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On Mentor-Mentee Relationship

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Summary

It is more important to ask “why and how” rather than being content with “what”. But, unfortunately, we Indians are generally obsessed with “what”. The challenge of a teacher/mentor is to ignite bright minds; to stimulate them. A mentor must be kind, considerate, observant, thoughtful, and after all, enthusiastically responsive.

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“I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.”

~ Socrates

 

“I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they

can learn.”

~ Albert Einstein

 

I have been asked for my opinion on the mentor-mentee relationship and I am happy to do so. I have been writing about this subject in my blogs for some time, and some of my views can be found there. I made an honest effort to offer a few constructive ideas, which I believe, would help the budding scientists/young researchers/students to navigate better during the lonely, often made hard by the lack of mentorship, travel across the academic world.

 

First, let me replace the phrase “mentor-mentee relationship” with the more conventional teacher-student or guide-student relationship because the mentor-mentee relationship has a mechanical ring that I do not particularly like. To begin with, one can always learn best from examples. Many of our great scientists had no known mentor, at least not at an advanced level. Neither Newton nor Einstein had any known mentor. The same with Gauss. Both Gauss and Newton had help from an uncle if I remember correctly but only at a very early stage. In India, Ramanujan, S. N. Bose, C. V. Raman and several other great scientists hardly had anybody we can call a mentor. Of course, we can argue that had Hardy not rescued Ramanujan, he would have been less successful.

 

There is another famous story. The philosopher, writer, Will Durant once wrote to famous teachers of the world asking for their most memorable experience as a teacher. Among many responses received, he was intrigued by the answer of Prof. S. Chandrasekhar (of Chicago, the great astrophysicist) who sent a brief reply stating that his most memorable experience was when he taught advanced theory to a class at the University of Chicago with only two students. He used to drive 30 miles just to take this class 2-3 times a week because it was enjoyable. It was his best experience. Will Durant wrote back, asking the name of these students who engaged such a brilliant person as Chandrasekhar himself. The answer was again a short letter with two names “C.N. Yang and T.D. Lee”, both Nobel Laureates who are famous for many theories we do not need to go into. The main point to note here is that all three enjoyed the class and to quote Chandrasekhar: “We were discovering the subject in every class”. Also note the respect Prof. Chandrasekhar had for his two students, while he was already a legend at that time.

 

In our more mundane life experiences, what is the best a teacher can do? Let me first state that there can be no hard and fast rule. Each student is different, and each teacher/guide is different. From the school days, a teacher gets to interact and possibly influence a large number of students. From that point alone, there should be more focus on teachers, and in India, we do not fare well on that front. During my pre-PhD days in India, I probably had all in all just about three or four influential teachers, and I have talked about them in my blogs. Let me now just mention Prof. Sadhan Basu. He influenced me and other students just by being brilliant, being different, being an eloquent teacher. He taught a generation of students that it was more important to ask “why and how” rather than just being content with “what”. But, unfortunately, we Indians are generally obsessed with the “what”.

 

Teaching can always be best performed by examples and stories. So, let me chronicle briefly a couple of stories from my own life experiences while I was studying abroad. The first one is a memorable one that I still remember vividly. I was taking an advanced Applied Mathematics course with Prof. Lawrence (Larry) Sirovich at Brown University. I was the only Chemistry Ph.D. student taking the course, while several Physics and of course Mathematics students were crediting the course. A few weeks into the course, a problem set was handed out, that needed the use of the computer language “APL”. As I could hardly even spell “computer” and had not seen any computer in my life till then (it was the fall of 1976), I was completely freaked out and met the professor to inform him that I would be dropping the course. Professor Sirovich told me to wait and to come back on a Thursday at 4 PM. As I went, I found another gentleman was sitting in his office and talking with the professor. Therefore, I was hesitant and did not enter, but did go to the next class. Professor Sirovich asked me, after the class: “Biman, why didn’t you come yesterday? I asked the head of the computer science department to help you out. He is an expert on APL.” Not only did I feel stupid, but also stunned, as I was not used to such positive and personal treatment. I have several other experiences with Professor Sirovich that I shall chronicle somewhere else, maybe in my blogs. I went on to do well in the class, scoring A+ in both the semesters.

 

My next story is about my experience with Prof. Robert (Bob) Zwanzig whom I worked with several times and over multiple projects. He was perhaps the greatest in our time in Statistical Mechanics of Physical Chemistry. Once I was trying to derive an equation that involved going from Eq. 23 to Eq. 24 in a paper on phonon localization (by Sompolinsky, if I remember correctly) and I was stuck; it seemed like forever. I was frustrated and went to Bob (he strictly advised me early not to call him Professor), and said “Bob, I am stuck. I feel so stupid”. He looked at the equations, and told me “Don’t feel so bad. This is tricky. I shall show you a quick and dirty way to derive the equations.” Then he derived the equation on the blackboard by using the projection operator technique (a technique that he himself invented). But, he was very nice, almost indulgent, that did a lot to boost my morale and self-esteem. Thus, a mentor must be kind, considerate, observant, thoughtful, and after all, enthusiastically responsive.

 

The great scientist Albert Einstein pointed out that “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” Hence, at a deeper level, the challenge of a teacher/mentor is to ignite bright minds, to stimulate them. As Feynman famously stated, a good student does not need a teacher, and the same for a poor student. This is an interesting view, keeping a limited role for a teacher.

