Of Protégés and Mentors


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Since mentoring is a social enterprise,  requiring very personal investments of time and effort, and with serious expectation (by the mentor) of a response (from the mentee, and vice versa), this goes outside the ambit of a codified behaviour that can be put into simple rules such as the mentor should do this this and this, the mentee should do this and this, and then all will be well.

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Once upon a time in the Department of X in the University of Oz, the kindly Chair called a meeting of the faculty. “The Department needs to grow, we have not had a new appointment in years”, she said, “What are the areas in which we need new people?” The faculty discussed this most rationally and calmly, realising that there were many new developments in X that were exciting, and the Department could well do with some fresh input,  some young blood, they said. We have seen papers in these areas that none of us works on, we think these are interesting directions in which our field is growing…


So a position was advertised, and the faculty spread the word that a job was available. The finest applicants from near and far sent in their resumés to be evaluated. A short-list was made, and these applicants were invited to the Department to present their work, talk with the faculty, tell the Chair what they needed in terms of space and money, and also explore Oz and see if they would like to live there.


When all this was done, the Chair called the faculty to ask for their recommendations. With one voice the faculty spoke, “We think that Dr Y is by far the most appropriate input to our Department”. Agreeing with them, the Chair then put things in motion to have Dr Y join Department X as Assistant Professor. Luckily, Dr Y accepted the offer, and on the day of his joining, the entire department turned out to welcome him, and showed him to his new office and laboratory which had all the equipment he had asked for. The senior members of the Department said they would take on a bit of extra teaching until Y eased into the job. They mentored Dr Y as needed, encouraged new students to join his laboratory, made sure that he was given prominence, put him up for academic recognition when and where appropriate, and basically ensured that Y’s career was on course. Dr Y blossomed in this ambience and went on to do great things, and in later years, ensured that he was as welcoming of new members of the faculty as his mentors had been to him. The Department of X – as indeed the University of Oz – lived happily ever after.


By the time you’ve read the above and scraped your jaw off the floor, you’ve also probably realized that this might be a fairy tale alright, but unlike the tales of Cinderella or Snow White, this is a scenario that is really not impossible to envisage. And to be honest, this  is something that most of us in academia would find quite desirable, even if in the category of if only…


The truth that I will take to be self-evident is that university faculty (and I include institutes in the ambit) are united by a common purpose: the pursuit of knowledge, a desire to train new generations of students, and to develop the scholarly fabric. Grandiose though that may sound, there is no other unifying theme for the common enterprise that we are engaged in, and anything that can ensure these outcomes is worth promoting. Time and money are important, of course, but the true catalysts are ephemeral. Collegiality and mentorship – at all levels – are crucial. And the mentorship of junior faculty by senior colleagues is, in my opinion, by far the most necessary.


But to get back to the fairytale above. In most of our institutions, reality sings to a different libretto. None of the steps of this little story play out quite so smoothly, even though there is nothing especially impossible or complicated about any of the stages. The main impediment can be loosely characterised as academic politics, but as Henry Kissinger once observed, “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small”.


The issue of mentorship among the faculty of any department in any university in India is, as a consequence, fraught with complexities. The fable above illustrates the many ways in which the actual procedures we follow are far from a desirable ideal. (Incidentally, having a female Head of Department is not at all unusual, so that is not one of the more improbable parts of the story.) What does not happen most of the time, is that Departments rarely if at all sit as a body to discuss the areas in which they should grow. If at all, this is done at an early stage, the first few years of the department maybe, but by and large, there is usually no conscious attempt to go out and look for talent in a specific area. Even if there is, there are usually strong opinions within the faculty as to which area needs to be populated, so that the little fiction of an unanimous faculty decision arising from amicable discussions is just that, a pretty fiction. What therefore tends to happen is that there can be strong polarising opinions as to which areas are worth pursuing, and given the width of most fields now as well as the relatively small departments we can afford to have, the mismatch is large.


Another impediment to the maintenance of equanimity is the suboptimal manner in which appointments are made in most institutions. A department is an organic entity, and the addition of a new faculty member is an important step in its growth. Advertising positions, inviting applications, shortlisting applicants – frequently departments are not fully involved in the process. Candidates are rarely invited to come earlier so that the existing faculty can take a considered view, and if they are, it can be done very superficially. The actual selection is typically done by a set of “experts” brought in from outside, and  the views and opinions of the faculty already in place may not be given much credence. Furthermore, many of the so-called experts can also have their own axes to grind, from promoting their own candidates to scoring small brownie points against other colleagues. With this background, it is not surprising that the selection process can result in a department getting faculty that they almost know nothing about and having very little say in the appointment.


The manner in which the rest of it actually plays out depends on the personalities of the faculty already present and the newcomer, and virtually any of the possible histories can (and has) happened. Junior faculty are routinely expected to recall that


(a) She or he should be grateful for the job (and they should know whom to be grateful to).

(b) Whatever a new faculty member gets by way of office or lab space is a bonus

(c) What a new faculty member gets by way of equipment or startup funding is also a bonus.


