Saturday, September 29, 2007

What I've Meant by Mentoring

One day in grad school (early 1990s), several of us were talking about the lack of women on the dept faculty. When a male student asked why this was important, one woman remarked that she "wanted someone who looks like me" as a mentor. I pondered that remark for years, not concurring with it but lacking a compelling alternative. Mid-postdoc, I wanted a mentor who talked like me: someone for whom gadgets weren't the ultimate conversation topic and who might admit to frustrations or challenges as a researcher and person. Now as faculty, I seek "someone who relates like me", in relationships with research, colleagues, and career overall.

I blogged earlier about professional friendships, which fall largely under the "talk like me" view. Here, I'm after something more substantial. I've learned that the environment of research matters as much (if not more) to me than the topic of research. I'd gladly choose a research problem based on the people I would get to work with on it, rather than first picking the problem. I'm not sure how to structure a career around this metric though; the search for compatible research colleagues is time and energy consuming for all involved, certainly more so than just picking a problem. As a mentoree, I'm still looking for role models on structuring a career this way.

Reflecting on my role as a mentor (to both students and junior faculty), I think of the standard advice we give to young researchers: "find something you are truly passionate about and work on that". Gosh knows I've said it to others. And after 15 years of trying, I can honestly say that this advice simply hasn't worked for me, because my passion flies within groups working together on problems, not from the problems in and of themselves. I've almost talked myself out of computer science many times on the grounds that lacking passion for any particular problem must mean I'm in the wrong career. And then I turn back because I get short-term consumed by a modeling or programming problem and realize that I do love this work. I just need a different model for structuring those fragments of work into a satisfying long-term career.

Where does this leave me as a mentor, though? Do I pass along the "get passionate about a problem" advice, since it clearly works for many in the self-selected group who become researchers? What advice would I give if I _didn't_ say that? Perhaps mentoring isn't about "giving advice", but about being a sounding board, sharing experiences and asking questions as someone tries to form their own career path. The mentor in me likes that view: it frees me from the responsibility of having the answers. But as a mentoree, I want someone who can give advice, who does have "the answers" and is willing to share them.

I remind myself that the questions I wanted answers to as a student and new professor are different from the ones I'm facing now, and I can suggest views into those earlier questions. Maybe someone who "looked like me" was all I really wanted earlier in my career. But there's this ever-nagging sense that I could make someone else's career path easier if only I could guide them now on the issues that will confront them later, even though I know they may not even see those issues yet. And if they do, I'm just not the right mentor for them. Mentoring is about a fit between people, not an exam for the mentor. Remind me of that next time my mentoree asks a question for which I fail to have an answer.

[Side note: I'm thinking about these questions a lot in the context of reading Christina Robb's recent book "This Changes Everything: The Relational Revolution in Psychology", an account of the relational psychology work by Carol Gilligan, Jean Baker Miller, Judith Lewis Herman, and others, from the late 70s onward. Opens a lot of questions about relationships between people and between people and their work, both of which bear on questions concerning mentoring.]

[This post written for the on mentoring.]

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