Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Lessons from mentoring

The other day, I got an email out of the blue from a former mentee of mine. (Can I just say how much I hate the word "mentee"? I always think "manatee" when I hear that word. I wish there was a better word.) I mentored her when she was an undergrad, then we lost touch after she went to grad school. She's just about to finish her PhD and doing fabulously, just as I knew she would.

This mentoring relationship was interesting, in that I felt completely unqualified to mentor this person. When we met, she was already a wildly successful student, confident and super-smart, well-rounded and well-grounded. Frankly, I was in awe of her. I really had no idea what I could possibly offer her as a mentor---in fact, she seemed much more together than I was! (I briefly thought that maybe I should ask *her* to mentor *me*, but thought that it might be too weird.) We met at a point where I was struggling a bit, professionally, too, so I was really unsure as to whether I could really be an effective mentor. But I decided to soldier ahead.

My perception of myself as a mentor was that I wasn't really effective. Sure, she asked me lots of questions about what it was like to be a female academic in CS, what I did, what I thought about various things, etc. And I answered them, honestly, even when the answer didn't paint the best picture of the field or of me as a professional. We chatted a lot about our lives, what we were doing outside of school and the lab. But that was it, really.

I'm guessing her perception was different, though. She always thanked me profusely for my advice and insight. She kept asking hard questions, and trusted my answers. She said that I really and truly helped her. In one of her last emails, she thanked me again, and told me how much of an influence I had been on her and how much she appreciated our relationship. And her latest email repeated that sentiment. I was totally floored.

This was one of my first true mentoring experiences, and it really shaped how I approach mentoring now, as someone more established in the field (and confident about her place in the field). (In fact, I sometimes wonder if this mentoring relationship helped me develop more confidence in myself professionally, and in my sense of belonging in the field. I suspect it did.) I try not to second-guess my qualifications to be a mentor. I try to be as honest as possible (and appropriate) as a mentor. I try to be freer as a mentor and to not be afraid to be a mentor (although sometimes I regress on this). This mentoring experience, above all else, taught me that there is no right or wrong time to be a mentor---that being a role model can happen even if we don't feel ready or adequate to be one.

Thank you, old mentee.


post-doc said...

I think of manatee too! Whenever someone calls me a mentee, I think, "Oh, no! Don't hit me with a boat!"

I think your point is a wonderful one. There is so much to overwhelm people in the sciences and those who are honest and make time for students are incredibly important to their respective fields. I'm so glad one of your early mentoring experiences was a good one.

jo(e) said...

Well, I think the best mentoring happens when the relationship can be reciprocal.

Addy N. said...

How about "protégé"?

Jane said...

post-doc, your boat comment made me laugh! :)

jo(e), I agree---and I think this relationship was definitely reciprocal.

addy, good suggestion, but I get squigged out by "protege" too---it just seems really "old boy's network" to me, like I'm grooming someone to help me take over the world. :)

Anonymous said...

I call them my students, I call myself their advisor, and i call the relationship advising.

Flicka Mawa said...

Great post! I actually think my relationship with my adviser is somewhat like the relationship you describe - although I certainly don't think of myself as the stellar student you describe your mentee to be. Nonetheless, in some ways my adviser is struggling right now (up for tenure and I'm not sure it's looking that great), but I value our relationship greatly outside of her own career success.

I don't know if this offers any insight to you, but for me the best part of my relationship with my adviser is when she speaks to me honestly and openly about both positive and negative things related to the job. I am just looking for a better window into what it's like, especially for a woman in the field, and she provides that. The things that she tells me are "career advice" whether they are things she did or things she learned the hard way, and while I wish to see her succeed, I learn from it either way.

Jane said...

flicka mawa, that's fabulous that you and your advisor have such a good relationship, and that she feels open enough to share the good and bad parts of her experience with you. What a gem! I admit that I do struggle with how much of the bad stuff I should share with my students. I used to feel like I had to present this Superwoman facade all the time, but as I've continued in this job, I've felt a bit freer to let down my guard. But it's such a difficult line to negotiate, with both my male and female students.