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Summary

Interpersonal relationship is the basis of a mentee-mentor relationship, and hence there can only be broad guidelines, but not rule-books, on how to nurture the same.

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In academics there are very few milestones to indicate life-transitions. When the rest of the people join a “job”, most of us join for a PhD program where we continue to feel (and in many instances be treated) more as a student than a fully-functional adult. Rinse and repeat with a post-doctoral program. By the time one finds a job, two things happen – on the one hand, one is old, worldly wise in their own way and with set thought patterns and on the other hand, having to negotiate a new world filled with people with much stronger and far more rigid personalities. A mentor would make it easy for a young researcher to navigate through these complexities.

 

Mentoring, needless to say, requires a mentor and one or more mentees. A mentor is usually   someone who is experienced and is willing to share their experiences with the mentees. The experiences could be professional, personal or both. A mentor differs from a supervisor – mentors are (usually) not paid for this work, they work for overall development of their mentee and not just their academic needs and are aware of their role being that of an advisor and not that of an instructor. A few are lucky to have the PhD/Post-Doc supervisors as mentors, some find a mentor from among other faculty members or a senior colleague from one’s own institute or outside of it, either someone of one’s own gender or otherwise . While clearly there are no rules for who forms a successful mentee-mentor team, the relationship between them is expected to be healthy.

 

Being as nebulous as it is, the mentee-mentor relationship demands the respect for invisible lines. While the mentor should be keenly aware of the extent of mentoring required and not try and micromanage the mentee, the mentee needs to keep in mind that the friendliness of the mentor does not imply the lack of professional and personal boundaries.  For example, I have personally benefited from a simple advice given to be the first time I was a co-panelist with one of my own teachers. I was told not to use “sir” to address to address him, as I am prone to, but retain the respectful tone I have. This helped me to project myself in a professional manner.

 

For a successful mentor-mentee relationship, both partners should possess certain qualities. The mentor should be not only knowledgeable but be someone who can see the larger picture and indicate customized paths of progress for each of their mentees. This involves guidance in improving skill sets as well as giving pointers on the art of camouflaging or overcoming individual personality follies.  For example, being taught to speak confidently despite probably having plenty of self-doubt (aka the impostor syndrome), goes a long way in building real confidence in the mentee. Mentors should value the mentee as a person and also as a professional. This requires the mentor to be empathetic; empathy that is bereft of ego. A point of friction between mentors and mentees is usually when the former feels that their “advice” has not been followed in toto by the latter, often forgetting that their mentees are adults with their own world-views and that the relationship should be one of mutual respect. The mentor should also be able to guide the mentee to find solutions to their problems rather than supply solutions – like that proverb about teaching a person to fish vs. giving them a fish. A mentee, on the other hand, should be someone who is eager, willing to learn, is honest and is willing to accept both praise and criticism. It helps if both the mentee and mentor share similar life and career goals and beliefs and both maintain the necessary confidentiality, since a lot of personal information including failures and feelings are likely to be shared.

 

Mentoring Young Adults

Early in student life, students are either too playful to take academic activities seriously or are not serious about their career goals or are plain unaware of their own higher potential – all of which call for a mentoring. Many students take their student life casually because they have not been made aware that success in academics (and life in general) is due to delayed gratification – that results are not instant. Motivational speeches from a mentor work with this group as do narration of anecdotes or biographical success stories. Those students who are aware of their career options are often in need of someone with the right connections to help them move closer to their dream careers. Students who are not aware of their own potential benefit interacting with a mentor who not only sees the potential but spends time and effort in honing it. Irrespective of the category, at this early stage of a student’s life, mentoring usually calls for the mentors to identify a mentee and groom them, since the mentees are too young to be able to identify their mentors or often, realize their own needs.  The mentee needs to be open-minded about the mentoring, and that is often a huge challenge given their age. Mentors of this age group need a lot of patience and often switch between being firm and flexible to work around the mental blocks of the mentees. While only a few among the larger populations of students can be mentored and the mentee-mentor relationship often short termed, the joy of watching a young adult transform into a high-functioning professional is unmatched.

 

Often in the initial stages of a mentee’s life, the mentees need to be instructed. As they grow confident, the mentor should slowly switch roles to being an advisor. Much like a tree guard that has to necessarily come off when the tree begins to grow, the mentor should also cease being an instructor when the  mentee grows.

 

Mentoring Research Scholars

It is when one is a research scholar that one really needs and benefits from a good mentoring,  and often that is exactly the period when it is not available, usually since supervisors neither mentor themselves nor let their scholars be mentored by someone else. Since the returns on mentoring efforts are intangible and of no value in academic progress metrics, some supervisors are just not motivated enough to be mentors and often view their research scholars as mere workforce to produce tangible research output. Additionally, some do not let their scholars to interact with   other faculty, thus nipping the chance of networking and finding a mentor in the bud. Often, faculty members genuinely do not see themselves as mentor material. Thus, it is a small percentage of research scholars who are lucky enough to find mentors who guide them to personal and professional success. Lack of customized career path plan while doing a PhD is often the reason many bright scholars’ careers do not take off. While doctoral committees are in principle supposed to play the role of mentors, it is usually not the case. Every scholar would benefit from having a friendly mentor – someone who can be like an older aunt or uncle in a family – experienced, willing to listen and advice in a polite manner and most importantly, not be overcritical.

