Mentor-Mentee Relationship: The Ideal and the Real, a Perspective


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I consider the mentor-mentee relationship as something special; something that is based on trust and rooted in the former ensuring the professional growth of the latter, expecting nothing in return.

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From what I understand, the word mentor originates from the epic Odyssey. The prince Telemachus was left in the care of Mentor when the prince’s father Odysseus left for the Trojan war. Mentor mentored Telemachus until his father returned. Closer home, history tells us that Chanakya mentored Chandra Gupta Maurya and groomed him to become the King of Pataliputra and eventually the Emperor of the Mauryan empire.


Hindu mythology is full of stories of mentor-mentee relationships. Sage Viswamitra seems to have mentored king Bharat and guided him into becoming the Emperor of Akhand Bharat.


In all the three examples cited here (Mentor, Chanakya and Viswamitra), one thing is clear. The mentor had nothing to gain except to see that the mentee was protected and guided into succeeding in his efforts. The Hardy-Ramanujan relationship could be considered a classic example of a mentor-mentee relationship in modern times. The former could assess the genius of the latter and worked hard to bring it out and make it known to the world.


Guru-Shishya relationship is akin to, but not equivalent to, the mentor-mentee relationship. To some extent, it reflects the difference between the traditions in the east and in the west. In the Guru-Shishya parampara, the teacher was given the custody of the Shishya and the onus was on the Guru to teach the Shishya and shape their career. This became particularly important when the Rajguru would mentor the young prince before they got to wear the crown and often continued to mentor them even after they ascended the throne.


Mentor-mentee relationship at the school level, college level and the professional level:  

At the school level, the student goes simply by what the teacher says because they do not know anything else. At the college level, they begin to analyse what the teacher is trying to teach them. At the professional level, the student learns quickly enough to reach the level of the teacher and often surpasses the teacher.


In the west, the mentor ceases to be the mentor after the mentee graduates and sometimes, the mentor gives competition to their former mentee. In the east, the relationship often remains sacrosanct.


To quote from my own experience, I met Dr. T. Rangarajan in the chemistry department of Annamalai University when I joined as a first year BSc student. He took it upon himself to guide me at every stage of my career.  When I finished my BSc, he advised me to continue for MSc in the same university and helped me get admission for PhD in the United States. He continued to guide me until I came back to India to pursue my academic career.


My thesis supervisor Lionel Raff at Oklahoma State University believed in his students becoming independent and let me learn on my own.  He used to tell me that my thesis problem was my thesis problem and that my thesis was my thesis. He was there only to guide me if needed! My post-doctoral supervisor John Polanyi at the University of Toronto also believed in his students and post-docs being independent and flourishing on their own. These mentorships helped me pursue an independent career when the time came.  Naturally, I let my students learn and become independent on their own.


The role of a PhD thesis supervisor changes slowly from advice to suggestion; watching often from the sidelines, making sure that the mentee do not lose sight of their goal, making sure that the mentee builds self-confidence and takes off as a professional. Apparently, there was a sign in the lab of Wolfgang Paul saying, “Guided anarchy”.  That sums up the spirit of mentoring.


The most important aspect of the mentor-mentee relationship is Trust. By design, the mentor is interested (only) in the progress of the mentee and does not consider what benefit accrues to themselves. In many institutions, this relationship remains intact between the teacher and the taught. Unfortunately, many institutes expect their faculty members to guide PhD students and invariably the promotion of the faculty member depends on the number of PhD students guided and the research publications that come out of such a guidance. In mathematics, there seems to be a tradition that the thesis supervisors do not include their name along with the name of the student in the research publications unless there was a specific contribution by the supervisor. The guides are known for their standing and their reputation is not based on the number of papers authored/coauthored.  In other subjects like chemistry, physics and biology, the guide’s name is included in the list of authors of publications. While my PhD thesis supervisor would list his name in the end of the list of authors and it was understood that he was the senior author, my post-doctoral supervisor followed the tradition of listing all the authors alphabetically. Nowadays, some of the journals have vitiated the atmosphere by asking the authors to state clearly who thought about the problem, who worked on it, who wrote it up, etc. in the name of equitable distribution of intellectual property right, making it a commercial enterprise.


In the United States and many other countries, scholars are admitted to the PhD program and they choose the supervisor after considerable discussion and dialogues. I remember how I went about talking to every single faculty member in the department before choosing my supervisor. In many instances, the students seek admission to the program by declaring their choice of supervisor and sometimes, they wish to change their mind regarding the choice. This often results in avoidable bitterness in the relationship.


A senior colleague of mine in IIT Kanpur would emphasize on the sacredness of the student-thesis supervisor relationship. The relationship begins when the student joins the research group of the thesis supervisor and it continues beyond the date of thesis submission or thesis defense.  Invariably, the supervisor is expected to provide letters of reference for the student to pursue post-doctoral studies and/or for obtaining a faculty/scientist position. I know cases where the personal relationship between the mentor and the mentee deteriorated, but the former continued to support the latter when the mentee was seeking a professional position.


A former student of mine called me up on the Teachers Day and conveyed his greetings. More importantly, he wanted me to know that he remembers me fondly because I trusted him. Till this date, I maintain a cordial relationship with my former students because I did not treat them as paper producing machines and I was genuinely interested in their reaching professional heights, each according to his/her innate ability.


In summary, I consider the mentor-mentee relationship as something special; something that is based on trust and rooted in the former ensuring the professional growth of the latter, expecting nothing in return. In real life, every investment yields returns, some high and some low. However, it cannot be enumerated in the case of a mentor-mentee duo as benevolence and goodwill cannot be measured in numbers.


N Sathyamurthy is a theoretical chemist and an ex-Director of IISER Mohali, India. Views expressed are personal.


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

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