Mentor-Mentee: A New Relationship


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A mentor-mentee relationship is a crucial one in the professional lives of both the persons. It has to be handled with utmost care and sensitivity.

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The mentor-mentee relationship is like a teacher-taught relationship, albeit, in an adult environment. Though the primary aim of the relationship is the same, to teach the mentee skills and prepare her for her future academic journey, the environment in which it is set is different. The idea is to impart research-training rather than passing information and knowledge.  Also, in school, the relationship is based on distinct age-gap, which may not be the case in research, reflecting its adult nature. Additionally, school has set goals and expectations, i.e., gaining marks and obedience, which are not the desired ends of a research relation.


In a mentor-mentee relationship, the environment is flexible, the expectations are individualistic and there is space to manoeuvre one’s wishes and choices. The idea is to develop an individual with a thinking capacity and one who is able to be sensitive to her surroundings in particular and to the world in general. The training would involve analytical understanding, critical thinking and deep questioning, rather than a mere transfer of knowledge, facts, ideas and information.


Here, the mentee has considerable freedom to think, assess and question. She has the liberty to exercise her intellect and express the feelings, opinions and ideas, emerging thereof. It is in this context of a confused and de-limited hierarchy, a space containing two adult opinionated minds, individual aspirations and a formal background, understanding the mentor-mentee relationship becomes important.


Mentoring, and being mentored are not just new, I would say, but also a strange processes in academia, at least in the Indian context. Prior to choosing a research degree, the Indian education system does not offer any such substantial experience in the same vigour to its students. Before this, it is more of a dependent relationship, assumed between a teacher and a learner. There is more of transfer and less of exchange. Not only there is considerable hierarchy in the relationship, but also, authority.


This relationship changes in a research programme. The expectations here are different. However, the remnants of the old system loom large and deep. One is moulded by and is used to it. The transformation is not easy because there is no facilitation to effect this change. Neither there are any guidelines nor a system to support this transformation. It largely depends on the understanding (or the misunderstanding) between the mentor and the mentee. But, of course, there are expectations, opinions and a thesis to finish. The major challenges in this relationship are the individuality, uniqueness and personalization that it demands despite being understood as a general process.


Though the mentor has to disseminate a universal research training to her mentees, its application has to be unique, considering the fact that it is between two adults, in individuated capacity. In the process, the mentee’s interest in the subject and the course, her commitment towards research, truthfulness and personality play an important role. This would also include her capacity to handle emotional and mental stress that comes with this life, apart from, inadvertently, physical and intellectual vigour.


In such a scenario, both the mentor and the mentee walk on a tight rope where they have to maintain balance without compromising on the quality of the task or giving it up. This demands a commitment from both the parties to understand the nature of the task and the relationship. From the very beginning, both have to acknowledge that the journey is not going to be easy. It will have its shares of ups and downs which would ask for a mature approach. They will have to hold on to reach a fruitful, enriching and gratifying end.


In this relation, the confusions need to be sorted, the expectations clarified, the hopes managed, the efforts constant and the faith maintained. In an ideal situation, the mentor has to give out a set of general guidelines which the mentee has to abide by. At the same time, the journey has to be manoeuvred in a personalised manner while being careful not to transgress boundaries, personal or administrative.


In my opinion, the following points can bring about a healthier and a more constructive relationship between a mentor and a mentee:

(a)   Transparency – This is one of the key points in this relationship. A commitment and sincerity to keep things open and well-discussed can go a long way in keeping it productive, engaging and meaningful. Things like difficulties faced while conducting research, medical status, leave from work, major discomforts with the working style, expectations, hopes and aspirations about the mentor/mentee, and (non)-meeting of deadlines should be frankly but politely conveyed to each other.

Clarity regarding these things helps place oneself suitably in the relationship and also gives the required space to the other. It helps both the parties to understand each other better and work accordingly, trying to meet each other’s objectives while keeping the process smooth and stress-free. A lack of transparency creates questions, doubts and even mistrust and the relationship fails to grow into a mature, productive and long-lasting one.


(b)   Clarity in Administrative Procedures – This is where the institution comes into picture in a mentor-mentee relationship. A mentor and a mentee meet and interact in the shadow of an educational/research institute and hence, it is important. Intelligibility in administrative procedures gives a strong formal background to the relationship. It binds it in an official setting and sets an aim and objective for it.

Administrative transparency helps greatly because it removes procedural confusion. It places both the parties clearly and appropriately in their respective positions. It also sets a pace to the work. The what, how and when of the whole process becomes known to everyone. In case of a lapse, these procedural guidelines can be referred to. If one is aware about the expected deadlines and what assistance one is supposed to receive from the administration, the relationship gets a strong sounding board. One knows the method and this helps both the parties to adjust their work.


(c) Respect for Each Other – As discussed earlier, the mentor-mentee relationship is a complex one, and to an extent, even strange. It is not a personal relationship but has to be personalised, or in other words, customised. It is foregrounded as a formal task but has to be given a personal touch to be fruitful.

It is also important to be aware of the mentor’s theoretical disposition, experience and areas of specialisation. The mentee’s areas of interests, working style, capacities, strengths and limitations also have to be considered. A major point to be noted here is the difference in the experience of the mentor and the mentee. Both sides have to acknowledge this gap and give it due respect. Patience and openness are central to the relationship.


Issues like caste, class, gender, religion and language are also to be taken into account. Since India is a country with great diversity, these matters can affect research in various ways. It is good to see that they do not affect research and the behaviour of either side. Language, especially, is an important issue because it has a direct association with research. Most of the research takes place in India in English which is not the first language of the most of us. A gap between the knowledge of the first language and the language of research can cause difficulties and a considerable effort goes in bridging this gap.


Another emerging issue is that of mental health. This is becoming an increasingly serious and pertinent issue which needs attention. Modern lifestyle brings with itself its set of problems in the form of fear, stress, anxiety, panic and even, depression, and a research degree is no exception. In fact, it can even aggravate it.


This menace is silent, predatory and also stigmatized. Many times, its arrival is secret and in case, even if the affected person is aware, she may not feel confident and strong enough to open up about it. It is possible that one of the sides may be affected by a mental issue and it is important for both of them to be sensitive to it. If there are signs, one needs to consider them. And better still, it would be good to have an open conversation at the beginning itself to clarify any such difficulty or give the space to each other to talk about it in case any such mishap occurs in future. This gives both of them the required confidence and faith to take up this new and difficult task.


A mentor-mentee relationship is a crucial one in the professional lives of both the persons. It has to be handled with utmost care and sensitivity. Understanding each other’s emotions and giving space to them are essential. If carried out in the earnest, both have a lot to learn. It is a wholesome relationship where the mental, intellectual and emotional dimensions have to be balanced. An intellectual life is a long and rigorous one – cooperation and sensitivity would only help it to go a long way.


Shivani Agrawal has recently submitted her Ph.D. thesis at Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Confluence, its editorial board or the Academy.


This article is part of a Confluence series called “Mentor-Mentee Relationships in Academia: Nature, Problems and Solutions”

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