My experiences with mentorship in academia
Navigating one’s boat through academic waters can be a tricky business, especially as an early career researcher. And mentoring can be even trickier, since every mentee’s requirement at this stage in their academic journey is unique, and there is no one size that fits all.
During my journey as a student in my home country as well as an expat pursuing research, and then as a mentor back again in my home country, I have been fortunate enough to learn from many wonderful academic and industry experts as well as from my students/mentees themselves—all of which has turned mentorship into a wholesome experience for me. I feel lucky to be able to share some of my experience through this article.
After completing graduation in India, I moved abroad to pursue my post-graduation and doctoral studies. I moved back to India a year after completing my doctoral studies and have been actively involved in teaching and mentoring ever since.
While pursuing graduation in India, mentorship was limited to a formal classroom setting and brief interaction with professors during extra-curricular academic projects. This might not be true today, and perhaps was not even then, with me possibly not pursuing active engagement with mentors. Whatever the case may be, I did not formulate a specific career strategy for myself or discuss my options with anyone, because the accepted norm was to pursue post-graduate and doctoral studies immediately after graduation. And although I do not regret my career choices, I keep wondering about these lost mentorship opportunities and whether any of them would have taken me down a different career path.
I believe that mentoring of early career researchers begins much before students actively start pursuing research. It starts with the way students approach learning any subject. Identifying this approach can give mentors a good insight into students’ individual capabilities and how each student can be mentored in a way that nurtures those capabilities. Students should not feel apprehensive about discussing career strategies with their professors, and professors can make themselves more approachable to students.
My biggest learning as a researcher came during the eight years that I lived away from my home country. It not only exposed me to the global research community but also helped shape my individuality. However, pursuing research as an expat meant that things were rarely smooth. Along with the challenges that arose while conducting research, there were issues pertaining to my immigration status. Mental health issues in academia were rarely discussed back then. Burnout-related anxiety was pretty common and, in fact, even joked about often. I feel that mentors today can contribute significantly towards helping expats deal with mental health issues arising due to non-academic factors. There is of course a limit, since immigration issues and related administrative decisions are factors that neither mentors nor mentees can control. But this is precisely the reason that an active discussion platform for expats within academic premises can be helpful. Mentors can actively listen to students’ problems, and students can feel heard and acknowledged and consequently focus better on their academic work.
After moving back to India, I took quite some time to take the next step in my career. The standard option of pursuing a postdoc did not seem appealing to me. I was fortunate enough to meet mentors who suggested that I venture into teaching instead of pursuing research further and guided me towards my current path. I taught briefly at the same college in which I pursued my graduation. Being on the other side of the fence gave me a very different perspective of the academic scenario. I was keen to assimilate some of my global learning into my regular teaching modules. However, I faced some difficulty while executing this, because students in India are used to learning in a structured academic curriculum and quite resistant to adopting a thought process that takes them out of this comfort zone. Therefore, as a mentor I believe it is essential to help students adopt a self-learning attitude that extends their understanding of a topic beyond the structured curriculum. In my journey as a mentor, I actively encourage students to identify their individual thought processes and provide them with tools that can effectively nurture those thought processes.
My inherent nature is that of an extrovert with a keen desire to help people understand and deal with challenges in their academic journeys. So, teaching and mentoring gives me much more happiness than pursuing research quietly on a bench would ever have. Therefore, I strongly believe that understanding’s one’s inherent nature and inclination is also essential to determining the best course of any academic career. This is something that both mentors and mentees can reflect upon.
The academic world is becoming increasingly collaborative, and knowledge from different sectors is easily accessible to students across the globe on digital platforms. However, I feel that for seekers of academic growth, this digitalization is a boon as well as a curse: while digitalization allows for quick access to knowledge, it does not ensure learning. Real learning happens only when knowledge is assimilated slowly and deliberately at an individual level. And this, I feel is the biggest challenge for all mentors today: in the digital era, knowledge is easy to transmit, but difficult to retain. In my mentorship journey, this is an area that I try to actively work on, both as a mentor as well as a mentee myself.
If there is one thing I have learnt from my own mentors, it is that patience, persistence, and complete dedication toward any topic is the only way to evolve as an academician. As my favorite mentor–friend says, “The biggest learning in life happens when one adopts a student mindset, regardless of whether one is a student or a mentor.” There is no limit to learning and growing, if one chooses to learn from everything and everyone around them. It is with this mindset that I continue my journey of mentoring (as well as being mentored) in academia.
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