on having a mentor

While at MLA 2004, I’ll meet with two of my professors from grad school (not at the blogger meet-up, mind you), people whose approach to their subject matter has had an important influence on my approach to my subject matter. They are, I would venture to say, my mentors. Saying that, however, causes me to feel a bit of embarrassment, like a grown-up who still sleeps with a security blanket: “Do you still need a mentor? Don’t you have your PhD, now? Aren’t you a professor, yourself?” Well, yes. But I still have my doubts and uncertainties, and I’m still not entirely sure how best to accomplish certain things in my career, like getting my book published.

On the one hand, we all develop into mostly self-sufficient individuals, but on the other hand, it’s still helpful to have someone say, “Yes, I went through what you’re going through, and here’s what I did.” On the third hand, I am not always comfortable admitting to my senior colleagues when I am having trouble with something because it sounds, in my own ears, like whining.

My questions for you, dear reader, are these (answer anonymously, if you like):

If you’re in academia…

  1. Are you still in grad school or are you finished, now?
  2. Do you have a mentor?
  3. What role does your mentor play?
  4. What role do you wish your mentor played?
  5. Are you a mentor to someone else? In what way?

If you’re not in academia…

  1. Do you have a mentor?
  2. What role does your mentor play?
  3. What role do you wish your mentor played?
  4. Are you a mentor to someone else? In what way?
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5 thoughts on “on having a mentor

  1. 1. Finished; employed.
    2. Yes; I asked to be assigned one when I arrived on the job.
    3. I specifically asked for someone to mentor my research agenda; we get together at least once a quarter to check in. At first we had a broad talk about stuff I was interested in working on: she helped me prioritize and suggested how to do things (i.e., how to write a book proposal). She also reads stuff. I don’t contact her as much as I probably should, b/c like you I am shy about asking for help. I use her, sort of, to set deadlines and feel “accountable” to a real person, which tends to motivate me more than the generic sense that I should “send things off.”
    4. I would like to ask her to read more stuff; I would like to relax a bit and be able to talk to her more frequently and more informally about my work. We’re having dinner w/ her and her partner this week, actually. I’m trying to feel brave enough to discuss some of my doubts with her instead of always feeling like I have to put on a front.
    5. Yes, I have a few former students who have said they see me as a mentor figure. Basicaly, we are friends, albeit with a large age/experience gap. They talk to me about their plans and worries, and I offer suggestions and feedback. I offer to read things they write. I write recommendation letters and sometimes give advice. I also tell them stories about my own decisions and worries to sort of reassure them that it’s normal to have doubts.

  2. I’m an academic, no mentor.
    Even in grad school, the chair of my diss. wasn’t so much a mentor as he was a kind of “quality assurance” figure: “Now don’t do anything too crazy, and send me the chapter when it’s done.”
    I liked it that way. I’ve always had a bit of an attitude problem about strong authorities…

  3. 1. Technically still in grad school, but on a two year hiatus for employment in my field.
    2. Hard to say. My diss. director is not much of a mentor, although he does give me very useful feedback on my work when I ask him (again and again and again). But I view mentoring as a special sort of relationship, in which both parties take an active role. Both should also derive some sort of satisfaction from the interaction. I’ve had such interactions with people in the past, but not anyone in particular on an ongoing basis.
    3. n/a
    4. Do I want a consistent mentor? Yes, very much so. But the interest has to be mutual, and one requirement (I think) is serendipity, two people in reasonable proximity finding they want to work with each other. So far it hasn’t happened quite like this. I don’t particularly regret it – like most interpersonal relationships, it’s one of those things that can’t be forced.
    5. I don’t think anyone views me as a mentor. Yet. :)

  4. 1) Finished, employed.
    2) Formally, no. However, my chair, one of the senior professors in the department, and my former diss advisor all play this role.
    3) My diss advisor plays the role of professional superego. Departmental mentors have more avuncular tendencies.
    4) I’m relatively satisfied with my mentoring arrangements. (Even more so now that I’m in a position to mentor as well, and can better appreciate the time/emotional investment it requires.)
    5) I end up functioning as a mentor to many, though by no means all, of my thesis advisees. Virtually all of this mentoring is focused on academic/career objectives, rather than well-being issues.

  5. 1. I finished my Ph.D. a few years ago. I have a TT position now.
    2. I absolutely think of one of my professors as my mentor. I think she would cringe if I said that to her face–not because she doesn’t fit the role (or doesn’t think she does) but because she would think that it was sappy to say it out loud.
    3. She’s certainly been a great teacher–my best teacher–in terms of content, methodology, etc. But she’s also been a great model of how to be a great teacher, how to be a woman, a feminist, in the academy, why it’s a okay to get angry about fucked up things and how to let people know that you are. And we talk about all of these things. Our conversations are often about how to lead a full and rich life, of which the academy is part but not all.
    4. I wish I could ask her to read more of my writing. But I know she’s busy with current students. So now I save her only for the really big things.
    5. Yeah, a lof of my women students have told me that they see me as a mentor. I think their standards are low! Not because I don’t have a lot of smart things to say–but because I haven’t talked with them all that much about things that matter. A conversation here or there does not a mentor make. But their telling me they think of me as a mentor tells me how hungry they are for it.
    5. Are you a mentor to someone else? In what way?

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