Another condescending PI post equating mentoring to parenting

Jul 19 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

This post has been bouncing around in my head for a while, but I've put it off because I've been too busy to do a decent job of writing it. However, I'm terrible at ignoring ideas in my head without writing them out. Afterall, this was one of the main reasons I started blogging in the first place. And since I've been kinda spouting off this week about mentoring, it seems like a good time.

I'm going to acknowledge an important point right off the bat: I don't view any of my trainees as "children" in any sense of the word. Most are my age or older and some have kids of their own. They are adults and to treat them otherwise would be stupid, insulting and self-defeating.

That said... wait....

ah, that's better. Haven't worn these in a while. Where was I? Oh, right.

That said, there are numerous parallels between mentoring graduate students (and to a lesser extent, postdocs*) and parenting. Part of what solidified some of these thoughts in my head was a conversation yesterday with @babyattachmode that followed this:

I can completely sympathize with the notion that you need someone to deal with an email and you get the feel it's being ignored. Sometimes things are time sensitive or may delay work you are doing. I get it. I really do. No one likes to have to wait on someone else, especially if there is an impression that the individual is simply choosing not to deal with something.

The flip side, however, is that sometimes a PI isn't going to respond to even urgent requests for any number of reasons. Maybe she's tired and doesn't even want to think about lab bullshit right now. Maybe she needs other information before responding and has contacted others. Or maybe she just wants to see how you handle the situation. It could be all or none of the above, but sometimes a targeted withdrawal of attention is a feature, not a bug.

This brings us back to the goal of mentoring, or at least how I see my role. My end goal is to produce an independent and confident scientist with the tools to pursue the career they want. Getting there sometimes requires techniques that every parent will recognize. It requires that I foster creative and independent thought. Occasionally I have to let people fail when I could have saved them or "not deal with something" that I know they can handle if they step up. Sometimes it means I have to have a "come to Jesus" talk with people who are spinning their wheels to little effect. I have to tell people when they are not living up just as much as I have to let those same people know when they are kicking ass. And eventually I have to ensure that students are on a trajectory to leave while hoping I've given them guidance that will serve them well.

So when I equate parenting with mentoring, it has nothing to do with trainees being "kids" and everything to do with preparing someone to transition effectively to life on their own**.

*Yes, this is a training phase, even if you're called a colleague.

**Whether or not they recognize it at the time or even come to appreciate it latter. However, you will never appreciate your own parents more than once you have kids of your own and some of the same can be said of good mentors.

14 responses so far

  • Hahahahaha I already felt like a whining toddler when I tweeted that yesterday!

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Haha, it happens. I complain when I don't hear back from the Dean about my "really important" issue.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    After getting my first students, I almost immediately sent an e-mail to my grad mentor, essentially stating, "I'm sorry that I was a little shit. Thank you for being patient".

    As a mentor, some of these issues need to be addressed by *me* setting reasonable expectations and boundaries. If I get an e-mail at 2 am from a student and immediately respond (because I can't sleep or whatever), I'm instantly sending the message that they can not only expect 'instant' response, but also, that they never have to respect personal time. Almost 2 years in, I'm starting to set boundaries-like don't expect any answer during dinnertime--that's family time. If you are learning something new, I expect you to be in the lab during normal daylight hours--ie when I'm around and when my magical tech is around. I will not help you at 10 pm because you aren't a morning person.......And yes, even though students are here to be trained-they are still adults and you can have reasonable expectations of maturity. Like you said yesterday: 'hand-holding' is almost damaging/bad as a slack mentor...

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    My daughter commented, speaking to her mother and me, "It scares me how much of you guys I see in myself." I wonder if I would be pleased if a former student would make such a statement to me (none has).

  • JaneB says:

    Just like DrLizzyMoore, I found myself apologising to my supervisor when I had the first student who was needy the way I had been...

    This is a great post, though, the 'nuturing to independence' thing is so important and yet lots of PIs who want to be popular don't find it easy (or ones who are not the type to do any nuturing - you need to do both, supporting and stepping away).

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    Yes, yes and yes....Jane B. Getting over the 'popularity' desire is the most helpful towards becoming an effective mentor.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    In my first few months I found it difficult to step back and wear my PI hat. I had just left an environment where I spent a lot of social time hanging out with grad students and postdocs, and it took a few months for me to get over the feeling of not being part of that world anymore. But I realized that mixing the social aspects with the mentoring ones was a recipe for trouble.

  • Thanks for the thought-provoking and quite humorous post!

    I have a non-tenure track position, but I can still relate to your story -- to a point.

    The in-over-their-head trainees you're describing didn't magically appear. Social promotion occurs in graduate school, too. Especially the competitive bicoastal departments, and I would love to see data on this from other regions. If they're asking too much of you, it probably means that they can't handle running a complex project alone.

    That said, there's still a non-trivial amount of "go-it-alone" in academic lab culture.

  • Anon says:

    "But I realized that mixing the social aspects with the mentoring ones was a recipe for trouble."

    Sounds like the germ of another good post! Do you not socialize at all with your trainees, or is it just a question of degree?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I do socialize with my trainees, but not in the same way I would if I was at the same career stage. Good to keep some professional boundary.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I was somewhat surprised, when I became Chair, to find that my colleagues socialized with me less than they had before (and thus vice versa).

  • Lab Rockstar says:

    Boundaries are vital. You're not doing your students any favors by being their pal.

  • profguy says:

    Yes of course, advising students is a little like parenting. I have said the same thing many times, and sometimes people have strong negative reactions, but who are they kidding? Obviously grad students are generally technically adults, the level of commitment is different, etc. etc., but there are also obvious parallels as the post rightly points out.

    I do have kids (getting up to teenage years) as well as grad students. I became parent and a mentor around the same time, and the two experiences have certainly informed each other.

  • AH says:

    In Germany PhD supervisors are (quote officially) called 'Doktorvater' or 'Doktormutter' not without reason...

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