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Mentor-Mentee Relationship

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Summary

The key to success is for the mentor to be extremely generous to ensure that the mentee has all the support (s)he needs for his/her research. This includes ensuring a hassle-free research environment, administrative support and access to resources (including papers, talks and visits to conferences). Given the uncertainties in research, it is important that the mentee is guaranteed such support during his/her first few years.

Full Article

The success of a mentor-mentee relationship, just as in any other relationships, relies on mutual respect – respect for each other’s strength and limitations – and on the mentee’s willingness and capability to work around the limitations. However it is perceived that the relationship is inherently between unequal partners. The mentor has more knowledge, experience, power and visibility in the community, and the person who gains the most is the mentee. Is this perception correct? How can the relationship succeed if it is so?

 

A PhD is as much about learning advanced topics and creating new knowledge, as about learning how to do research. If the former can be called a technical skill, the latter can be called a soft skill. In exploring a new problem or a new area, both the mentor and mentee are in the same boat. The mentor may have an advantage of knowledge and experience, but the mentee has an advantage on age and time. While the mentor may be working on the problem along with several of his/her responsibilities, the mentee is expected to spend most of the time on the problem.

 

On the soft skill, it is true that the mentor has a lot of advantages, but the key to success is for the mentor to be extremely generous to ensure that the mentee has all the support (s)he needs for his/her research. This includes ensuring a hassle-free research environment, administrative support and access to resources (including papers, talks and visits to conferences). While it is tricky to ensure this, a culture of healthy interaction with other faculty members in the department, with a possibility of finding other co-supervisors or even changing the advisor, needs to be nourished. Given the uncertainties in research, it is important that the mentee is guaranteed such support during his/her first few years. In an Indian environment, assistantship and other financial support for the mentee are often guaranteed by the institution with minimal intervention by the mentor, and it is important that this practice continues.

 

PhD as a beginning or end of research

While there is a wide variety of quality of PhDs, it is also important to understand the purpose of those doing PhD. A typical PhD student in IITs and other research institutes is expected to spend a lifetime doing research, and so it is really important that they get a deep foundation in the fundamentals, a wide background in their area of research and also learn the art of doing research. Because of these reasons, there is considerable emphasis on course work, comprehensives and seminars for them.

However there are those for whom the PhD degree is just that, a means to a specific end, rather than the launch of a research career. This may be for getting a promotion, meeting a requirement laid down by the UGC, or it may be to get a specific kind of job in the industry. For most of them, PhD is the end of research, perceived as creating new knowledge and writing papers. For them, the breadth of the area and the analytical tools are more important. Understanding and acknowledging these aspirations will also help set expectations appropriately.

 

Conflicts and dealing with them

Conflicts may arise in the working relationship in many ways:

  • On the technical side, it is possible that the mentor and mentee quickly realize that they have divergent interests. This can happen due to a variety of reasons. It is possible that from the beginning, the interests diverged. Such a relationship should be agreed upon only when the mentor and mentee both have supreme confidence that the mentee can pursue research independently, and complete his/her PhD without the mentor’s active involvement. A better arrangement would be for the mentor and mentee to work on problems of mutual interest at least until the first successful publication which would substantiate the confidence of both parties. In any case, it is important that there be set and designed processes for regular monitoring of progress (which we discuss in further detail below). This situation can also happen when the mentee is ready to overtake the mentor in his/her knowledge and capability, and this is a good situation to be in, for both parties.
  • There is no progress for a long period of time. While this is not uncommon in research, this can also happen due to a variety of reasons. The mentee may be sincere and persistent, but may have capability issues. This is a less serious problem. This is where the mentor’s expertise comes into play – to suggest simpler and more realistic directions to help mentee get through his/her PhD, and ensure that the mentee learns the soft skills, gains some expertise and moves on. After all, there is a wide variety in terms of quality of work over a long research career, and some students do tend to grow better over a period of time. The other problem can be that the mentee is sloppy, gets distracted and misses commitments and meetings. While some amount of digression is common and useful in PhD, it is important to ensure that they don’t come in the way. This is also addressed by institutional processes that spell out the need for commitment, regular meetings and follow up on instructions, early on in the program. With some monitoring, if there is no improvement, this kind of behaviour may even result in terminating the relationship; the sooner this happens, the better it is for everyone. After all, PhD need not be for everyone, and there is much more to building a career and life than a PhD degree.
  • Sometimes there is complete breakdown of relationships between the mentor and mentee even in advanced stages. Whatever the reasons, seeking early redressal through the doctoral committee and if necessary through the institute/university grievance redressal system is important. Institutional mechanisms like a broad-based doctoral committee, periodic doctoral committee meetings including the entire committee, and institute/university wide grievance redressal committee are useful for precisely these kind of situations and hence it is important to take them seriously.

 

Venkatesh Raman is a theoretical computer scientist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. 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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