Back when I started my Ph.D., I thought I really needed a good mentor that would help me get solidly grounded in my field, get started on a good research project, and get funded. As I got farther along, I didn’t want a mentor – I just wanted to do my work and be left alone. Then when I was ready to write my first paper, I really needed that mentor again to look over my early, painful drafts and help me mold the paper into something ready for submission. When I became a post-doc, I felt like I had out-grown a lot of the need for a mentor – I could get funded, do the work, and write papers – I didn’t need anyone’s help!
But now that I’m a first-year faculty member, I need a mentor again. It feels a bit like saying “I want my mommy!” but I could really use some advice.
I’d like someone that can answer my questions, who can help me work through issues, and whom I can trust to respect my confidences without looking at me as a needy child. I want help figuring out what level of research productivity is really expected at Mystery U and how I should strategize my ideas and time to reach that level. I’d like someone to tell me how things really work in the department and the university – which receptions I can skip and which topics are verboten in casual conversations. It would be great if a mentor could explain what this mysterious “service” thing is and how much of what I should be undertaking in these first few years. A mentor could calm me down when my students score poorly on their first midterm (they did) and help me strategize ways to maintain my high testing standards without having students drop in droves. A mentor would be invaluable in helping me learn to mentor my own graduate students.
Ideally, my mentor should be someone who works in a close enough field that they can make meaningful comments when I am weighing Project A versus Project B. But my mentor shouldn’t be the person in the department whom I am most likely to collaborate with – I want that relationship to be less of a junior-senior dynamic and more of a two colleagues dynamic. For me it’s important that my mentor be someone who is involved with his own young family, so that he understands the constraints on my time and doesn’t perpetually advise that I just need to be working longer hours at the office.
I’m not naïve enough to think that I am going to find a single person who can be my mentor all aspects of my career – I’m not sure that would be healthy. And I’ve realized that despite assurances from the chair upon my arrival, there will be no formal assignment of a mentor in my department. The university does have a mentoring program, and though my mentor’s research area is quite different from mine, in other respects we are quite well matched. I’ve also found a faculty member in my department who has been very helpful on teaching related issues. And last week I met a woman in a related department who offered to listen if I ever needed someone to talk to – she was even cool enough to mention that there aren’t a lot of women -ologists around and that she was happy to talk about “feminine issues” if the need arose. I’d really like to identify a tenured faculty member in my department that can be my mentor in terms of graduate student related issues and research activities.
But I am starting to assemble a network of mentors. Maybe in a few years (after tenure?), I’ll feel like I’ve once again out grown the need for a mentor, but I suspect that I’ll never really outgrow the need for wise advice from those who are ahead of me on the path of life.