This can be debilitating as an initial condition, but I am aware of departments at the present time (namely 2021) where this is exactly how it is. The exhaustion of having to fight for every square foot of laboratory space can be a serious impediment to personal academic growth, especially if one (as one should) aims to train graduate students. The flip side of this attitude can be the unwillingness of a department to grow unless they have the infrastructure in place to welcome a new member, but that can also be an impediment if one needs to adapt. The ongoing discussions on introducing the process of tenure in Indian departments adds another (unwelcome) dimension to the problem.


It is a truism that the half-life of Indian institutions or departments is about twenty-five years, which is roughly the time by which the first set of appointments retires and moves on. There are few examples to the contrary, but where they are, the one feature that distinguishes them is the strong and continued mentorship that the senior faculty – almost en masse – provide their  younger colleagues. Sometimes the easiest part of this is by demonstration: collegiality goes with respect, and a recognition of what binds a department together, namely the pursuit of an academic discipline. More experienced colleagues can raise the quality of the departments intellectual calibre simply by ensuring that the quality of the life academic is high. Good teaching, high quality seminars, timely and important scientific meetings – all these contribute, indirectly to the mentoring role that senior colleagues can play.


Hierarchy is inevitable in any institutional set-up, but the emphasis on this has been the downfall of many institutions that otherwise started well. Having a “stalwart” founder of a department has usually lead to a rapid decline in quality once the stalwart has retired or become less prominent. Having two stalwarts is not much better since taken to an extreme this often leads to camps, each of which owe allegiances to one or the other viewpoint, usually on a non-academic matter. (It gets worse with more.) The resulting inability to have a free discussion either for fear of offending seniors, or the fear of repercussions from seniors whose views one opposes does nobody any good, but having seen this play out in innumerable instances across the globe, it is worth emphasising that it is better that hierarchies are not allowed to form in the first place. This may be easier said than done, but for that to happen, older colleagues have got to take the lead. By encouraging discussion and dissent, by encouraging informality, and by an enlightened generosity: all these build an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. In some ways it is more important for colleagues to respect each other and their differences, their opinions, rather than for them to be socially close. Conflation of the personal and the professional does, in the end, nobody any good and usually leads back to the development of camps.


That said, it is not always easy being a mentee, even if you have kind and generous mentors. Being a junior faculty member in the same department can be a challenge, especially if one would not like to ruffle feathers. It is important to realise that it is easier to navigate the waters of an academic career with good advice, and how to do this without trying to convert the mentor into a patron can be difficult. For one’s own self-respect, it is important not to be too beholden to seniors in the same department. Some amount of respect comes naturally within our social norms, but striking a balance is important.


One matter that is not easy to address is the low levels of diversity in academics in India. Let alone the poor gender balance, there are strong regional biases, even in Central institutions which should, nominally be free of that. One of the worst impediments to good mentoring is the deeply entrenched parochialism, – usually linguistic, but also religion, caste and class based – and regrettably, these biases, both explicit and implicit, go a distance in shaping the dynamics of academic departments.


Are there solutions, ways of ensuring that healthy and fulfilling mentor-mentee relationships develop? Probably no easy ones. Any legislated rules can easily be subverted, as the past seven decades have shown. There would be better social diversity in our institutions if rules were all that were necessary to overcome bias, be it gender or any other aspect of social inequality. Since mentoring is a social enterprise,  requiring very personal investments of time and effort, and with serious expectation (by the mentor) of a response (from the mentee, and vice versa), this goes outside the ambit of a codified behaviour that can be put into simple rules such as the mentor should do this this and this, the mentee should do this and this, and then all will be well. A lot devolves on the people involved and their awareness of the need for such dynamics. This, and the various caveats that can be enumerated in addition, is the best one can hope for.


Maintaining a successful department over a long period of time is an art, and a rare one at that. One of the main ingredients in this is keeping to high professional standards, and doing so consistently. In effect, this is the most enduring form of mentorship – offering an example of the way things can be. And when possible, raising the bar of performance by raising expectations. This is one very practical way in which older colleagues can encourage their younger colleagues to do better, and if possible to be even better than themselves. The level of generosity demanded by such a gesture suffices to make it rare, but the academic leaders I have admired have had more than a little bit of this spirit. And this is what can make a difference.


Ram Ramaswamy taught in the School of Physical Sciences and the School of Computational and Integrative Sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru University from 1986 to 2018.  He was vice-chancellor of the University of Hyderabad between 2011 and 2015. Presently he is Visiting Professor at IIT Delhi, in the Department of Chemistry. 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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A compelling read sir and you have covered almost all critical aspects of mentoring! Thank you for sharing your views and as commented by Ms Kavita Acharya we need more of your kind!


Dear Prof Ramaswamy
Thanks for a brilliantly written blog. I would like to add in the utopian University of Oz, head is selected taking feedback from existing faculty and not shoved by external committees of old wise men ( hardly any women are typically involved in these committees in the real world). If this utopia is possible, perhaps we would see better functioning institutes and universities with holistic vision and harmonious workplaces brimming with productivity unlike the current situation where institutes and universities take a tailspin towards mediocrity with leadership dissonant with faculty.
Best regards