Psycgirl had a couple of posts on mentoring that made me think about my own experiences.
A while ago, I wrote a book review of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”. There are several things I still remember about the book, and one is her view of mentorship: Mentors are problem solvers, give them a problem to solve. Don’t use them to vent your frustration, use their time wisely. People mentor those in whom they see something; unfortunately, the last one, more often than not, translates into people mentoring the likes of themselves; we all know how well that works out for underrepresented minorities.
There are many people who do very good, solid work. However, most of them don’t get much recognition; instead, only a select few get all the recognition. You could argue that it’s because they are the best of the best, but in my opinion that’s not true. I have met a number of people who are young superstars in their fields, and for the most part they are not all that better than many others who are not equally recognized. However, while people are comparable at 30 or 40, by 60 or 70 that means the select few are National Academy members, while most others are not. What really makes a difference is being networked with the people who have the willingness and ability to champion you, who recognize the importance of having junior colleagues nominated for stuff early and often, and who will do it for you either on their own or without much prodding. Getting recognition early is a prerequisite for getting it often, because awards beget awards.
The point is that you have to be meritorious, but you also have to have someone who will be happy to nominate you, proactive about doing it, and who knows how these nominations are written. And it needs to start early, as early as possible. Before the PhD, actually (so yes, foreigners are a bit screwed right there.)
I work with a woman who is considered a superstar, so I am closely familiar with how she does things. I can tell you that she most definitely keeps an eye on her CV and makes sure that she gets nominated for something every year, and has a great network of intra- and extra-departmental supporters who are very happy to write these nominations for her.
I work with a young male superstar with very high energy. Recently, I watched his PhD advisor give a plenary talk. The man showed the pictures of all his students, and specifically highlighted my collaborator and a couple of others who are professors, mentioned their recent achievements, and for my collaborator used the words “high-impact assistant professor”. You cannot buy type of promotion. The collaborator’s PhD advisor is a really big name, and gives many talks, everywhere, which means that my collaborator gets this type of lip service in a lot of places, including at federal funding agencies.
I got my TT position straight out of grad school, so my PhD advisor remains someone who I presume is the person most invested in my success. Unfortunately, he is of the mind that going after awards is in poor taste, and that you do good work and the recognition will come (this is a man who really should have been in the National Academies, but is not because of personal conflicts). So when I ask him to nominate me for stuff, he does it, but he never thinks about doing it on his own. (Cue: Feel free to think I don’t deserve it; I think that all the time.)
I have various colleagues and collaborators who are happy to contribute letters of evaluation for me, but they are not invested in my career. People are too busy taking care of their own careers, and hopefully the careers of their own academic progeny, to worry about mine. Another aspect is that my immediate scientific community is truly international, with more than 50% of people in Europe. The importance of a steady trickle of recognition is probably less important, or differently important, outside of the United States.
I am now at a position in my career where I am no longer junior, which is fine. But, I feel like I am entirely alone, that I really don’t have a community or a support network in my field. I can see how people turn into the jackasses we know from conferences, who seem to be in your shit because you didn’t cite their paper from 30 years ago and who put down your work. It comes from realizing that they are isolated, that nobody cares about them or their work, and their options are to either get demoralized and quit working (hence deadwoodification) or they realize that the only way to keep going is to emotionally distance themselves from everything and everyone about their work, rely on their own devices, put their head down, and plow. The deadwood/jackass are two possible outcomes for smart, passionate people, who invest a lot of energy into their work but who keep getting overlooked. Sometimes they quit or retire early.