 

However, we probably are not talking of such great teachers & students. At a mundane level, a teacher/mentor should enforce/inculcate certain reading and writing habits. These two are the most important habits for success, writing in particular. This is an essential life skill in academia. The mentor must inculcate certain disciplines. I often find students are quite indisciplined in their approach to academic activities. Students must be encouraged by the teachers or guides to participate actively in discussions, must be coaxed to ask questions, not just being silent participants.

 

A teacher should, or, rather must, take care of certain aspects of the development of his/her students. Similarly, students should also keep in mind a few important criteria while selecting the Ph.D. guides/Mentors. In the following, I mention a few points that both the teacher and the student should ensure:

 

  • In order to grow as an academician, the development of verbal communication skills is crucial. In general, Indians love to talk; however often, are not sufficiently articulated in expressing themselves clearly. Communication skill is an important aspect for one to develop and it can be best done by sharing thoughts regularly. Effective, useful and meaningful communication is an integral part of any successful research career. It helps when a student develops a lot of meaningful professional contacts, mingle with other researchers in conferences and corresponds with professors/peers even when they are not able to reply. Productive communication at a personal level is an extremely important ability of a student that can go a long way during his/her growth as an academician or in securing a scientific career. A good mentor should take care of this aspect in his/her student.

  • Developing writing skills is an essential quality for Ph.D. students. Writing is a way to discipline oneself and will surely help an academician lifelong. In fact, it is like meditation as writing helps in clearing up the mind, perception, and concept. But, unfortunately, presently in India, the key point of concern is the lack of writing skills in young researchers, especially in English, which is very much essential in academia, and there seems to be no way out of this constraint at present. A good advisor always should make a sincere effort to inculcate certain writing habits in his/her students on a regular basis.

  • While too much reading can rot a mind, focused extensive reading is a necessity. One should not get away with minimum reading. This could be fatal in the long run. Hence, there is a balance in inculcating a reading habit of a student. A teacher/mentor has a major role in building this good habit of the students or inspiring him/her persistently.

  • A student should be always honest and loyal to his/her mentor and colleagues as well. Hardworking people are (almost) always honest. Honesty and hard work go hand in hand. It is important to note that the teacher and student should have mutual respect towards each other, which would create a positive and vibrant ambiance of learning. If a student is loyal and grateful, the student will also find good people around him/her. In the same way, the teachers should also have the accountability to be respectful and truthful towards everything, which would inspire his/her students automatically to follow the same path. There is a famous saying: “The apple does not fall far from the tree”. Teacher and student both must remember that proper company is extremely important. Just like a son or a daughter, a student always observes his/her teacher/mentor. Students are influenced. The term “academic father” is true.

  • Both must keep in mind that working on a thesis has a time limit, which is not infinite. Therefore, the guide must advise the student to be with other motivated hard-working students – he/she should not mingle with easy-goers or lazy ones. The teachers need to note that many research students transform into good academics when they pair up with other sincere, honest and hard-working students. Hence, teachers should ensure that the students are on the right track.

  • A student must understand the importance of a good thesis advisor or mentor in his/her growth as an academician. It is one of the most significant decisions in a Ph.D. student’s life. Students do not know or understand how important this decision is going to be until much later in their academic careers. A student needs certain preparedness while selecting the mentor. In several departments in academia, a guide, supervisor or mentor is “assigned” to a student and the student is not permitted to change the guide afterward. Though a frequent change of mentor should not be encouraged, the teachers should ensure that there should be an exit pathway or way out for the student if he/she needs to change the mentor. The student does not know his/her future, but one can try his/her best to make the next 4-6 years that he/she is going to spend in a research group, successful and enjoyable.

  • The teacher/mentor should ensure certain continuity in studies. From Rabindranath to Vivekananda, all great people advised us to shun laziness, to write and work everyday. In IISc Bengaluru I have indeed seen such people and they have my respect. Long vacations/breaks are counter productive.

  • Finally, a mentor must earn and keep the respect of the student . Students are no fools. They observe. I have found that some professors often indulge in behavior that is inappropriate and immature. To be a mentor, one needs to be careful and avoid such acts.

All the above aspects and many more are put forth in a book entitled “Vignettes for Success in Academia” written by me and recently released by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), edited by Prof. Ashok Singhvi. In this book, I, as a teacher with teaching experience of about 40 years, pointed out some of the points mentioned above in order to help Indian researchers, young students, and newly joined faculty members who face an uphill battle continuously, often with insufficient help from the system. A researcher’s journey from self-learning to self-appraisal, from failure to success is covered in the book along with well-narrated examples of several great minds. The stories of the great minds would surely inspire and guide the young researchers to expand their vision and to build self-confidence.

 

Acknowledgement

The author thanks Dr. Sarmistha Sarkar for help and suggestions in preparing this essay. I also thank DST-SERB for a National Science Chair Professorship.

 

No one was ever really taught by another; each of us has to teach himself. The external teacher offers only the suggestion which rouses the internal teacher to work to understand things.

~Swami Vivekananda

 

Biman Bagchi is National Science Chair Professor (DST-SERB) & Honorary Professor, SSCU, Indian Institute of Science, BangaloreViews 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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