Thinking critically about the ways we help our students


wskqpFolks can throw around the word “mentoring” rather sloppily. Which can lead students to being told that they’re being mentored, when they’re not.

I’ve seen a bit more of this while reviewing a variety of formal “mentorship plans” (in the context of panel service). A lot of people get what mentorship is about. But a good fraction of the plans weren’t so much about mentorship as they were about supervision — they said what the “mentee” would be doing for the “mentor,” but not specific about how the “mentor” would be supporting the specific needs of the “mentee.”

So what is mentorship and what isn’t? I volunteer an example for your consideration:

Advising: “I think it’s a good idea for you to go to this conference.”

Mentoring: “What do you think are the benefits and drawback of going to the conference? What do you think is best for you? [the mentor listens and asks followup questions]

Supervising: “I need you to go to this conference to represent the lab.”

Sponsorship: “If you go to this conference, I can arrange for you to meet a buddy of mine, who has been looking for someone with your skills for a collaboration.”

When we advise, we’re telling folks what we think they should do. When we mentor, we take a particular interesting in helping them develop professionally. When we supervise, we tell them what to do as their boss. When we sponsor someone, we provide opportunities and connect them to power and social capital.

Realistically, when we have undergraduate and graduate students in our labs, we are filling all four of those roles. Problems emerge when what a person expects or needs is mismatched with what their people are providing. And everybody has different needs.

I recently returned from a short field season, in which I and five students promptly knocked out a project. I did a lot more supervising than mentoring and advising. That’s not inherently a bad thing. The students (I do believe) had top notch experience and I don’t think I overtly screwed up. But I’m not coming home and announcing to the world that I had just mentored five students. I just provided a research experience. Why did I make this choice? Well, if I was more focused on doing mentorship right, I doubt we would have generated the data for a cool short paper in just two weeks. There is a real tradeoff. What’s best for the students? That’s a hard call. Proximately, having the field experience and a paper on their CV will be more helpful, perhaps. Also, the continued production of papers is important if I’m going to continue to get funding for students. If we have more funding (funding=time, for both the student’s time and field expenses), then a quality long-term mentorship situation might be possible.

It seems to be a lot of folks use “mentoring” to describe everything they do with a student who is under their supervision. This minimizes the time, effort and patience that it takes to actually, genuinely mentor. I mentor plenty of students who aren’t even in my now lab! (And some students in my lab are mentored by other people too, of course.) I’m just sayin’, when we say ‘mentor,’ let’s mean it.

3 thoughts on “Thinking critically about the ways we help our students

  1. Thanks. Really helpful to have this taxonomy to think through what I do with my students. It’s interesting to think about whether “supervising” is different in the humanities (where I’m based) where there is no lab and no connection between the supervisor’s research project and their student’s. A great start for processing relationships though.

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