According to my unscientific observation, most men on the tenure track seem confident about what they do, most but not all women seem fraught with doubts about every aspect of their work. For instance the first few years on my TT were really stressful for me, probably because I started out right of grad school and quickly realized the job was very different than what I had envisioned. I have no idea what I had envisioned, really, perhaps what astonished me was the sheer amount of work, the unrelenting demands on faculty time. It was a very steep learning curve, but one of my redeeming qualities is that I generally know when I am in over my head and I seek advice. In other words, I have never had the problem of being overconfident about something, and I always look for ways to improve, and then I do. (In contrast, a supremely confident guy who started the same time as me didn’t get his contract renewed after 3 years. Some men don’t ask for help or take advice even when they really, really should. )
Unless I have a great track record doing something, I generally assume I don’t know squat, then I ask and I learn. But, a side effect is that the people I asked for help now think I don’t know squat and they will take it into account when evaluating me in the future. And this is the double-bind (or is it triple?) of asking for help, especially while female, where the default assumption is “incompetent until proven otherwise”: if you need help and ask for it, you will get it but be held in low regard for asking, which will then lead to reduced support, and could result in failure due to this second-order effect. If you need help but don’t ask for it, you will either figure it out on your own, which will generally take more time and energy than necessary but then you will succeed, or you won’t figure it out and you will fail due to incompetence. When you objectively don’t know what you are doing, there is a small chance you will do fine by persevering on your own, but a high chance that you will either ask for help and be resented for it, or that you will downright fail.
Many young women in academia lament the lack of support (emotional and practical) for the struggles they are facing. Here is my attitude. Your department colleagues, those who evaluate you, are not your friends. They are your colleagues. They should not know your innermost dark secrets and doubts. THEY WILL EVALUATE YOU. So be prudent about what you discuss with them. I am not saying that there are no exceptions, that you can’t have real friends in the department, but it’s probably safest to do it after you are both tenured.
Who do you vent to? People who really love you, even if they don’t understand what you are going through. Then, people who really care about your success, even for selfish reasons [e.g. your former advisor(s) or non-departmental collaborators]. Then, a peer, ideally from another department or discipline, or another university; someone who is in the same boat, but with whom you are not in direct competition.
I think the key to a good peer relationship in which you can vent is that there is no power differential and that you both need each other for venting, at least at times. For instance, there is a relationship I have with a so-called peer mentor (a person a few years ahead of me career-wise), and the person never wanted to break the facade of infallibility with me, I think because it was important to them to remain superior (or just because it’s WASP thing, who knows). Since I have a deep belief that we are all human, and that we all have flaws and fears and doubts, and that everyone’s $hit stinks, I decided I wasn’t going to keep pursuing an honest relationship with someone who insisted on keeping their guard up. End of story. We now have a nice arms-length relationship, where my shell communicates with their shell, exchanging content-free sugary pleasantries. The relationship is so warm, there are icicles on my sleeves after every interaction.
I have a good mentoring relationship with a couple of senior faculty, who are so senior and so well-established that there is no way in hell they would ever consider me as an equal. But that’s fine, as I get good honest advice from them as they would give to a daughter. One is my PhD advisor, another a very senior collaborator. They are the only ones with whom I don’t mind sharing doubts and insecurities; they enjoy dispensing wisdom, and I take what makes sense and discard the rest. With everyone else, I assume they would judge or dismiss me for showing weakness, or I had already made the mistake of oversharing, which resulted in uncomfortable squirming, followed by them indeed judging and dismissing me.
(Of course, I am talking about colleagues. My DH is very supportive and listens to 100% of my whiny $hit, on repeat. He is as clued in about the life of women in academia as any man on Earth. Thank you for putting up with me, DH!)
So what’s my advice on getting mentored and championed? Based on my own experiences, this is what would say:
Get as much help and advice and learn as much as you can about being a TT professor before becoming one. Afterwards, seek help at your own risk — past the first year or two on the TT, people will take it against you if you ask for advice about doing your job. Your colleagues will take your insecurities to mean that you don’t have what it takes. Separate asking for specific problem-solving advice from asking for moral support. I have found that the long-term acceptable questions have to do with personnel or university politics, because everyone assumes all scientists and engineers are clueless about dealing with other people.
Go for advice only to people you trust to really have your back or be invested in your success. For instance, your grant got trashed in review. I know how disheartening and disorienting it may be; my heart still sinks every time I get a rejection even though you’d think I’d be used to it by now. And I am, on an intellectual level, but not emotionally. So I bitch and whine and moan to my husband, but to absolutely nobody else any more. Whining about grant rejection is, as one of my colleagues says, ‘loser talk.’ Most people think the same thing, they just don’t say it. Just like most people think men are the default in STEM and women are not “real” candidates, but can be considered if exceptional, they just no longer say it. (Yes, I am disillusioned after spending too much time serving on the recruitment committee.) So whine about grant rejection to department colleagues at your own risk; I assure you most will think it’s your fault.
