Is it worth mentoring grad students and postdocs?

October 15, 2007

A really good discussion on the mentoring job over at New Kid on the Hallway with several posts here, here and here. It follows a pseudonymous post over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed complaining about a 25 year career wasted in thankless mentoring.

I have compromised my personal life and my research productivity to nurture and guide my many doctoral students. I have spent countless hours helping them revise seminar papers for publication, prepare for comprehensive exams, rewrite dissertation chapters, craft vitae, compose teaching-philosophy statements, and negotiate job offers. … And now I’m wondering why…. I should have been investing my effort in my own scholarly career rather than helping those who ultimately didn’t deserve the help and, more important, didn’t respect the life that they themselves claimed they wanted.

then, after detailing a number of “types” of trainee that annoy the author, we get to the meat:

What is frustrating is the apparent deceit of would-be scholars enticing you to help them become the field’s next superstar, only to discover that it was all bluster and empty talk. In too many cases, what you thought was a genuine dedication to intellectual work turns out to be a strategy (conscious or unconscious) of currying favor for the short-term goal of getting through graduate school.

No Sh*t Sherlock! Good god. Science grad training is geared almost entirely around the myth that everyone should be a high falutin’ researcher / professor at a large research-heavy institute. So of course the way to survive is to pretend this is the goal, even if this is not your goal at all. And then there’s the majority who do have this as a goal to start with but later come up against the facts of life. That there ain’t enough R1 jobs. That they are coming out of the second post doc in their mid thirties and, gee, maybe that long suffering spouse deserves his/her turn at a nice lifestyle. Maybe it really isn’t in the best interest of the kids to pull them out of their school and nice city to live in some hole.

My view is that if you get ONE trainee in your lifetime that really makes good, goes on to a research career (hopefully even better than yours), well that should be enough. More are gravy. The rest? Well I think you should have some additional motivations as a mentor/teacher beyond creating research scientists. Why do you think teaching undergraduates is worthwhile anyway? Just because it pays your salary? I thought not. The “duds” can be frustrating but this should only refer to their work in your lab. Why should you care what careers they choose after leaving your tutelage?

One Response to “Is it worth mentoring grad students and postdocs?”

  1. Thomas Robey Says:

    Oooh! Oooooh! (Raising hand in the air and anxiously fidgeting in my seat)

    Maybe there needs to be acknowledgment all around that grad school is the best (is it the only?) way to learn how to do science. In order to do science, we trainees must participate in the scientific apparatus. And what is wrong with training in a way that leaves open many doors? Including academic research, industry, or somewhere else entirely…

    My feeling is that we need many more scientists in medicine, law, politics and education.

    I hope my mentors (official and informal) recognize the importance that the PhD will have on my career, whatever it ends up being. If they do not, then that is their loss.


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