Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My best mentor

This year has been the fastest year ever. I can't believe it's almost Thanksgiving.

I've mentioned before that my best mentors were not in science. I'm going to keep this short, with no details. I'm especially missing this person lately, and having crossed paths is one of the things I'm most thankful for.

She's about ten years older than me, and probably the most thoughtful teacher I've ever met. She's the kind of person who watches her students like a hawk, and then goes home and thinks incessantly about what they need to learn and how to teach it. She'll go out of her way to learn new things herself so that she can help her students with whatever they need. No one asks her to do this, and no one told her this was part of her job. This dedication really makes her outstanding.

Some days are better than others, but no one ever doubts that she loves her work and that this is the best way for her make the world a better place.

She leaves her crap, as they say, outside the door. And she expects her students to do the same. If she's not feeling up to the task, or is otherwise distracted, she'll have someone else take over her responsibilities, rather than flaking out or doing a half-assed job.

She expects the best from everyone, and accepts no excuses, while still being genuinely concerned and supportive.

She's ambitious, and sometimes works a little too hard. While I can see her struggling to learn how to be patient with herself, she's always infinitely patient with her students.

She knows who she is, and has her priorities straight, but she's not going to impose them on anyone else.

All of this, and she's not at all self-conscious despite being in a very visible position. She exudes a kind of confident calm that puts everyone around her at ease.

She makes everyone feel like we're each her favorite student, while giving everyone enough attention and encouragement that there's no jealousy at all.

***

Looking back over this list of warm fuzziness, I still think one of the critical problems in science is the central conflict of interest built into the assumption of a mentoring relationship with the PI of the lab.

The best mentors I've had were always people whose own careers did not depend at all on my accomplishments.

All they asked of me was my continued effort.

And we knew that I was free to leave at any time. But I didn't want to, because they were awesome.

What I got from them in return for my hard work was a generosity of spirit that I think is impossible in a system where the PI's success rests far too heavily on the shoulders of the mentee, who in turn is shackled to the PI even if they're not getting what they need to make progress.

***

I miss my best mentor, and think of her often.

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6 Comments:

At 7:28 PM, Blogger Kea said...

Wow, I can't say I ever had a mentor in that sense, but it sounds pretty cool.

My impression with academia is that the higher levels of administration are now aware of the serious problems with the PI system. Many job descriptions now ask for 'independent' researchers. Of course, the PIs and school heads have ways of getting around this, like the requirement of the right signatures, but I think eventually the loop holes will be filled in ... even if not in our lifetimes.

We had a required mentoring program when I was a postgrad, but one of my supervisors managed to sign his own name on my mentoring form so that I never actually got the mentor, or any tuition whatsoever about how the system worked.

 
At 8:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unrelated to this specific post, but related to your blog in general:

Sorry, if some of this may be personal... I'm deciding whether to apply to PhD program in science (basic science research) or not. I've been unsure for many years, and time is tickling away.

If you could turned back time, would you have chosen to do the PhD route?

How about Post-doc's?

How hard was it to just walk away from the dream of getting tenured?

I've been following your blog for some time now. You seem to confirm everything that I have always feared about walking into the PhD, Post-doc, aspiring tenure position path.

I know it is hard -- based on observing grad students, post-docs, and those continuing to do more post-docs... many eventually go into industry, 1 actually got an assistant staff position (after over ten years of post-doc).

I might do this since I might have some of that slight chance. or I might have to make a DECISION now, and know that it is too small of a chance.

I might apply to professional schools (eg. PharmD).

What are your thoughts, Ms.PhD?

Thanks,

 
At 9:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man. The end of that post is perfect. My best mentor is someone in science whose work overlaps with mine, but who is not in direct control of my accomplishments (nor does she depend on mine for hers). I happily work with her...because I choose to. And like you, I am free to leave if/when I want. She treats me better for it and I feel more in control of my life.

 
At 9:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The best mentors I've had were always people whose own careers did not depend at all on my accomplishments."

ABSOFUCKINGLUTELY.

My sole job as a postdoc TWICE was to pad the CVs of my schmuck supervisors who couldn't pull their own weights on the advances made in their fields anymore. They became irrelevant, and they hired postdocs to save their sorry asses. The PIs are middle-aged washed-up hacks now, but they were student proteges of BigNameBackInDinosaurAgeD00dz. They struggle to publish papers in top (and even scrap) journals. They rely on their starry eyed postdocs and students for project ideas and grant writing, and they gladly take credit for everything when it's published.

One of my surprisingly good mentors was a dean at a medical school who pretty much got stuck with me because of his involvement with a postdoc program. He attended my lectures, gave me feedback on my teaching, and took the time to check in on me regularly. I still don't have a fucking clue what he works on! We had lunch a few times, and I explained my research to him which was equally as baffling. He knew I didn't need any help with developing my research or doing my projects. He knew I needed support and an ally, and he was there for me when I needed it.
jc

 
At 7:31 AM, OpenID spinsandorbitals said...

Like the rest, you are spot on with:

"The best mentors I've had were always people whose own careers did not depend at all on my accomplishments."

My mentors have been exactly that. One was the former graduate student boss I had while I was an undergrad, and the other was a professor at Undergrad University. Both of them provided advice that was genuinely for my career gain. That advice I never received from my dissertation adviser.

For a long time, I was upset that my adviser was not being my mentor. Was something wrong with me? Then I realized, he's the ass.

 
At 1:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is totally true, rare are good mentors those who depend on your accomplishments. Moreover, it is best to seek mentoring from someone outside your workgroup , might not even be hard to find, because, they won't help you with your actual work but by giving you good advices. I was told at a workshop to not fear to go ask even poeple you think are too busy, like deans, professors etc.. they said because if you know what you want, and on what matter you seek advice, they can help because they have the experience thus it won't take long, if you meet one hour a month, that should be enough.

 

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