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Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse-- Chapter 22: Micella the Mentor


For those of you that haven't been keeping track--and believe me, I try not to sometimes--I'm now in my third year of graduate school, horror of horrors. It's surprising that I'm gotten this far given the trepidation (chapter 1)/isolation (chapter 2)/anxiety (chapter 15)/self-doubt (chapter 7)/restlessness (Chapters 19 and 20) that I've experience thus far. I've come to the conclusion that I must be here (grad school in the middle of nowhere) for a reason, even if this isn't the most comfortable place and time in my life so far. Graduate school has been a personal growth experience, for sure, but that wasn't my motivation to begin with. Lately I've felt like one of my reasons to be here is to be a mentor. This, for me, is one of the perks of the life.

For me, "mentor" is a loaded word. I've talked about Jeff and how he is my advisor and not necessarily my mentor, and about finding other people to mentor me ... but when it comes down to it, what is a mentor really? Poking around on Next Wave (see articles below) I've found the following definitions of a mentor that I co-opted to apply to my current situation.

A mentor is:

  • Someone in a position that you'd like to attain who is willing to talk to you about how they got there and willing to help guide you.

  • Someone you can talk to about many aspects of your life, academic and personal.

  • Someone who encourages your achievement and applauds your success without being related to you.

In the same vein, a mentor is not:

  • Someone who tells you what to do with your life.

  • Someone who discourages you when you are trying to make important decisions.

  • Someone that sees the options and choices they've taken in life as the only path to success.

Given these guidelines, I seem to have been doing a little mentoring myself on two fronts: talking to undergraduates about getting into graduate school, and to early-stage graduate students about surviving those early years. I've come to regard mentoring--my version of it--as trying to make sure people have more information than I had when I made these choices and faced these challenges: Choosing to go to graduate school, choosing a school and a program, choosing an advisor, and surviving the elements. Let's face it, there's a lot that most of us wish we would have known before we embarked on this journey. In theory, we'd be a little less bitter because we would have anticipated the pitfalls and known better what to do or who to call to help us through. At any rate, if we'd had more information in the beginning it would be easier to say that we had no one to blame but ourselves.

Candice is a senior student in another department who is thinking seriously about going to graduate school. She has done some summer research and I have had a chance to speak with her on a few occasions about graduate school possibilities and on being a woman and a minority in science. Upon learning that she was interested in continuing her education, I offered to be of as much help as I could to demystify the graduate school process. Unfortunately, the professor Candice worked for was not receptive to her decision to switch areas of concentration, and cut off contact with her because she wanted to do something new.

People often wonder how to get more students involved in science. Restricting or discouraging students when they are trying to develop their own identities is a sure fire way to a) have people not like you, and b) have students believe that all scientists are pompous clods, and that science might not be worth pursuing. This advisor saw his path as the only path and had the audacity to try to inflict his will on another person. Life with no vision is no life at all. When you are asked to advise while dealing with young students, it is your responsibility to be as supportive as possible, they are looking to you for guidance, not to be shot down. To counteract this heinous behavior I've tried to be as open and helpful as I can to Candice as she's trying to figure out her next steps in life.

Among her initial questions when we met for dinner one night were these:

How do you decide which schools/programs to apply to? How do you find out more about recruitment and retention activities on campus? What are they looking for in an applicant? How do you write a personal statement?

I was reminded of myself just a few years ago, grappling with these same questions and wondering what was waiting for me the next fall. I tried to be as open and honest as I could, keeping in mind the pitfalls I encountered and what steps I should have taken before starting the process.

When I was starting out I had a very broad view of what I might have liked to do research on; this led me to a department that allowed for a certain amount of breadth, but when it came down to it, it didn't really have exactly what I was interested in. Of course I realized this only after I had chosen the program, started taking the classes, and begun work with an advisor. I encouraged Candice to take the time for reflection and really explore what she wants to do, she doesn't have to be sure, but she needs to have a general idea and from there carefully examine the departments and programs available to see where she might want to go.

Playing (and Coaching) the Game--Learning to Be a Mentor

Keep in mind that not everyone is cut out to mentor. If you're too busy and you have poor people skills, you should work on those aspects of your life before trying to help someone out. It's hard to help others when you can't even help yourself. If you get satisfaction from helping others achieve, and you enjoy telling people what you did and how you got to it, then you might make a good mentor. Notice I said might. Even if you love to help people, if elderly citizens or children run from you on the street, you may not have figured out how best to help others yet. Don't fret; it can be learned. Just give it time.

Here are some qualities I've found in good mentors that I try to emulate:

Listen/Lead. My best mentors have listened to me. They let me rant and rave then they always seem to lead me gently to what has been on my mind all along. The best mentors patiently wait for me to find my own way, but shine a light if I'm way too far off track.

Encourage and Educate. Encouragement is one of the best things you can offer. If you can motivate someone to achieve something that they didn't think was possible, they'll thank you for it. You always have something to offer, always know something that someone else needs to know. I learn something new everyday from places I didn't expect. Pass it along. Share your knowledge

Access/Advise. If you make yourself available to advise, that's one step toward being a good mentor. Sometimes you'll have to snatch people up by the ear and tell them that they don't need to go through a situation alone, but just making yourself available is another gift.

Network/Nurture. Finally, I've done a great deal of networking through my mentors. I've also tried my best to connect people who have ideas, backgrounds (academic or personal), or goals in common. Having a like-minded soul to bounce things off of when you come to a fork in the road helps bring clarity.

I recommended that she to dig into the literature, starting with prestigious journals like Science, and explore the state of the art in her field of interest. From there, she could go to the society journals and, once she's figured out what is going on in the field, find out who is doing the research that she's interested in. I suggested she enlist some of the professors in her department who are aware of the research literature and might be able to point her toward particular people based on her interests.

I also told her that it matters where you attend graduate school, and not just because of the quality of the institution. If you can't stand the cold, don't go to Michigan. If you know you can't focus in a city, avoid metropolitan areas. Know what makes you happy. You can sacrifice some creature comforts if the right department/advisor/project comes along, but you don't want to sacrifice without a good reason.

I encouraged Candice to gather all of this information, along with the relevant deadlines and requirements, into one place for reference, and then to think hard about what she wants to do. If she needs help sorting through the madness, I told her to let me know. Hopefully I've started her in the right direction.

For those of you to whom this is old hat, advice on mentoring and advising is always welcome. Please e-mail me with how I should proceed or if I'm just wrong. Golden advice will appear next column. Maybe, just maybe, there's a reason I'm here. ...