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.