On Mentoring

I forget who pointed me to the Tenure She Wrote piece on mentoring, but it's something I've been turning over for a couple of weeks now. Probably because I became aware of it right around the time my two summer students started work last week. It keeps colliding with other conversations as well, though, so I may as well get a thinking-out-loud post out of the whole thing.

I told my summer students even before they started, back when they were just writing proposals to do summer research with me, that I'm going to be very hands-off with the whole business. This is at least partly a matter of necessity-- I've got a family, I've got a book to write, and I've got to be department chair for another 747 days, and those take priority, in roughly that order, over summer research. I'll check in about once a day to see what's going on, and offer advice and assistance, and that's about all I can manage. I'm not going to be checking time sheets or looking over shoulders-- they'll have to get stuff done themselves, and learn to operate independently.

But to be honest, I'd probably be pretty hands-off about the whole business anyway. I was a hands-off advisor before I had kids, a book deal, or administrative responsibilities. There's some philosophical justification for this, in that ultimately the projects are not to benefit me, but to benefit the students-- contrary to what many of my colleagues in the humanities seem to think, research students don't make my job easier. In fact, progress on my main project would probably go faster if I chased the students out of the lab and did everything myself (assuming, of course, that I didn't have other responsibilities taking up my time and could do that...). For them to really get anything out of the deal, they need to do the bulk of the work themselves, even if that means that everything happens much more slowly than it might with more direct input from me.

On another level, though, I suspect that's really a retcon. In reality, I probably default to a very hands-off style because that's what I'm used to. My undergraduate research projects at Williams were very much in the check-in-once-or-twice-a-day mode, and as a grad student, there were some long stretches where I was really the only person in the lab.

That was one of the weird things about working at NIST-- my bosses all had permanent staff positions at a government lab. They weren't scrambling to get tenure, they weren't hustling for funding (not like people at research universities, anyway). The students and post-docs on the projects there were pretty much expected to self-motivate, and given the room to do so. There was never really a point where I was pressured for any particular thing from any of the people above me, so there's a whole genre of grad school horror stories that I just have no experience with.

Of course, they could get away with that, because they basically got their pick of the recent Ph.D. crop for postdoc positions (I was the only grad student in the group during the vast majority of my time there); anybody good enough to get a postdoc there generally did not have a problem getting stuff done. There were only a couple of people who came through the group who weren't exceptionally good at what they did, and while some people kept eccentric hours, there wasn't any slacking. Well, not excessive slacking, anyway-- God knows, I frittered away a lot of time on Usenet during those years. But even in the early phases of my Internet addiction, I got stuff done.

That style of mentoring suited me just fine, though I suspect from things like the Tenure She Wrote piece and this more recent, humanities-centric advice article that a lot of people would absolutely hate it. Most of what I read about "mentoring" makes me twitch, and not just because I hate the verbing of that particular noun-- a lot of the advice and discussion I read involves a level of active, hands-on, touchy-feely stuff that would make me deeply uncomfortable. On either end of the process.

There's a nice illustration of the extremes of this in the Tenure She Wrote piece:

Which brings me to the question I started with: What kind of mentor do I want to be? Relatedly, what kind of female mentor do I want to be? When I read Dr. Isis’ post on this topic over at LadyBusiness, I found myself nodding vigorously as she described a female mentor who grabbed her by the shoulders and chastised her for not being more assertive in a meeting. Sometimes, we need to be shaken out of our internalized sexism, our self-doubts, our self-sabotaging behavior. We need to lean in.


When I shared the post with a friend, her response surprised me. “That’s really fucked up! Who does that? Who thinks it’s okay to physically assault their students that way?” It shook me — figuratively.

I think that demonstrates a lot of the problem with discussions of "mentoring" generally, which is that one person's much-needed wake-up call is another person's egregious assault. Or, in more general and less charged terms, what works well for one person will not necessarily work well for another. There is no single foolproof mentoring style that will work for everybody-- some people will respond well to hands-off, others require more active prodding. The trick is figuring out which are which.

(This is not to say, by the way, that I routinely go around grabbing my students-- quite the contrary. I'm much too (self-)conscious of my size and strength, and avoid physical contact with students, because I'm acutely aware that it plays much differently coming from a man my size. I have a lot of colleagues who hug students at graduation, but I don't even do that, because it doesn't feel right for me.)

