The Importance of, and How to Choose, a Mentor

November 26th, 2011

Academia and writing are two systems where mentors are still common, something like the old system of Apprentice/Journeyman/Master.

I think in nearly every field of individual excellence that requires serious expertise, you’ll find mentors.  Tiger Wood’s had his dad teaching him golf.  The Polgar sisters had rigorous chess coaching.  Every scientist these days has or had a PhD advisor.  Writers have mentors, if only informally in the form of writing groups.

Sure, there are lone geniuses, but despite the stereotype, I believe they’re quite rare.  And to the extent they’re actually loners, they still read books written by masters no doubt.  Einstein is one case that might qualify as lone genius (if we discount the assistance of his first wife and sounding boards he used), but he read the great minds of his age and discussed their ideas in great detail, and as a boy had mentors who pushed his intellectual development.

With my own students, I try to draw a fine line between telling them how to do things and letting them figure it out on their own.  The struggle is good, but too much is frustrating, and there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel.  Newton stood on the shoulders of giants.  We can stand on Newton and Einstein now — no one is going to go beyond them starting on their own from first principles.

Let me be general first and think about what makes a good mentor.  Then I’ll consider how to choose one.  Finally, I will be specific about the practical issue of finding mentoring in academic and writing environments.

First, a good mentor puts your development as primary.  There are some mentors who use people to feed their own egos, or for free labor.

A good mentor is an expert on their subject.  They need not be a master themself (although they often are and it can help), but they need to recognize mastership and know the path to get there.

A good mentor has a good reputation and contacts.  Reference letters and introductions to the right people at the right time can be as important as having the right skills, unfortunately.  If we’re talking a career, you need to get paid and recognized.  In some fields merit is enough, but in others having contacts is also vital.

A good mentor shares your basic values.  There are fields where you can cheat to get ahead, but I’d never accept a mentor who advised me to cheat.

A good mentor applies the right balance between control and freedom.  Some students need more of one or the other.  There are mentors who are flexible on that front, and ones who are too controlling or too hands off for students at the extremes.

So, how do you choose?

First, recognize that you do get to choose.  A lot of people fall into a relationship with a mentor by circumstances outside their control or awareness, and just accept it.  That can be fine, but if the mentor is a bad one, it can be worse than having no mentor at all.  So choose or accept a mentor consciously!

Learn about your mentor before making an official commitment.   Talk with others about them, especially their current and past students.  Find out what is their reputation in the community at large.  Prestige is important, for better or worse.

Learn about alternatives!  Remember, this is choice.  Now, you may be in a small department, or live in a small town, or otherwise have a restricted range of choices, but with the internet, email, and skype, there are myriad possibilities for anyone with computer access. Don’t settle because of the limited options.  If you want to study exoplanets, don’t pick an advisor (or department) that has no one interested in that topic.  If you want to write science fiction, don’t go to a writing group exclusively for romance authors just because that’s the only one available.  There are always more options.

Prioritize passion and enthusiasm.  The mentor ought to care about their subject deeply and never tire of talking about it, teaching it, and learning more about it themselves.  Passion will keep them committed, if not to you, to what you do together.

Now, you don’t have to fall in love with your mentor, figuratively or literally, because an adversarial relationship works for some people.  On the other hand, I always had a hard time being around assholes, bullies, snobs, and the insecure, and I couldn’t see it working out for me.

Let me get more specific and tell a few stories from my own experience, and from what I saw go on with my friends.  First, academia, specifically astronomy:

I’ve seen a very prestigious chaired professor hang on to a weak student for a decade because he made a good “data slave.”

I’ve seen busy self-involved vain professors put their names first on all their students’ papers (not common in astronomy), and in one case take a year to provide feedback on a draft of a paper — at which point the result was obsolete and the project had to be redone from scratch with new code.

I’ve seen professors who felt that anything but a research career was failure, and who therefore failed to properly mentor their students who had different plans (sometimes by choice, sometimes by a job market that had changed since the professor’s day).

I’ve seen professors who consistently alienated every student they ever had, even when they were very friendly to start with.  A certain kind of student takes that as fuel to succeed, and I’ve seen them produce successful students.  I’ve also seen students quit on them.

It’s not all bad.

I’ve seen professors who, while not widely known in their fields, have long track records for consistently producing many successful students.

I’ve seen professors bend over backwards to help their students, sometimes behind closed doors where they’ll never get recognition for it, getting them jobs, funding, you name it, sometimes making personal sacrifices to have it happen.

The sad truth, however, is that there are a lot of ways to be bad and those ways create juicy stories.  When someone has a great advisor, often all you’ll here is “Oh, my advisor was great!”

In order to choose an advisor in astronomy, here’s what I would do:

Don’t wait until you’re in graduate school!  Have a choice or a slate of choices before you’re stuck someplace with limited options.  Know your own interests, or a range of interests, and make sure the grad schools you apply to have people working in those subfields.  Then research those people, particularly what they or their group have been publishing (and that they’re currently publishing and not has-beens).  Find out if they regularly get grant funding.  Find out if they accept all students who approach them, or are picky about who they take (which could depend on how many students they currently have).  Finally, and most importantly, talk with their past and current students to get a more direct idea about how they are to work with.

Yeah, that’s a lot of work to do, perhaps even before you’ve applied to a graduate program, but it can be the difference between success and failure.  I personally applied to a large department to ensure I had a lot of options, and tried to do a lot of this my first semester as a grad student.  It’s easier these days with the internet.  Don’t let yourself wind up working with the local crackpot, who has no funding, has never had a student get a job, keeps them around for a decade as a data slave, and is a pain in the ass to be around, just because he’s the one in the department who once upon a time studied quasars.

I also want to say a few works about writing mentors.  The game is a little different there.  It tends to be more informal and personal, and often a single mentor is replaced by a writing group.  I’ve been a member of at least four writing groups, and enjoyed their strengths, and suffered their weaknesses as well.  Ego is probably the biggest danger in my experience, given the lack of financial issues in the setting of an informal group.  For some, jealousy is a problem if you get too good.  For others, it manifests as destructive criticism — tearing down people who don’t write the things the group likes, the way the group likes.  I ran my first novel through two writing groups simultaneously, and quit one group before the process was over.  Find a group that helps your writing improve and maintains enthusiasm and professionalism; if that isn’t the case, it’s more harm than good and time to quit.  There’s another group on the internet.

OK, this was too long, but I’m feeling good about having a little time finally to articulate some things that have been on my mind for years.  I’m now in the mentoring role and want to make sure I do it well, for myself as much as for my students.  On the writing side, I’ve graduated to editors and trusted beta readers, and am unlikely to subject myself to diving into a writing group at random every again — but that’s still a common way to start.


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