The insecure scholar: One good deed deserves another

Mentors don’t expect their protégés to pay them back – they want them to pay it forward. But that’s difficult with no one to teach

February 23, 2010

Although I haven’t joined in any of the threads, I have read the comments on this column with avid interest. I have been touched by the expressions of sympathy that many have shown towards me, and I always take the more critical comments seriously.

One of the most interesting topics over the last few weeks has concerned the responsibility of senior academics towards PhD students and junior academics. Some comments have suggested that senior academics have a “responsibility” to warn those undertaking postgraduate study of the difficulties in obtaining secure employment post-PhD. It’s certainly true that more needs to be done to clarify the career possibilities (and impossibilities) that postgraduate study creates, although given that the PhD is, in many ways, an exercise in idealism and passion, it seems a shame to inject too much cynicism into that idealism at too early a stage. I do think, however, that the insecurity of many academic careers places great responsibilities on senior academics to act as mentors.

Even though my career remains insecure and challenging, I feel I have been lucky when it comes to mentors and I want to take some time to praise some of them in this column (I wish I could name them, but anonymity prevents this).

So let’s hear it for Professor L, a member of my previous department. He’s a well-respected figure in his field and has enough of a profile to not have to worry about those of us further down the food chain. Yet he has a real gift for empathy and support and he always makes time to demonstrate it. Whenever I’ve seen him at a conference, or when I saw him in the corridor at my old place of work, he never failed to stop for a chat, no matter how busy he was. He always showed real concern as to how things were going for me, and has shared lunch with me and heard me rant on a number of occasions. Despite never having directly worked with me, he is always happy to write me a reference or to help out on a research grant application. He is, in short, one of the good guys.

Then there’s Professor J, a colleague from a university in a small European country. We first met at a conference when I was a callow postgraduate student. He was happy to listen to my ill-informed opinions, so characteristic of the arrogance of youth. In fact, he did more than listen. He found me a grant and welcomed me to his university on a research visit that proved crucial for my PhD research. He invited me into his home and gave me some of the most incisive advice I’ve ever received. Years later, at a very difficult stage in my career, he gave me several weeks respite as a postdoctoral fellow in his department.

I owe so much to so many: those who have invited me to give seminars and lectures in their universities, those who have read and commented on my manuscripts, those who have helped me find research grants and those who have listened when times were hard. There are some wonderful people in academia, and perhaps it is the difficulties of the academic life that help to nurture in some academics a genuine desire to be supportive.

But here’s the rub: the academic support system, like any support system, depends to some extent on reciprocity. Senior academics don’t necessarily expect anything back from those they mentor, but there is an unspoken expectation that you should “pay it forward”. In return for being mentored by a previous generation, you should help mentor the next generation. Given my precarious employment situation, my ability to mentor others is severely limited. I try to be the best teacher I can be when I get the chance, but I have no PhD students. I have no power to invite guest lecturers and postdoctoral fellows into my department. I try to do favours for people when asked, but given the depth of my own needs, my freedom to do so is limited.

It’s embarrassing to be in this position – to still be in need of mentors and support so long after finishing my PhD. One day I hope to be able to pay forward everything I have received.

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