What if you crave external validation, someone to give you thumbs up that you are doing a good job? I certainly do. Here’s the deal — it’s just not coming, definitely not with the frequency or the intensity that you need. People are too busy worrying about themselves, and it is assumed that, as a grownup scientist, you are confident (hahahaha). Unless you have the right network of accolade-nominating champions around you, pretty much all you have to go on are published papers, invited talks, awarded grants. They do mean that you are doing well, or at least not doing poorly. (This is me taking myself up as much as spewing advice into the ether.)
As for me, I find that focusing on my academic kids is really fulfilling. I make a point of supporting the people who are mine to support — my students and postdocs — in the strongest possible terms, in the way I wish I had been supported by my elders, making sure they get the recognition and opportunities they deserve. So at least my scientific progeny will be able to say there is someone out there who looks out for their careers.
“As for me, I find that focusing on my academic kids is really fulfilling. I make a point of supporting the people who are mine to support – my students and postdocs – in the strongest possible terms, in the way I wish I had been supported by my elders, making sure they get the recognition and opportunities they deserve.”
Wow, this is really heartwarming! I wish more advisors were like you. You talk about external validation, “someone to give you thumbs up that you are doing a good job.” Does that ever come from your academic kids? Or do you think that’s not possible, because they don’t really know your job?
I see my own advisor struggling sometimes just to stay afloat, and at times, I’d like to tell him, “Hang in there — you’re actually doing pretty good by me.” But I worry that I’ll look like a sycophant, so I say nothing and he probably feels unappreciated.
This is so totally me, except for the fact that my advisor is now in a different area (I switched areas after graduation), and I am still pre-tenure. Your post gives me hope that I might make it past tenure. 🙂
I love how the lesson you draw from all this is to be a big champion of your academic progeny! This has been my coping strategy as well; I am a huge supporter of my students, postdocs, and junior collaborators, and will champion them very strongly.
Anon, about going to students for moral support:
One aspect is that I don’t want to put them in a situation in which they feel like they cannot speak their mind because I am their advisor. For instance, I gave a lecture recently at a conference, where two of my students also attended. I think the talk went quite well, and I got a few generic “I enjoyed your talk!” from a fee people, but I couldn’t ask my students what they thought, because I feel that they might not be forthright if they saw something wrong because of the power differential. Also, it would really suck getting negative feedback from your students and I wonder how graciously I would react, and it would make me seem weak and insecure that I even needed to ask for their feedback — I’m the grownup, don’t I know what I am doing?
Also, I need to be able to run the group, and that requires projecting that I have my shit together most of the time. I am sure I show when I am very stressed out, and they know when I am writing grants, I ask them for feedback on grants and they generally know there will be contingencies in case funding doesn’t come through, but I cannot share these existential qualms, certainly not in full. One of my jobs is to be their rock, when they get demoralized or stressed, my job is to help perk them up about their work. I can’t do that if I share that I feel crappy about my scientific self. In the immortal words of CPP, “Trainees are like dogs, they can smell fear.”
On the other hand, everyone needs to hear they do a good job. I make it a point to address each student’s talk and generally try to be encouraging no matter how they did. For instance, one of my students was quite upset that he couldn’t answer a question after his talk, I had to eventually offer assistance from the audience. But he answered two other questions and generally gave a good talk. I made sure to tell him he had done a very good job and not to beat himself up. I wish someone had told me that when I was a student.
I would say if you feel really that your advisor is doing something great for you, let him know, but these thoughts have to be volunteered to make an impact. Maybe you are not qualified to say “This work is Nobel Prize worthy, stick with it!” but you can certainly say some good things that are pertinent to your work together, like thank him for all his work on the latest manuscript and note that it looks great, or mention how much you appreciate some aspect of your work together that other graduate students in other groups don’t usually have [for instance, my students appreciate having read proposals (both good and bad) and having reviewed other people’s papers, or having heard about what indirect costs are and how much actual money everything about their PhD costs; these are apparently not common]. And it’s great that you want to show appreciation to your advisor!
Luna, of course you will get tenure — professional insecurities are luckily not terminal! They can be fuel to become better and more creative. Good luck!
