Tuesday, November 22, 2005

When to "fire" a mentor

Updated: I mean, of course, "fire" in the metaphorical sense, not in the "march into his office and yell 'You're fired!'" sense.

What should you do when a mentor is giving you what you think is bad advice? What should you do when you start to feel like your mentoring relationship is causing more harm than good?

I'm going through this situation right now, and I'll be honest---I'm struggling mightily with it. This person is a senior professor in my department that I sort of hand-picked to be my mentor. I've certainly had some very productive conversations with him in the past, and I like him a great deal as a person. Lately, though, I am less and less impressed with our interactions.

I often leave our conversations feeling way more stressed out and anxious than I did at the start. He's been giving me "advice" about my review that is troublesome in some respects and, according to people I've talked to outside of my department, downright wrong in others. He doesn't actively discourage my work, but neither does he encourage it with the same enthusiasm that he used to---sometimes I really feel, after talking with him, that whatever I'm trying to do is inherently flawed. It's kind of making me gun-shy about taking risks, especially in the classroom---and that's totally unnatural for me.

What's perhaps equally troubling is that, beyond this person, there's really no one else that I trust as a mentor in my department. So, if I "fire" this person, I really don't have any other good options, and I'll feel even more out in left field than I normally do. (Of course, that's not really a change from how I feel now *with* a mentor.) I have some great mentors outside my department, which have been absolute godsends, but I sort of feel like something's wrong if there's no one I trust inside the department. After all, that kind of mentoring is important to navigating department culture, which we all know is really important for gaining tenure ("collegiality").

I'm tempted to wait this one out. Perhaps this is just a personality quirk that is coming to light. Perhaps my mentor is just having a bad week/month and is inadvertently taking it out on me. Perhaps this is my mentor's way of letting me know that I'm not going to pass my review, and he's starting to distance himself from me. (This last scenario keeps me up nights, lately.) Or perhaps this is just me realizing that I need a different kind of mentoring than this person can provide, and that it really is time to move on.


Marcelle Proust said...

Rather than "firing" the mentor, can you just fade away? Reduce contact, rely on your outside mentors more, protect yourself, your energy, your attitude? Then, if it's something temporary, you won't have offended anyone, and if he comes around in a more positive mood, you can go on taking advantage.

Astroprof said...

I agree. "Firing" a senior faculty member before you get tenure might not be a good idea, but you can rely more fully on others for mentoring.

It may not be the same situation, but when I was in graduate school, there was this one full professor who used to eat up graduate students and assistant professors in the department, getting them to do his grunt work, taking their research and publishing it as his own, etc. The other faculty didn't care. Those that he had power over were afraid to say anything. The few that did, well ... they didn't last. I hope this isn't that sort of situation.

Ms.PhD said...

I think Proust is right- I would treat it as I treat friends who are pissing me off. Just visit less often. Check in now and then to see how the weather is, but don't depend on the interaction to be anything in particular. Usually life changes enough that we find common areas to intersect again.

Take the advice as you would any other- with a grain of salt. It sounds like you're already comparing notes with other people anyway. Sometimes our mentors are telling us things we really just don't want to hear, even if they're true- what irritates me is when they can't find a thoughtful, sensitive way to say it.

And sometimes our mentors are just older and a bit out of touch. It doesn't mean we have to put them out to pasture, but if this guy is upsetting you, put up a buffer zone. No need to subject yourself to that if it's not helpful, but no need to burn the bridge, either.

Turtle said...

I like the sound of adding some (temporary) distance/buffering/salt. Also, is there a way to tentatively seek out more contact with the other departmental faculty? Not necessarily seeking out a new mentor, but just increasing your collegiality directly in small ways? Are there perhaps ways to connect with other departmental members in unexpected, yet to be discovered ways? Maybe having very little to do with the department directly?

Of course I suggest this as someone who tends to withdraw rather than reach out, so it's with the recognition that this is easier said than done.

It also reminds me of an intense situation I was in for about six months a number of years ago where I learned about the flaws of some of my favorite people at the same time that I learned about the heroism of people I hadn't thought much of before. It didn't lead to any sea-change in who I spent time with, but it really gave me pause.