(grad)student-faculty interaction

Notre Dame loves to make videos. They are currently working on a series about graduate students’ experiences on campus and I had a meeting with the production company today to discuss one of the videos, a segment focused on (grad)student-faculty interaction. As great as the meeting was, I left feeling incredibly discouraged about the state of (grad)student-faculty interaction and wondering what, if anything, can be done to change it.

As many scatterplot readers likely know, some of my research over the past few years has been on grad students. In studying things like impostorism and perceptions of work-life balance, I’ve thought a lot about mentoring and the role that faculty play in graduate students’ experiences, expectations, and aspirations. One thing that I found that is consistent with previous work in the area is that men get more (and more effective) mentoring than their women counterparts, particularly when they have mentors who are also men. It’s not a gender difference in mentoring skills (e.g., that men are just better mentors), it’s related to the types of interaction that men have with other men. Men are more likely to invite one another out for a drink, to carpool to the airport, to linger in the lobby of a conference hotel late at night, or to play on the same intramural basketball team. It is in these informal encounters, although under the guise of socializing or just hanging out, that important differences in mentoring emerge. When students see faculty outside of work, they not only get more time with them, they also get a more complete picture of those faculty as people. They are also more likely to be exposed to their network connections and in fluid, less forced ways. On the other side of the exchange, the faculty get a better sense of who the students are and their interests. This better equips the faculty to help those students and to guide and mentor them on the students’ own terms.

As I was telling some of this to the video producer today, he got all excited. It turns out that an interview with a graduate student had turned up something similar. The student had been talking about how great it was that he and his advisor played on the same soccer team on campus. Interestingly, this tidbit didn’t come from an interview for the “(grad)student-faculty interaction” video like mine. It was for the “student life” video in the series. This was telling. As long as we work on creating gender (or race or class or another dimension of inequality) parity in formal mentoring situations (i.e., what many think of as (grad)student-faculty interaction it seems) and ignore the effects of the informal mentoring (perhaps because we think of it as just a neutral, insignificant part of the “life” of students and faculty), the gender differences in mentoring and related outcomes will continue.

That’s not the most discouraging part, though. As I walked back to my office, I thought of a young woman who I was talking to about my research a couple weeks ago. She asked me what she could do. How could she facilitate the informal mentoring if she didn’t play sports or felt that it would be seen as inappropriate if she went out for lunch–let alone drinks or dinner–with her male advisor? She desperately wanted the same benefits that she saw her male colleagues reaping and wanted my help. I didn’t have an answer, but I am hoping that maybe some of you will.

5 thoughts on “(grad)student-faculty interaction”

  1. As a young female faculty member, I have struggled with finding a comfortable way to informally socialize and mentor my grad students (especially male students). A solution that makes at least me more comfortable has been to schedule lunches or walks with two students at a time. I have also had a few dinners with one of my senior colleagues and his students and my students together. The group setting helps me with my social anxiety and we’ve had some great professional discussions.


  2. Jessica, I totally buy the argument that informal interactions have lots of benefits for mentoring. And I agree that potentially fraught sex dynamics contribute to a gender difference in opposite-sex interactions that makes female students less likely to get valuable mentorship from male advisers than male students from female advisors. But what is the rationale for a gender gap in same-gender mentorship? A numbers issue? Or something intrinsic to the way men vs women interact with each other?

    As a single, anecdotal data point, my graduate school featured a well-known, informal “OB Women’s Running Group” where the female students got to spend time with the female faculty, but no such equivalent existed for men. I’m not saying this is typical necessarily, but why should a male soccer team be more common than a women’s running group?


  3. I don’t mean to detract from this issue in any way, since I think it’s very important and I’m glad that people are studying it and strategizing about how to address it.

    But it makes me very sad that mentors don’t feel like they can invite their opposite-gender students out to lunch (!). And it also makes me feel, frankly, like I’ve been time-warped into Mad Men. Is this really a thing? Because men and women have been working together for about half a century now.

    I’m especially not trying to harp on the female scientist who posted above, btw. I’m just shocked. Is this limited to fields with very small representation of women?


  4. I appreciate everyone’s thoughts. Of course I want to acknowledge that these are simply trends and that there are always exceptions!

    @reallivescientist: Meeting in groups is a great idea.

    I also think that watching senior faculty in action can be helpful for getting a sense of how to (or sometimes, how not to) spend time with students outside of formal mentoring situations. I know that I model my (woman) advisor a lot in my interactions with students.

    @akleinb: Men with female advisors also fare quite poorly, although some of this might be a selection effect. My research suggests that many of these men intentionally seek out these advisors with the hope that they’ll be better role models about work-life balance, or more understanding of men’s varied commitments to work, rather than because they want someone to give them the edge up in their career. They are often seeking (and often erroneously) someone who they think better reflects the life and priorities that they aspire too. Other research claims that women might be less likely to push men because of status deference, and that could hurt these men too.

    Same-gender mentoring certainly can work well for women, but women tend to engage in less informal mentoring with their students for a number of reasons (e.g., time-constraints, concerns that they will be seen as less committed to their work, additional time on service). Until quite late in my graduate career, my mentor was all business. Part of that was personality, but I am sure that part of that was based on her experiences as a woman in this business and an impression of what women could (or couldn’t) get away with.

    As you note, too, numbers are a problem. Women faculty are significantly under-represented at PhD granting institutions and in the higher ranks at those places.

    And, yes, @gradstudentbyday, this is depressing! Lunches and coffee are one thing, and there’s certainly more comfort engaging in activities that can be construed as work-related. There is just so much that is more difficult to see as such, and more likely to have meanings misconstrued (by participants or observers).

    It’s also not typically things that people even think of as mentoring that might matter. It’s just things we tend to do with people like us. For example, I once went outlet shopping with a few of my students. They didn’t invite me as a professor, but as someone who might be interested in sales on some professional clothing. We were all women, not by explicit exclusion but based on interest in the activity. In addition to the shopping, we spent time on the road and eating lunch. This gave me a chance to learn more about them, share my experiences, and gave them a chance to see me as someone beyond my role as their professor. It was just a Saturday afternoon and I doubt that it changed anyone’s life or career aspirations or potential. However, things like that can have a cumulative effect. In other words, it’s not only that a male faculty member might think that it could be problematic to invite his female graduate assistant to the bar after leaving the lab, it’s also that he’s less likely to think she’d be interested.


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