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Transitioning Between Mentor-Mentee roles: A Grad Student’s Reveries and Woes

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Summary

A harsh and unacknowledged truth drives scientific research in our country – the suffering mental health of research scholars and the discouragement of their intellectual development. Research scholars are often treated as the human resource component of the ‘research machinery’, fueling publications for their supervisors.

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The dynamic lives of grad students revolve around mentor-mentee relationships that extend well beyond classroom teaching, lab environments and their thesis supervisors. The structure of academic systems in our country and most others, seemingly sandwiches grad students between naive undergrads and experienced faculty. So, although not well-acknowledged, a grad student is often making seamless transitions between the role of a mentor and a mentee.

 

Let’s start with the most obvious – a grad student is primarily a research scholar. Having been in those shoes for 6 years now, I firmly believe that the supervisor can make a hell and heaven difference in a student’s life as a scholar. While it is a much discussed topic in academia, it is true in the context of most day jobs. Like most other day jobs, a research scholar’s life has its own customised suite of stressors – fellowship availability or lack thereof, the publish or perish mindset of the community, performance expectation by supervisor, fear of mediocrity and being weeded out, infrastructural and funding handicaps, are some of the prominent ones.

 

Now in the course of pursuing their thesis dissertation, most grad students are expected to parallely offer teaching assistance for various undergraduate courses. These students are going through a formative phase of their life, and interactions within the classroom can have quite an influence. For young students, the way their peer-group perceives them is of paramount importance and plays a role in making or marring their confidence levels. I recall several anecdotes where I have had to think like a mentor in my transactions concerning fellow (junior) students, in order to maintain their faith that a classroom is a safe space, but ensures learning as well.

 

I am on guard duty in an examination hall. A student raises her to ask a question. I go over to her and see “Alfred Russel Wallace” scribbled on the question paper in three different spellings. She knows the answer but is asking for help to identify the correct spelling. Do I walk away? Do I quietly point out the correct spelling, without attracting any attention of the faculty in-charge?


A student appeared for a 10 marks assessment test, in disguise, so that a friend of his who was enrolled in the course secured passing marks. Both of them later confessed this to me because I suspected foul play. Do I let them go with a small negative marking penalty or do I report them to the faculty in-charge ?

 

My actions in each case would have consequences for the concerned student. Depending on how the concerned faculty perceived the situation, the consequences could range from mild rebuking to losing an academic year, or worse. So do I use the opportunity to teach them a lesson? Given the embarrassment that would follow, would they really learn a lesson? How do I ensure ‘no harm, but lesson taught’?

 

Apart from research and classroom teaching, a small section of graduate students take active interest in extracurricular opportunities in their respective institutes. Following the trend in most institutes, the ratio of grads to undergrads in this case is highly disbalanced, reasons for which can be traced back to the stressors grad students operate under. I have been fortunate to have an extremely supportive supervisor and thus have had the opportunity to contribute holistically to the institute community.

 

Among other involvements, initiating and running a science communication platform in a premier research institute of the country, has been a great learning experience for me. Heading a team of 20-25 undergrad, post grad and grad students, has been quite challenging and exciting at the same time. True to expectations, it has required considerable transitions between the role of a mentor and mentee. Our faculty advisor has stood by us since the inception – the day two grad students went to him with a proposal of initiating such a platform. This brings me to a rather important, but frequently overlooked behavioural aspect of a mentor – have faith in your mentee. This is something that I impart paramount importance to and having imbibed this from him, I have tried to keep this at the center stage of my interactions with the team.

 

We are a student-run platform. In my involvement with multiple student initiatives throughout my life, I have witnessed the percolation of administrative influence and how it regulates and alters the very vision of student initiatives at times. We have been fortunate to have such a faculty advisor and administrative heads who have given us the opportunity to function with the sky being the limit. This has fueled confidence levels of the team and encouraged them to take control, lead with an open mind and perform to the best of their abilities.

 

My role at the steering wheel of this platform has often brought me to such crossroads where I have had to put on a “mentoring hat” of sorts.

Young undergrads are constantly joining the team and older post grads are retiring. The working atmosphere is constantly altering. The entire process is happening over virtual workspaces where most individuals on the team are not acquainted with others, or me, in-person. How do I maintain a flow of guidance from senior members to juniors? How do I ensure that the new members ‘feel at home’, develop a sense of ownership and association with the platform and be confident enough to lead new initiatives?

 

An exceptionally brilliant yet shy youngster keeps shying away from the limelight. He refuses to take credit for things or feel confident about his own capabilities. He feels insecure about public speaking, but is brilliant at his job. Do I restrict the limelight to myself? Do I push him into the limelight? Do I ease him into the limelight? If so, then how and when?

