I often have the privilege of talking with faculty about their research lives. In most of these conversations, some talk about their graduate student experiences. I’m struck at the important role that mentors play in the early career of many PhD’s.
Many faculty, looking back at the formative pre-PhD time, remember individual moments when the mentor taught them what level of rigor was required in their field. These are memories that were sometimes painful – returned drafts filled with markups, pointed critiques of flawed logic, directives to write more succinctly, or attacks on the superficiality of the work. They are also memories of deep pleasure, when the young student first earned the praise of the mentor, a moment when the mentor said that the student had accomplished something worthwhile.
Another common memory was how the mentor shaped the PhD student’s assessment of what was a good problem to pursue in their own research. A common guidance was, “If you were completely successful in the project, what would we know that we don’t know now?” Of special import is whether the target of the project had promise of generating several follow-up projects. “What are the different outcomes of this project? Can you imagine a follow-up project that would result from each of those outcomes?” This kind of guidance was viewed as key in helping the student conceptualize an integrated set of projects over time. For some faculty, these discussions defined several years of work.
Some faculty also point out the weakness of their mentor on this score: “My mentor gave me the problem for my dissertation.” In retrospect, such mentees had to teach themselves how to identify a good research question. Some remember feeling somewhat lost in the early years of their independent scholarship. Similar problems arise sometimes with mentors who co-publish with their mentees over many years. At the worst, these sometimes stifle the increasing ability of the young scholar to develop their own skills at discerning good research questions to pursue.
A few faculty remember their pre-doc days under the influence of two mentors, with possibly different perspectives on the research project of the student. They recall navigating between the two, sometimes attempting to blend together the two viewpoints. They remember sometimes awkward meetings of the three of them. They remember getting contradictory advice from the two. Some think that they own careers have blended the two perspectives together in some way.
Some of the relationships between a PhD mentor and mentee last for years. For some faculty looking back, they can remember a moment when their mentor began to treat them more as a colleague than a student. Mentees often develop expertise in new methods or techniques in the field. They then teach these new methods to their mentor. So, sometimes the teaching and guidance becomes mutual for the two. Gradually, the pair becomes more complementary of one another.
What is notable in these discussions is how impactful these mentoring experiences are to entire lifetimes of scholars. The imprinting of mentors on the lives of the mentee is deep and long-lasting.