GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Finding a Mentor

In Janni's Posts on 2011/11/12 at 22:45

Janni Aragon, writing from Victoria, British Columbia in Canada.

I am in year one as the Chair of the Academic Women’s Caucus on campus. This includes all women faculty (all streams and part or full-time, as well as Librarians, who are tenure-line faculty). As I have noted elsewhere, I have made mentoring a major mandate of my leadership on campus in this position, and my philosophy in and outside of the classroom with students.

My tenure in academe has included countless supportive mentors and I know that I am an anomaly. Sure, I have had the occasional less enthusiastic or unhelpful mentor, but by and large my mentors have helped me get to where I am today. And, I thank them for this. Advice that has served me well with mentoring is that honesty is the most important part of the working relationship. You need to trust your mentor and mentors need to trust their mentees.

I have found that some of my best mentors in graduate school were not actually other political theorists. These mentors were in other sub-fields, so my advice to undergraduate and graduate students is to not disregard faculty because the research fit is not perfect. I established the start to a great mentoring relationship based on my work as a research assistant for the faculty member who ultimately became my dissertation chair and I was coming from Mass Political Behavior and Political Theory and her main area at the time was International Relations and Environmental Politics, broadly speaking.

During the summer, I had an email exchange with this mentor, Dr. Juliann Allison. In brief:

I asked: Did you have good mentors?

Juliann: Yes, at the time I thought so, but maybe not so in retrospect. My mentors consistently “trained” me to succeed as social/political scientist, rather than as a happy and fulfilled person. As a result, individuating as a scholar was much more painful for me than I trust that it is for my own students.

She made a germane point, as we often do not discuss the reality of the job: it does not entail a 40 hour work week. There is always a paper to write, read, mark and other work to tend to as an academic. We usually do not share long conversations about the climate of the job and this can do a disservice to graduate students and junior faculty.

I also asked: What is your mentoring philosophy?

Juliann: I’m not sure that I have one unless it’s to be clear that there are two ways of looking at the problem of academic “success” in higher education: 1) marketability and job placement and 2) knowledge/learning and life satisfaction. In the best of worlds, both occur.

My mentoring philosophy varies, but like Juliann’s it is a combination of helping the student reach goals and for love of learning. Unlike Juliann, I work mostly with undergraduate students so the mark for success and job placement is at a different level—scholarships, co-op positions, jobs, and entrance to post-graduate programs.

I find that occasionally I have made a special point to mentor some students and I asked Juliann if she has done the same.

Juliann: Yes. I mentor far more students than the relative few on whose committees I serve. I also look for those students who are engaged in international work or research, social movements, and women. And, I am also interested in mentoring students who are doing applied research.

I benefited from peer-to-peer mentoring. I was part of a women graduate students peer mentoring group and this probably is the cause for my mentoring focus. I asked Juliann if she engaged in any peer to peer mentoring or if she sees this taking place at her current institution.

Juliann: Peer to peer (well, senior-junior faculty and advanced-new graduate student/honors student) mentoring is institutionalized here. I believe it works very well. In my own case, I was mentored by a senior biologist via the women’s faculty group during my pre-tenure year and the Chair of Women’s Studies was incredibly helpful.

Juliann spoke to how mentoring does not end. Women faculty will continue to need to mentor and seek out mentors, as well. I am very lucky to have a great mentor in my current department as well as other faculty around campus. But, I realize that I am lucky. I asked Juliann if she’s had any unsuccessful mentoring experiences.

Juliann: I guess the tendency of “my” students to leave graduate school might be a kind of failure; then again, in the sense of their figuring out what they really wanted to do via our conversations could be a success. In addition, I’d consider the women who eschew gender-oriented mentoring early on as initially unsuccessful. They simply refuse to see that there is still a “boys club” in political science.

I think that Juliann’s points are worth another blog post or two, but I will speak to the first point. I do think that it speaks to a successful experience if a student figures out what is best for him/her and if this means leaving the program, so be it.

One thing that I continue to tell my former students—mentoring does not have an expiration date. It is indeed part of the mentor/mentee relationship and my hope is that they will in turn mentor someone.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

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  1. I agree that mentoring is a life long ordeal. Just because the student is leaving your class or the faculty member has completed orientation, the task has just begun. If more involvement and interest was shared by the mentor then the mentee would always fill a connection and the support needed to brave the”new” world. Women need to support other women more throughout the official or non-official mentoring phase.

  2. Thank you for your comment. Is really not as easy as it sounds. And, I think we forget how hard it is for both parties. Students know that they want more direction or more of a connection, but don’t know how to go about it.

    Then, faculty are really busy and protective with their time. All of this said, we still need to remember to peer mentor and mentor students.

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