There is a lot of good advice in this post and I think mentoring is important at all stages of one’s career, but I found the section of your post on awards just soul-sucking. It’s not that I disagree with your observations but I don’t feel it’s necessary to play the game and I wish you wouldn’t. Don’t take it from me… listen to him:
I agree, it’s soul-sucking, but I fear it’s the truth.
Feynman is really quite unusual, even for a physicist; much of what he can pull off, both in science and life, is not what us mortals can expect to do. Also, times have changed since him.
If you look at the following clip, for instance, he also says that he used to be worried he wasn’t doing anything important, and then someone higher up told him it’s OK to do whatever interests him, which relaxed him and he was able to go back to the fun of physics and math, which eventually led to some of his key work:
Feynman was a theorist, so a pen and paper and people off his back were what he needed to thrive. The problem with much of academic STEM fields today is that you cannot do what interests you any more, or not for as long as you want to (or for experimentalists, with as many resources as you need). In order to do anything with students or postdocs, you need money, and to get money you need to write grants, which ultimately means worrying what other people think is “important enough.” Your ability to get grants, and thus do more work, in no small part depends on how you look on that first page of the biosketch — where you got your PhD, did your postdoc, the awards you got, and then your 10 relevant and recent papers.
I would have much more fun and be much more relaxed if I knew that I could work on what I wanted to for as long as I needed to and that the department would provide support for, say, 2 students, no matter what, but that if I wanted more, I could go out for grants; and if my college didn’t value money (grants and patents) over absolutely everything else, with publicity-bringing glossy Glam Magz being a close-ish second, and the money translating into raises, endowed professorships, more clout in the department and university politics, etc.
Every so often I tell myself, “Screw it, I will do the things that interest me.” But then I need to write grants, so I can have summer salary and so my students wouldn’t have to live in a box…
“if you need help and ask for it, you will get it but be held in low regard for asking,” I don’t think this is generally true. If you’re asking about things *early* and if you’re asking about difficult things and not super simple things you should be able to look up easily, or things that are outside of your wheelhouse and firmly in someone else’s (e.g. when I have a small N methods problem there’s a colleague I know to ask, but he asks me when he has a large N methods problem), then I do not believe that hurts you at all with most people and is generally the most efficient way to do something (barring having a graduate student ask on your behalf). We like having our junior colleagues discuss their work because it gives us more insight into what they’re doing during the tenure process and it makes us think about things and makes everything feel more like a community of scholars. Of course, I also ask my junior colleagues when I know they know how to do something that I don’t, because it’s more efficient for me than reinventing the wheel.
That said, HOW you ask is very important. There are ways of asking that make you look stupid and ways that don’t. Don’t start with, “This is a dumb question but…” or “I’m sorry I don’t know this…” or “I’m so bad at math…” Or anything like that that you tell your students not to do. Do start with, “I know you’re an expert on…” or “I was about to do X, but before I look it up, I was wondering if you had any quick tips… ” or even, “I’m stuck on this part of this problem, got any ideas?”
p.s. Feynman was a sexist prick.
I agree with all of this. After a certain point career-wise, we really can’t ask for help other than very, very specific advice. I can turn to very specific people in my department with very specific questions, as you say, about how to handle bizarro personnel or political issues that benefit from someone else’s long-term experiences (like a past department chair). These kinds of things are dual purpose, as they help one get advice on what to do but also to cover one’s ass, so it isn’t the same thing as needing/wanting general “how the f do I survive this crazy job?) I’m not sure when I figured that rule out, but I definitely did stop asking for general advice at some point pretty early on, or actually, now that I think about it, I never really did ask for advice from people in my department. I really needed to project the image that I had my shit together. Funny that we all end up following the same unwritten rules. Nice that you have identified and articulated them!
I also agree with the positive rewards of promoting my students. But in all honesty, I also realized that it makes me look good to get my students awards, to help them get a good job after they graduate, opportunities, etc. So, yes, I do it to help them in a way that my advisor really dropped the ball on with me (he promoted me a lot as a grad student but once I graduated, and I got involved in a romantic relationship he didn’t approve of, it was like I’d fallen off the face of the planet. What a hypocrite when you consider his own history! C’est la vie.) But I quickly figured out that this kind of promotion enforces my seniority when I talk up my students and past students in research talks, refer to their awards or awesome current positions. So, while it makes me feel like I’m doing right by them, my standing and gravitas benefits greatly from promoting my students.
