Few academics would be able to say that they achieved in life without the guidance and advice of an individual or individuals.
The subjective topic of mentors is explored by Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, in a post on her Athene Donald’s Blog, part of the Occam’s Typewriter network.
“Mentors, in my view, do not have to be the same sex, or your line manager, or formally assigned,” she writes. “What matters is that they are willing to invest time in talking to you, taking you and your inexperience and/or naivety seriously.”
These are perhaps things that most people, not just academics, can relate to. However, Professor Donald cites others that she has turned to for “wise words”; people “I have met infrequently at conferences but with whom I have ‘clicked’ to the extent that a chat in the bar can turn into serious advice”. She said that these, as well as “conventional” mentors, have helped her development as a scientist and facilitated her career progression.
It is this mentor/friend group that particularly intrigues her. “I hope – indeed I know – that I too have fulfilled that role for both men and women whom I have met at meetings, be they purely scientific meetings or through committee work,” she continues. “Attending an annual conference last week…I was struck by one thing: those people I thought I might have served some useful role as mentor to were now, not mere raw young researchers, but fully paid-up professors and heads of department. We had all grown up. It no longer seemed appropriate to think that I could act as mentor to them now; I’d have to rebadge them as friends who might turn to me for advice.”
She adds that the next generation of young researchers “seem so far removed from me” that it is now “harder…to imagine getting into a mentoring relationship with them in that casual way”. She goes on to suggest that this might still occur in a departmental environment but not at a conference bar. Therefore, she finds it harder to imagine a situation occurring where that “clicking” moment arises and leads to a “fruitful long-term interaction”.
What all this shows, she says, is that the classification of the “mentor-mentee relationship” has an age aspect. Her mentors are too many years her senior for her to classify them as friends but those a fraction older she classifies as friends not mentors. Those younger than her by a little, she “couldn’t possibly count as mentees but as friends”.
“But that group who are relatively recently promoted to professors, who are probably in the 10-15+ year younger-than-me bracket are those I’d initially have considered as people I was potentially mentoring but suspect I need to reclassify,” she says. “However, given that I can’t imagine rebranding my older mentors of that age-gap as friends, because it would seem cheeky and inappropriate, it is possible that the same applies to those younger than me and I will also permanently stand as mentor not friend to them, however old they may themselves be.”
She concludes that what matters is that “we all have people we trust to turn to when the going gets tough, the questions pressing and difficult or the choices that lie ahead make it hard to know which way to turn”.
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