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The benefits of being a mentor in academia

Yoda gets a nice benefit from his mentee.
Today's guest post is by Wen-fai Fong, a graduate student in the Harvard Astronomy Department. Wen-fai will be graduating with her PhD this coming Spring and she studies the galactic environments of gamma ray bursts (GRBs). Since arriving at Harvard, I have been very impressed with Wen-fai's leadership and initiative in establishing mentoring within the astronomy department. Her efforts include the establishment of a peer mentoring program similar to the program I benefitted from at Berkeley, and a new faculty-peer mentoring program. The programs were recently recognized and funded by Harvard University through a GSC grant. Given her experience over the years with mentoring, both as a mentor and mentee, I asked her to share her thoughts on this blog.

Lying on my couch on Thanksgiving Eve, nearly comatose from uncomfortable amounts of turkey sitting in my stomach, I flipped on the TV. To my delight, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi was playing. A few commercial breaks later and I was wide awake, weeping during the scene in which Yoda dies. This got me thinking: Yoda was such a fantastic mentor to Luke Skywalker, and Luke obviously went on to do great things. But what the heck did Yoda get out of it? I let these thoughts dangle in my mind as I dabbed my eyes, changed the channel and told myself to get a grip!

Many articles I’ve read concentrate on the benefits of being mentored. Indeed, these studies have contributed to the ubiquity of mentoring programs in working environments. From business schools to medical schools1, from small start-ups to tech moguls like Google... even the U.S. military2 recognizes the impact of mentoring on the mentees. But why should people want to be mentors, especially in the stereotypically emotionless world of science and academia? 

Although my recent encounter with the Jedi master got me thinking about this question in particular, I have been actively invested in mentoring in academia for the past few years. In 2011, with the strong moral support of a few key individuals (Anjali Tripathi, Alicia Soderberg, John Johnson and Ruth Murray-Clay), I started a two-component mentoring program within the Harvard Astronomy Department comprised of peer mentoring for incoming first years and opt-in faculty mentoring for upper level graduate students. The most important ingredient that brought this program to life was an overwhelming interest among the graduate students to self-improve. In early 2013, fellow graduate student Stephen Portillo and I applied for and were awarded funding from the Graduate Student Council for the program. In my mind, this changed my dinky under-the-radar mentoring program to The [Big Freaking Deal Because Harvard University Supports It] Mentoring Program. As of fall 2013, all first years have graduate student mentors and >50% of upper level graduate students have faculty mentors.

To help me understand Yoda’s perspective, I recently asked the Harvard Astronomy graduate student mentors to write about their experiences, and their responses gave me the inspiration I needed to write this post. In six key points, here are the (unexpected) benefits of being a mentor:

1) It’s a chance to stay involved with the department. As you progress through graduate school and become increasingly immersed in your own research group, it can be difficult to remain connected with the department at a broader level. This program has given me a way to stay involved with the department at a relatively low cost of my own time.

By helping your mentee navigate the many emotions of graduate school,
you might find yourself working through some emotions of your own.
2) It will help you develop some of those rusty interpersonal skills. Let’s be honest - we don’t go into scientific careers because of our emotional prowess. Thus, building a trusting relationship with your mentee may be challenging. One mentor describes his own experience: “Establishing a relationship where we share important or difficult problems and experiences has been harder than I expected.   I've taken steps towards that by trying to be more open about the challenges I'm facing in my own work and life, hoping my mentee will do the same.” Being a mentor is a chance to openly reflect on times when you’ve struggled without being judged.

3) You just might learn to take a dose of your own medicine. This concept is beautifully summed up in a quote from a student mentor: There are all of these things that I’ve struggled with throughout grad school, about which I did a lot of ignoring advice that I got from other people. But when you’re suddenly faced with giving advice that you know is good to someone else, you kind of have to confront the fact that you might not be following it yourself.”  Ah, this is so interesting and so true; how often it is that we give advice but don’t take it ourselves.

A mentor can help to untangle a mentee's thoughts.
4) The rewards can be profound. “I was so proud of seeing my mentee grow and develop through her first year of grad school. It felt really good to see her passing milestones.” Just like any act of charity, it can brighten your day, too.

5) Understanding the various ways in which students handle graduate school will make you a more effective research advisor. Prior to becoming a mentor, the only data point I had on how students truly cope with graduate school was myself. First-time advisors who have never mentored students before will be in the exact same boat. However, advisors who have previously mentored students will be at an advantage because they will better understand how others confront the challenges of graduate school. One mentor writes: I suddenly realized that I couldn't simply project my own experiences onto what his grad school experience would be like.”

6) You have the power to shape the field, one mentee at a time. The success of relatively small fields like Astronomy relies on the retention of a healthy number of highly motivated and passionate scientists. It is therefore crucial to nurture the few who choose to do this with their lives, and to keep their enthusiasm alive which they in turn will be able to project to their students. As a mentor, you have the potential to influence the future of the field by sharing your knowledge and vision with your mentees.

When I started this program, I admittedly did so for the mentees. Never did I dream that this would impact the mentors as much as it has. The number one comment I get from people in the department regarding this program is, “Thank you for starting this.” Wait, what? No, no, no. Thank you for teaching me so much. Maybe this is what Yoda thought as he lay there dying in that smelly swamp. I could not be more proud to be part of a department that supports mentoring, and I can’t wait to see what more there is to learn in the coming years.

Big hugs and thanks to: Anjali Tripathi (the current co-coordinator of the Mentoring Program), fellow graduate students who took the time to write about their mentoring experiences, and Ms. Peg Herlihy, department administrator and the most extraordinary cheerleader of Harvard Astrograds.

1 For a famous article (within the medical field) on communication between mentors and mentees, see here: “Love Letters: An Anthology of Constructive Relationship Advice Shared Between Junior Mentees and Their Mentors”
2 For a review, see here: “Formal Mentoring in the U.S. Military: Research Evidence, Lingering Questions, and Recommendations”


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