For the most part, I think there's some degree of self-selection involved. I've generally had good luck with my research students, but in part, I think that's because I end up with students who are generally okay with that style-- most of the time, I've had them in at least one class before they work for me, and they get a sense of how I operate. There have been a couple for whom the hands-off approach amounted to spooling out rope with which to hang themselves, and I feel a little bad about that. But then, I'd be really awkward and uncomfortable running a lab where students had to punch a clock, and give daily progress reports. I was always allowed to operate on an as-long-as-you-make-progress basis, and I try to give my students the same freedom, for good or ill.

I've pointed out half-seriously at DAMOP a few times how much some students tend to sound like their advisors-- I heard one student give a presentation that was eerily like listening to his boss, down to the same verbal tics and expressions of enthusiasm. And this year, at one point when I was talking to Steve Rolston (who was my immediate supervisor at NIST, and is now at Maryland), I realized that I had unconsciously started standing in the same posture (which isn't a big stretch from my normal stance, or anything, but I had been commenting on the resemblance between a student and professor just a few minutes before). I suspect a lot of that is the same sort of self-selection-- a good fraction of students sort themselves so as to work for people they share personality traits with.

There are definitely things I think I need to be better at, of course. As I mentioned to my thesis student this past year, I'm aware that I'm not always good about giving positive feedback, but tend to go right on to the next thing: "That's great, now what you need to do is rebuild this and..." I told him that, even though I rarely said it, he had done really good work, and I was happy to have had him work with me. Whereupon he looked really embarrassed, and changed the subject. So, let's hear it for self-selection...

More like this

Mentoring is a hard problem, partly because there is no style that will work with every student out there. Like you, I tend to be hands-off with mentoring, because that mentoring style suits my personality better than a hands-on mentoring style. That works wonders with some students and leads to disaster in other cases.

I see this with two grad students who are leaving my group at the end of the summer, for opposite reasons. (I am not the advisor of either student, or any other students at the moment.) One is great at research: in two years he's done enough to get two or three first author publications. But that may have come at the expense of his coursework, which is why he's leaving. The other guy presumably did well in the coursework, but his advisor finally and reluctantly concluded that this student didn't have what it takes (in knowledge, motivation, or both--it's not entirely clear which) to complete a Ph.D. It would have been better to catch both issues earlier, but I don't have enough mentoring experience to say how I would have done it better. For the latter student, there are also sunk cost issues--it can be hard to decide that you have to give up on a student who is as far into the program as this guy.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 16 Jul 2013 #permalink

You know, for a theorist, talking to your students once a day would be considered very "hands on". The usual advice is that you should hold a meeting with your students once a week! I've always thought that for beginning students you should meet more frequently than that, at least until they have a handle on what the problem they are working on actually is and what sort of techniques they are going to need to solve it.

By Matt Leifer (not verified) on 16 Jul 2013 #permalink

Keep in mind, I'm dealing with undergrads exclusively, and for many of them, it's their first experience doing research. And it's experimental work, with all sorts of little tricks and techniques that aren't immediately obvious, and long chains of devices each of which is entirely new. They need a lot more guidance, especially early on.

My daily check-ins tend to be very brief, though-- "What's going on. Okay, sounds good, keep working on that... See you tomorrow." Or "Oh, that's this problem, what you need to do is, blah, blah... Good luck, see you tomorrow."

I think of mentoring as quite a different thing from helping familiarizing students with the details needed to get a project done. For me -especially as an undergrad, the college program I was in let me take whatever course i damn well pleased. I would have been better served by advice that certain subjects would form an important foundation for your later career. So there is help with getting through some details, but there is also guidance that can help students avoid career cul-de-sacs, such as avoiding certain classes that the student doesn't think are really relevant to what he wants to do, but that the avoidance of is usually a serious liability.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 16 Jul 2013 #permalink

Someone said "A good summer student is one that only costs you a month's work".

By Rosie Redfield (not verified) on 16 Jul 2013 #permalink

Or, in more general and less charged terms, what works well for one person will not necessarily work well for another. There is no single foolproof mentoring style that will work for everybody– some people will respond well to hands-off, others require more active prodding. The trick is figuring out which are which.

I wish more people would realise this - in all areas of communication, really.

One of the first thing I was told as a student teachers is that there is no best practice. We constantly have to reinvent ourselves and the ways we interact with our audience.