I have also started to just straight-up ask people to nominate me for stuff. For example, everyone thinks I benefit significantly from DH’s help, but he actually does absolutely nothing for me at my own request a long time ago. So, I suffer from not having anyone doing promotion for me but everyone thinking that I have it through DH. That said, about a year ago I decided to say “screw it.” I will take the help/promotion. I’m right now sitting at a conference in France with a lot of big-wigs in my field. DH was invited a long time ago, and the organizers invited me to come with him as enticement for him to come, but they ended up not asking me to give a talk. I told DH to tell them that he couldn’t come unless they asked me to speak too. It feels a little bad, but you know what? I need the exposure to help with my next promotion case, and in all honesty, I think I’d have it if I weren’t married to DH, so, I’ll take it this time as a gift.
I also recently pushed my dept chair to nominate me for a prize, guilt-tripped him actually as I asked right after I’d done him a huge favor. And I won it. That was nice, even if it was “just” a teaching award.
Ah, one more thought on mentorship. A colleague who is a few years behind me (and who I greatly respect but didn’t know all that well) came to town and very specifically wanted to have dinner together just the two of us. She was keen to get advice about how I mentor my students, and how I manage to publish (good solid, well-written papers) with undergrads on a fairly regular basis. She was really complimentary of my mentoring, which absolutely blew me away. I was really touched and honored. as it had never crossed my mind that I’d ever get recognition for all that part of my job. Wow.
“As for me, I find that focusing on my academic kids is really fulfilling. I make a point of supporting the people who are mine to support – my students and postdocs – in the strongest possible terms, in the way I wish I had been supported by my elders, making sure they get the recognition and opportunities they deserve. So at least my scientific progeny will be able to say there is someone out there who looks out for their careers.”
We need more professors that think like this. I think it would make for happier grad students knowing that you have their backs. And happier grad students will be happier to go the extra mile for you. It’s exactly what a lot of companies do: you have stability with good growth potential and benefits and people will be happier to work for you.
Thanks for your response, xykademiqz. I think you’re right not to ask your students for feedback, especially if you’re not really sure that you could handle negative comments gracefully. And I will take your advice and let my advisor know how much I appreciate some of the things he does / has done for me.
I also think that you’re right about this: “Your department colleagues, those who evaluate you, are not your friends. They are your colleagues. They should not know your innermost dark secrets and doubts. THEY WILL EVALUATE YOU. So be prudent at what you discuss with them.” And this is the attitude that I have always maintained with my bosses in industry and currently, with my advisor. (After all, he will evaluate me.) But I wish it weren’t so. And sometimes, I ask myself, why? Why must I play it cool in front of my advisor and why must he do the same in front of me?
I may be young, but I am a grown-up. I am also not an animal, who is only capable of reacting instinctively to fear. I suspect that my advisor is freaked out about getting more grant money — to know that for certain would not cause me to respect him any less. (In fact, I’d be more worried if he weren’t worried.) Why should he respect me any less if he knew that I, despite my very good record as a grad student, worry about whether I have what it takes to be an independent scientist, to write fundable proposals, and to secure a tenure-track job and, eventually, tenure? Why can’t we simply stop pretending in front of each other and relate to one another as human beings? I bet that knowing about his struggles on the tenure track — he was tenured last year — would have been very illuminating for me. Aren’t we all mature enough to know that everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time?
I don’t know what kind of relationship you have with your students. But I’d guess that if you put up a front with them, they will feel compelled to do the same with you. Maybe this is OK…. And I’m certainly not saying that advisors and students should involve one another in the personal (i.e., non-work related) details of each other’s lives — some space is a good thing. But when it comes to professional concerns, on either side, I wish it were possible to share with those who could best understand and who are supposed to be “on your side.”