 

While grad students are expected to take up mentorship roles in future, it is not possible for them to equip themselves for the same, without being challenged with such situations during the most crucial career-development years of their lives. A multitude of small and big instances contribute to shaping life philosophies and intellects in grad students, and more often than not, they require stepping into mentor/mentee roles, although it is not formally recognised to be so.

A junior from college whom I do not know in person, calls me one day and tells me that she plans to run away with a boy she loves. The differing religious faiths of their families is breaking them apart. Do I try and change her mind? Do I encourage her?

 

I happen to be enrolled in a course taught by a lousy teacher. I start missing classes and the teacher reports my absence and abysmal performance in a class test to my thesis supervisor. Should my supervisor rebuke me? Should she try to understand the situation and counsel me? Should she report about the inadequacy of the said teacher to the respective department?

 

Without going into further anecdotes, I will now highlight a certain personal experience, which is a distillation of the most typical ideology that lies at the basis of the mentor-mentee systems in institutions of higher education in our country.

 

In a disciplinary committee meeting last year, where I was the subject of concern, a committee member asked me, “What is your role in the institute?”

Paraphrasing my reply here, I said: “To pursue my research projects as a student of the lab, to actively participate in extracurricular activities and contribute to campus dynamics, and to question the admin and mentor young students as a member of the institute’s community/ecosystem.” My reply led to ripples of sarcastic and demeaning glances across the room.

The committee later suspended me on accounts of ‘misbehaviour’ and advised me to seek proper counselling. It stemmed from a situation where I had raised questions regarding COVID management strategies of the administration and associated incompetencies.

 

A harsh and unacknowledged truth drives scientific research in our country – the suffering mental health of research scholars and the discouragement of their intellectual development. Research scholars are often treated as the human resource component of the ‘research machinery’, fueling publications for their supervisors. Involvements other than research are highly discouraged by most supervisors in our country. This is reflected in the dwindling participation of grad students in cultural and co-curricular activities. Active intellectual and vocal participation through healthy criticism or asking questions, is often met with negative reinforcement methods.

 

While “mentors” believe this to be an excellent display of mentoring practices, they effectively impair holistic development of the minds of young adults – the “mentees”. Opinions, choices, premonitions, mental and physical health, feelings, fears, emotions have no regard within this mentor-mentee system. As may be expected, these damaged mentees probably feed into a pool of damaging mentors in the future. It is ironic, but probably not a surprising revelation, that the individual in the committee who asked for clarifications regarding my role as a student, is a highly respected faculty member of the institute, holding a position of huge administrative responsibility. However, I am very thankful that beside the minor interaction at the said committee meeting, he has had no mentorship influence in my life or career. I will now conclude with a little about the mentors I have had, and been very fortunate to have them and the young students I have had the opportunity to mentor and it’s been an honour.

 

I have also had the opportunity of working with a PhD supervisor who managed to strike a perfect balance between keeping a student’s research focus maintained, without impending their participation or growth in other associated fields. From differences over research protocols and institute policies to being referred to as ‘an infamous student-supervisor nexus’ who always have each other’s back, we have survived through it all, in our short relationship of 5.5 years. During this time, I have completed an integrated PhD, published research papers, participated in institute events to institute politics, directed films, organised cultural programmes, academic conferences, workshops and made some considerable progress in the field of science communication. My supervisor has not only been extremely supportive, but has also provided her valuable feedback for all things alike and advertised my extracurriculars with the same importance as my research.

 

Setting-up student initiatives in academic institutions is akin to a battle against the existing bureaucratic and administrative structure. Visions, activities, funding, functioning – everything is usually either under constant scrutiny or influence. Having a faculty advisor who believed in the students and wanted them to shine, instead of becoming a channel of institutional imposition, lies at the base of the successful scicomm platform hosted by our institute.

 

Through the 1.5 years of functioning as the chief editor of this student-run platform, I have seen naive undergrads bloom into semi-professionals, with skill sets ranging from editing design, web development, social media publicity, public relation management, handling event logistics, panel moderation to public speaking and beyond. It has been an equally rewarding and challenging experience. Maintaining a balance between formal and informal management, delegating responsibilities, recognising talent and promoting it, ensuring the development of team-working, independent-working and collaborative-working alike, ensuring ethical proceedings – while a lot of these may be considered leadership skills, I have learnt that they come within the package of efficient mentorship skills.

 

Arunita Banerjee is a science graduate and science communicator based in 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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