In the comments of the very first question of the week – now ask a scatterbrain (thanks Kieran!) – several of the comments talked about questions of advising for faculty (not how to pick and adviser, but instead how to be a good one – a question raised by newsocprof). At the time my response was to start alternating between grad students and junior faculty on Wednesdays and Saturdays. But then I thought that this might completely turn scatterplot into an advice blog (something like the ask Ann Landers of sociology). And given Jeremy’s recent point that for his taste scatterplot is just about at the limit of a hardcore professional blog, I’m glad I decided as I did (to hold off on junior faculty questions every Saturday). I wouldn’t want to push him over the limit! Nonetheless, all of this is a long prelude to ask the question above. Any advice on being a good mentor?
7 thoughts on “mentoring”
I am excited to hear answers to this one. I was quite surprised how difficult advising is, and although I already respected my own mentors, this respect grew exponentially in my first couple years as Asst. Prof.
I don’t have a lot of mentoring experience, but my #1 suggestions are:
(a) schedule frequent meetings with people
(b) provide feedback on written work within a reasonable time – like a month or two per chapter, not years
(c) clearly outline how a student would achieve the their goals and be honest in how far they have to (“If you want an R1 job, you’ll need …”)
I was thinking that this would be a good topic for grad students to respond to.
I say: make it easy for students to find ways to interact with you. For students who are just starting out, schedule regular advising time with them. When I was just starting, I rarely set up appointments even with professors I wanted to work with, because I didn’t think I had anything to say to them and I didn’t want to waste their time. But I really appreciated the chance to talk with faculty when the opportunity presented itself.
In undergrad, this came regularly because at my college, undergrads needed advisors to frequently sign off on their programs. Once I began doing more work independently as a grad student, I had specific reasons to set up appointments with professors. But in the times in between, it was sometimes lonely and isolating.
This also reflects that I wasn’t working as an RA. I imagine for students who were, the qualities of an ideal mentor are quite different.
Yu Xie, one of the best advisors I know of, held weekly lunch meetings for his students. At these meetings students could present methodological problems they had encountered, which were then solved by the group as a whole. It was also an opportunity to ask professional socialization questions and just get to know the other grad students.
Let me first put a large caveat on what I am about to say: I know this will not work for everyone due to time, type of research, personality, etc, but the mentors I see that have the most successful relationships do some of the following:
1) Encourage students who you see as having potential in your area, but may not be “your” student or even currently in your area. Lots of good mentors just help get the ball rolling and then go along for the ride.
2) Invite students into meetings (data collection, paper collaborations, proposal planning) to see how the process works on something that is not their own. It helps the students learn to turn ideas into publications without being emotional connected to their own idea.
3) Let students read a draft of a paper (or proposal) and make comments (make sure it is actually an early draft—which usually have fairly obvious mistakes).
4) Have an occasional informal meeting either one-on-one or with several students (like Yu Xie I assume) just to let them ask professionalization questions (e.g. Should I start my paper off with the Webster’s definition of the word “stratification”?).
5) If you have a paper idea that you may even just be in the general realm of interest of a student and you don’t mind them being a coauthor invite them to join in. I am always shocked at how often professors say “I have too many papers to write…” but then never ask someone, who may few ideas for papers, help them write even one paper.
6) Talk to your students about how job talks or presentations (from visitors) went, what they might have done to improve the talk or even what your decision making was for voting for extending them an offer (in the case of a job talk).
7) For the sake of all conference attendees, make your students practice a conference talk at least 3 times (in front of an audience) before they actually present at the conference…it will avoid any embarrassment for you and for them.
8) Essentially let them see and explain to them the informal rules and procedures of how to survive (and hopefully succeed) in academia. The only way to do that is let them hang around you in various academic settings and give them a chance to ask seeming simple questions.