Maybe this is completely naive and I will deeply regret it in a few years, but while I agree with 95% of your post, I find that problem-solving with my peers can be very effective. I am only one year in and still exploring the finesse of bringing up issues with my superiors…on some I chickened out and on others I have succeeded. Most of this would have not been possible without the help of my cohort of new hires. There are some places where the competition is fierce, but there are also places where you can build relationships to work together and achieve something. We talk, we complain, we come up with ideas to change things we do not like, we read each other’s grants. So far it has been one of the most enjoyable parts of my TT career. Will they vote me down for tenure? Maybe, I have friends to whom it happened. Am I perceived differently because I’m a woman raising issues and complaining? Maybe. But as long as I am courteous, constructive and mindful of the political issues, I hope that they will understand that I mean well. We’ll see…
As a new PI, I’m feeling really sunk. I managed to land two grants this year but had only one pub, and I can’t get myself to move on my two really exciting projects because I’m paralyzed by fear that others are beating me to the results and that I’m not good enough to tackle the problems anyway. I don’t think I have the intellectual chops to be here. Where oh where can I get the courage? I’ve read Valerie Young, I’ve been trying in vain to get therapy, and meanwhile every day feels like an awkward performance where I pretend things are fine to my colleagues. I wish I could do research in a vacuum. Or be a confident guy.
Anonymous PI, first of all — congratulations on landing two grants! You are faring better than most people who are just starting out.
I am not going to tell you to somehow magically become confident, as I know how it is to feel constantly insecure. The point is to find a way to accept that as part of who you are and find ways to not let it stop you.
One thing I often tell young PIs is to realistically assess how competitive they are in certain arenas. If you have a small, starting lab with only a few inexperienced folks, you cannot follow fast-moving hot trends the same way as someone with a huge lab and an army of postdocs can. You will be outpaced. So you need to be more creative, not go for the low-lying fruit, but think harder and deeper and look at not-so-obvious aspects of problems so you’d be able to do more with less.
As for not having the chops, I am guessing that’s objectively not true. I know an NAE member who will occasionally in earnest say things such as “I wish I were smart.” I just roll my eyes at him when he says that. The point is, why does it matter how smart he is, whatever smart means? He is certainly smart enough to do cutting-edge work; he is very effective and very successful, and he credits it in part to his insecurity which he has been using as a driver. He has done some excellent, really cutting edge work in his time. He says most of the nice papers came from him being dumb and not understanding things and digging and digging so he would understand. 🙂
You are how you are, as smart as you are. I cannot for the life of me imagine that you don’t have the chops (you are right, impostor syndrome is a bitch.)
But think objectively — people who recommended you for the job and people who interviewed and hired you are not stupid. Trust their judgement if you don’t trust yourself.
Also, here are some readings about the impostor syndrome. You are very much not alone in feeling it. I bet most, if not all, of the people who you think are doing so much better than you are feeling like impostors too. Try to take consolation in that. Here’s some reading:
Finally, you have been given this incredible opportunity to do science for a living. Even if you don’t deserve it (as the impostor syndrome certainly whispers to you), so what? It’s awesome and you got it, so hold pnto it with both hands! Sometimes how I battle the impostor syndrome is that I say “So maybe I shouldn’t be here, maybe I just lucked out. So what? It’s not like life is 100% fair, and people get stuff they don’t deserve all the time. I don’t owe it to the universe to give the job back. So I lucked out this time — woohoo!– and got this amazing job, and I am going to keep doing it as hard as I can and with everything I’ve got.” I think of it as my “ride it like you stole it” approach.
Part of your feelings certainly stems from you being so new at your job; being a new PI is very exhausting and bewildering, but the job, once you get a hang of it, can be pretty amazing. There are few other jobs where you have so much control over what you do, how and when you do it, and with job security. Also, research is fun! And students are fun too!
It’s good that you are seeking therapy, I hope it helps. But I think mostly time, experience, and a few good publications will do wonders. In the meantime, just keep at it. You’ll do great and it gets easier. Good luck!
I cannot thank you enough. “The point is to find a way to accept that as part of who you are and find ways to not let it stop you” — that’s a new perspective. Thank you for helping me move ahead.
This article offers an utilitarian view of the relations with your
colleagues. I have to say I do not like this too much and I prefer
to work in an environment where this is not needed.
(From a tenured prof in Europe.)
I do not like this too much and I prefer to work in an environment where this is not needed
I don’t think anyone likes it or chooses it, but it is what it is, especially for women in STEM, and I don’t think it’s a Europe vs US thing, either. Good for you if you feel your environment isn’t like that.