthwhile" to see it appreciated like this. :) Now get to work!

At 4:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have the same problem--my solution--Google. It is deeply hair rendingly frustrating, but Google is all I have.

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Caitlin said...

Thank you for this post! I am just entering grad school and have little idea of what to expect. This is good sound advice, and I appreciate it!

At 5:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just know that feeling too well.
For me my phD followed different phases, i started in the (small) group where i finished my master-thesis. My boss did not really give me a topic but rather advised me to "just be creative and do something we can publish"

A) Looking up to my Prof, the seasoned scientist, wanting to be a good student, get that "pat" on the back. Working like a maniac. After all we just have to work hard to achieve success, dont we?

B) Things just do not work out , doubts coming up as to my capability as a youngster to come up with a totally new idea on my own.

C) The boss is not helpful at all. Only pressure (you need papers!), no advice or very little advice that turns out to be ill

D) Serious doubts about boss`es competence, anger and fear

E) After 1 years going up to boss demanding a topic from him (thinking: at least he cannot blame me for chosing a "stupid" phD-topic)

F) Boss only coming up with really shallow ideas, obviously either not willing or competent to provide a rough research-idea

G) After 1.5 years realising that boss will not care, and that without papers i will never finish. No motivation. It is only up to me, the research group is very small (for a reason) and the other group-members are unfortunately in even worse situations and of no help. So: help yourself. Since by now i am at least well informed in my field of research by reading everything i can get my hands on (the whole very broad field, no thesis-topic yet), coming up with a an idea. After 1.5 years i am finally able to draw a realistic scheme. (and this is actually what i think a supervisor should do: Give you a realistic assessment of what can be achieved in a time-frame and weighing effort against risk and gain with you. Filter your ideas with you. This is what I did in the end on behalf of my boss for my younger colleagues)

H) After 2 years, the idea is working, but only badly. Desperation and burning anger in the face of the absolute indifference of my supervisor

I)After 2.5 years the idea is working fine and the topic is unfolding. I will be able to publish a couple of papers on that ground. Still I feel strong anger towards my boss, who will not even acknowledge this (calling this my "hobby-project", hey this is more original than everything you did in the last 10 years, come on!!!!). He is totally indifferent and most of the time far away from the laboratory, taking his time doing sports or what any case not working

J)Light at the end of the tunnel after 3 years. I will finish this thing. And as for my boss: I do not care. He is blatantly incompetent, it was my fault, i should have chosen better. In hindsight this was pretty obvious from the huge number of people who dropped out in his group or took ages to finish their degree (doing his "ideas" back then, problem is, he never had sufficient lab-experience in the field he later became prof in [its complicated], let alone the personal expertise in the field to come up with realistic ideas in the first place, thus his sometimes ridiculous advice for labwork to younger students...) But so what, i survived him and helped myself. Actually a good lesson.
There is just nothing to gain from raging at him. The only thing that still makes me bitter is the thought of him continuing to ruin less fortunate students lives (some of his ex-phDs ended up with 5+ years [unpaid from the third on] and no job after finishing since they took so long and had few results).

Moral: Take matters in your own hands. And ask the ones around you if you can, a competent phD-student in his third or fourth year can be a goldmine worth of information and save you a lot of trouble. If you cannot do this and do not feel like you can come up with your own ideas, do not hesitate to change your supervisor in your first year. And dont waste your emphathy on a person that is not worth your trouble. If HE cannot come up with an idea, he cannot blame YOU for not doing so.


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