Perspectives on why mentorship in academia is important and how to make it work
Research journeys can be tough, and mentors often significantly influence how well their protégés negotiate the intellectual or other career-related challenges they face. What role does mentorship play in an academic career? What can mentors and mentees do to build a strong mentoring relationship?
This post is a compilation of views on these subjects, shared by three individuals from the scholarly community:
Gaiti Hasan, Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB)-Distinguished Fellow, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Begaluru, India
Mushtaq Bilal, Assistant Professor, Department of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts, Institute of Business Administration, Karachi, Pakistan
Rahul Bishnoi, Graduate Student, The Humanities & Social Sciences Group, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Gandhinagar, India
Why do you believe mentorship in academia is important?
Gaiti Hasan: Especially in science, mentoring at appropriate stages can help the mentee take good decisions on a range of issues that affect their own careers and, importantly, those of younger colleagues working with them as well. If done at sufficient scale, the existence of a good mentoring culture will increase scientifically meaningful success stories and, over time, improve the perception of public money spent on teaching and research.
Mushtaq Bilal: A usual PhD program has a curriculum and program requirements that are laid out and defined by both the graduate school and the relevant department. Understandably, everybody in the program—professors, students—are familiar with these requirements. But then there is also a “hidden curriculum” that a PhD scholar is supposed to be familiar with. And this hidden curriculum is specific to fields, disciplines, and even departments. How does an incoming PhD scholar become familiar with the hidden curriculum? This is where mentorship comes in. A well-mentored PhD will always stand out in terms of their scholarly profile and in the job market.
Rahul Bishnoi: Mentorship is perspective. Someone who’s already walked the path can tell their mentee from the benefit of hindsight about the fruits and thorns that come in the way. I switched my field from STEM to humanities, and in a practice-based artistic discipline. I found the support to do so from mentors outside academia who showed me how to improve in my theatre practice and from mentors within academia who advised me how to leverage that skill in writing and research to create a space for myself.
Mentees—especially PhD scholars and early career researchers—often face multiple types of challenges. They may need guidance on performing different aspects of their research, settling in within their department/lab, handling setbacks, deciding their career direction, managing their work and well-being, etc. What are some best practices you believe mentors can adopt to support mentees effectively?
Gaiti Hasan: A PhD student works with a supervisor, who is considered responsible for the student’s progress. However, if there are issues with the research project, the student may hesitate to communicate this easily to their supervisor. Formally constituted thesis advisory committees, with members that include 2–3 scientists chosen jointly by the student and their supervisor, are a great source of potential mentors. They provide the student with a set of people (other than the supervisor) who are familiar with ongoing work and can advise the student objectively on making key decisions and how to deal with problems. Even if everything is progressing smoothly, members of the thesis committee can mentor the student regarding the next steps to take on completion of a PhD. Not all science PhDs necessarily need to progress to a post-doc position, and based on the student’s inclination and ability, a good mentor can help steer them in the right direction at this stage.
Mushtaq Bilal: Given my field, I can only comment with regard to the humanities. One of the most important things that mentors in the humanities departments can do is to prepare their mentees for jobs outside academia since there aren’t any serious prospects inside academia.
Rahul Bishnoi: I have often found that specific advice is always better than a general lecture on how to do better. If one asks any accomplished scholar how they became what they are, it’s impossible to condense the context and decision points in that journey. Instead what I’ve found useful is to approach mentors with a very detailed agenda of what you want out of that discussion (examples: What elements do you look for in research proposal for a grant in XYZ university? Or between Prof. A and Prof. B, whom did you feel most aligned working with? Or is adopting X methodology better for this research question or should I approach this from another direction?)
Asking the right questions is important.
What can a PhD scholar or researcher do to build a strong relationship with their mentor and benefit from interactions with them?
Gaiti Hasan: (1) Present their weekly work to their mentor in an organized manner; (2) use the lab equipment and reagents responsibly; (3) be helpful to younger colleagues by teaching them how to work effectively in the lab, since research students come with minimal lab experience and a helpful senior can make a big difference; (4) independently read relevant literature and discuss with the supervisor research papers that are of direct interest to their work.
Mushtaq Bilal: Think of a mentor-mentee relationship as a marriage. The way both partners work together to ensure a successful marriage, both the mentor and the mentee have to work together to ensure that their relationship is mutually beneficial.
Rahul Bishnoi: For strong relationships, I feel you need to create/offer value for your mentors instead of just asking and taking. For example, if I’m a South Asian student who wants a Harvard Theology professor to guide me on my work and possibly offer me research opportunities, I must create value for them by demonstrating perhaps that I can transcribe and translate all the interviews from their field research or that I can support them in their research by helping them conduct various experiments.
Even in cases when one does not have anything to offer at the beginning, it’s still okay to go ahead and ask the mentor for specific advice. Once you get the benefit, you can enhance that relationship by finding ways to support their work. A two-way contribution goes a long way, and your mentor will look at you as a colleague.
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