Mentorship as illustrated by my recent travels in Greece: Building a mentorship might seem like the slipslide of Arkitsa…
…but in the end a successful mentorship is like this stele from Thasos with a woman being supported by an attendant.
As an international student coming to the U.S. to study, one of the things I found most challenging was the frequent mixing of business and pleasure, professional and private. I was used to sitting in large lecture halls and slinking away quietly at the end of class, or dropping in during office hours to a professor’s office to discuss my paper for five minutes and leave. After-lecture receptions where I was asked about my hobbies and cocktail parties at professors’ houses at times seemed more daunting than enjoyable.
This same awkwardness made embracing mentorships difficult at first. On arriving at U-M, I was assigned a faculty mentor, but visits to her office consisted of her well-intentioned quizzing of me and my monosyllabic answers. Everything’s fine. Keeping busy, you know. Yep, Michigan’s pretty nice.
Even so, I knew enough about the system to realize it would be important to show up at my supervisor’s office. So I did. Again, it felt more like a duty than a pleasure.
I wish I could say I gradually and smoothly eased my way into a comfortable mentorship relationship with faculty. Instead, it was a characteristically awkward event. In short, by the end of my second year, I was feeling quite terrible for personal and academic reasons, and was not sure if I could pass my qualifying exams. As petrified as I was, the quiet work my mentor, my supervisor, and our graduate coordinator had been doing paid off as I felt comfortable enough to show up at their offices and unload my worries on them. The response was above and beyond anything I could have expected, and I genuinely believe I managed to finish my second year largely because of their encouragement.
As I settle into life in Athens, Greece, I am now more appreciative of and sensitive to mentorships, and not just for the sake of my sanity. Navigating academia is tricky and each field has its own specific quirks that general information sessions cannot cover. Mentors can provide advice on how to make yourself attractive to the job market; what kind of publications are highly esteemed and which ones less so; new research to keep an eye on. They can put you in touch with people and point out opportunities. Of course, this is an ideal scenario. Below, I’ve compiled some tips on how to seek out mentorships and get the most out of them. Please share your thoughts and tips in the comments!
1) Have multiple mentors. It’s good to have one main person you work with, of course, but variety is the spice of life. My program assigns each new student a faculty mentor that the student is unlikely to work with academically. This means that a) they can provide a broader perspective since they are not in your specific subfield, and b) you can confide in them without fear of alienating your supervisor. My field has a Women’s Caucus, which also puts students in touch with mentors with a particular emphasis on addressing issues like being a woman in academia, balancing family life with studies – basically everything you probably don’t discuss with your supervisor on a weekly basis. Many similar programs exist for people with different grad school experiences, and I highly recommend finding one that suits your needs. There are also options for short-term “mentoring” sessions on specific topics: the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching provides one-on-one appointments to discuss teaching, and Counseling and Psychological Services can help with things like time and stress management. Finally, your supervisor does not need to be your mentor, but it’s great if they are. Because of my shyness, it was not easy building a relationship with my supervisor, but she has proven to be my best advocate. If you are not as fortunate, don’t feel like you cannot seek out other people for mentorships.
2) Be honest. It can be hard to admit you’re struggling or to talk about specific concerns. But if you do, you will probably be surprised by the response. Mentors can help you much more if you give them something to go on. I, for example, quietly worried about not being familiar enough with U.S. academia and not taking the right steps toward a successful career. For example not balancing research and teaching experience correctly. My mentor is now aware of this and has been able to candidly point out things from important conferences to attend to reminding me about the importance of tact in my publications (because you never know whose help you’ll need down the line!). If you are considering a career outside of academia, be open about it and make a plan with your mentor about how to get where you want to be.
3) Don’t overthink it. Mentorships are not about cozying up in hopes of immediate gains. What I am learning here in Athens, where I am meeting scholars in my field on a daily basis, is that the best way to get to know potential mentors is to be present, be honest, and be open. Sometimes you end up talking about cats, sometimes you end up learning about a scholarly topic you’ve never thought about but is actually kind of cool. Sometimes you will be in further contact, sometimes you won’t. And that’s okay. The world is full of potential mentors.
4) Reciprocate. Mentorships are by definition imbalanced: one of you is in a much better position to advise and help the other. This does not mean you can’t return the favor now and then. At the very least, be reliable, show up on time, and make only promises you can keep. Show that the time and energy they spend mentoring you is appreciated. Pass it on: if your mentor introduces you to interesting people and ideas, share these with others you think might be interested.
5) Just keep showing up. For some, creating mentorship relationships comes naturally. For others, it’s like pulling teeth. Don’t give up. Don’t be a menace, but keep showing up with questions, comments, or just to briefly touch base. It will get easier, I promise.