 

Mentoring relationships in higher education differ from those at school level since the career goals of the mentee and mentor are often in conflict with the relationship, with both vying for  the same metrics of success. Unless the mentor is mentally strong, it is easy for them to feel jealous at their mentee’s success, since it is human to believe that other people’s success comes easily while one has to struggle for the same. The ideal case – where every research scholar has a mentor to tell them the exact skills to hone for academic success in their field, conferences to go to, introduce them to the right people in the field and help them sketch a good post-PhD career path – is when the full potential of the young researchers will be available to the academic community and to the society at large.

 

Mentoring Colleagues

The system expects young faculty members to flip a switch and go from being a student (post- doctoral fellows in India will agree with this terminology!) to being an expert teacher-researcher-administrator-supervisor. Time needs to be spent in building healthy personal relationships among colleagues – time that is difficult to find in the midst of jam-packed workloads and personal goals for success. Interactions, often over infinite cups of beverages, help in identifying and bonding with more experienced colleagues. Building up robust mentee-mentor relationships among colleagues is beneficial all over – the mentees can work to their full potential without the fear of making mistakes, the mentors help in maintaining previously set academic standards and guide the younger generation to take it higher, and the system is doubly benefitted with academic productivity and a happy  workplace. A new colleague of mine who was made a member of the board of studies for the first time told me that the small chat we had before the committee meeting about what the functions of the committee were, what was expected of them, some tips on how to present an academic disagreements at the meeting etc., were extremely helpful not only in ensuring a successful revision of syllabus, but also in getting it done with no feathers ruffled!

 

When opposites meet

Coming together of opposites in a mentee-mentor relationship brings in its own set of complexities. Take the example of one of them being educated abroad, and thus having better language and communication skills, better academic scitometric indices etc., while the other lacks significantly in one or more of these departments. This can lead to the latter feeling inferior and thus not being open-minded about the relationship. Such a situation requires extra effort on the part of both people in building a healthy, trustworthy relationship where one can speak of their success/failures without feeling embarrassed or the fear of being judged. While patience and kindness on the part of the person with the better academic qualities, and open-mindedness on the part of the other person will enable a nurturing relationship, any trace of arrogance or resentment will be detrimental to the very cause of mentoring.

 

If there is an additional layer of gender intersectionality involved, there could be emotional transference, which if prohibited or unrequited, could easily escalate into a whole other set of problems.  The transference could be positive (idealization, attraction etc.,) or negative (hostility, frustration etc.,). The transference could be between the mentor and mentee or, in the case of negative emotions, be taken out on others. All of these require sensitivity in handling. While both the mentee and mentor are equally responsible to ensure a healthy relationship, the mentor has a slightly larger role to play since they are more experienced and in an unsaid position of power in the relationship.

 

One problem sometimes seen is that if the mentor is a woman/gender-minority and the mentee is  not, empathy and polite behaviour, which are seen as virtues in a mentor, can quickly be gender stereotyped or taken for granted, often leading to such mentors having a brusque demeanor. Speaking of gender in mentoring, sharing of tips on interacting with other people, especially of other gender, help ease the cultural discomfort a younger colleague could possibly feel. Sharing of tips acquired with experience by the mentor, such as keeping the door open when having conversations, having a sober demeanour and a physical distance when interacting in private and keeping all casual comments to public spaces, asking a student who is crying to take a break and come back along with a friend etc., can go a very long way in building and maintaining a professional reputation of the mentee.

 

Summary

In summary, mentoring relationships in academics could be between a teacher and taught, or between colleagues at the same institute or from entirely different institutes. They could be between people of the same gender (and other intersectionalities) or not. Interpersonal relationship is the basis of a mentee-mentor relationship, and hence there can only be broad guidelines, but not rule-books, on how to nurture the same. However, there are some essential elements – both the mentee and mentor should be enthusiastic about the mentoring relationship and be willing to invest in it. There should be mutual respect. Both should be willing to share their experiences and emotions so that the mentor can understand and guide ,and the mentee need not experience, or at least anticipate, some of the more difficult situations. The mentor needs to know how much to mentor and when to let go, not try and create clones of oneself.

 

Mentoring partnerships need to be mutually beneficial, for the two partners to form a team. The mentor needs to be proud of their mentee’s progress and growth and not bring in professional jealousies. The mentee should be willing to share the credit of their success with their mentor, for whom this may be the only compensation for all their efforts.

 

V Madhurima is Professor of Physics at Central University of Tamil Nadu, Thiruvarur. 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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3 comments

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1
Ramanathan Ramkumar

Mam, it was too good to go through that how a healthy relationship should be maintained between mentor and a mentee.
Thank You Mam.

2
Sangeetha Sriraam

This write up is so relatable at one level and yet, left me yearning for so much. I am, professionally speaking, self-made. Being a first generation academician, there have been tons of instances wherein I felt life would have been easier if I had someone to guide me aka, a mentor.
I loved the way the article portrays how a young professional feels when they step into academia. And absolutely loved that mentee is consistently (and consciously) mentioned before mentor. The importance of boundaries has been given it's rightful place. Also, the point about treating mentees (and students) as adults and persons, and not infantalising them, is SO underrated. I have been complaining about stuff like minimum attendance for the same reason.
I am personally not a fan of motivational speeches, but I will surely give it a try.
Hoping to evolve into the mentor I always wished I had, if not for anything else, just for the intangibles that come from it.

3

Thanks Sangeetha for your comments. Mentoring is often seen as "fixing the person", and I think that is when it fails. Mentoring works best when individuality of the mentee is nurtured.

I too have been unimpressed for long with motivational speeches or biographical data/anecdotes until the students began to explicitly ask for them. There is a whole bunch of youngsters who want to hear stories of success.