Creating Reasonable Expectations for Mentors and Mentees

Written by
Kristen Vogt Veggeberg

Aug 3, 2021

Aug 3, 2021 • by Kristen Vogt Veggeberg

For many people, having a powerful role model is crucial in establishing a successful career, especially in competitive fields such as law, the arts or academia. Indeed, having a mentor within academia who is well connected, successful and willing to take you under their wing can often make or break a newly minted PhD, no matter the discipline.

Mentoring Isn't Easy

But what if your mentor doesn't have the stamina to keep up with keeping up? What if your mentee rebels against your guidance? There are so many ways in which the mentor–mentee relationship is fraught with challenges. As both a disappointing mentee and a newer mentor in the alt-ac world, I have some personal perspectives to share.

It should be acknowledged, first and foremost, that it is not easy to be a mentor within academia. Taking a new scholar under your wing and nurturing them at a vulnerable time in their lives requires emotional labor, stamina and guidance, which may or may not come easily to a mentor. This is, of course, to say nothing about the time needed to check in on mentees. (Perhaps the hardest commodity to come by for the oh-so-time-strapped junior professor!)

To care about your mentee, routinely check in on them, be in tune with where you can support them and then set them free into the greater world, which like parenthood, is not for the faint of heart.

Within academia specifically, advisers are often the first and most important mentors to junior scholars. So said, adviser's expectations—of whom they are training and of what they are expecting their students to accomplish—matter. For many doctoral advisers in graduate school, they have obtained that position by following the typical routine of an academic.

Said advisers performed exceptionally well in their undergraduate studies and matriculated to a graduate program for their choice of study without exception. They earned fellowships, won research grants, taught undergraduate courses and were prepared to seek out a tenure track position, which they eventually earned. In academia, an adviser probably would not be an adviser had they not followed this path.

Alternate Paths for PhDs

However, it is blatantly clear—whether one is looking at statistics or at the many individuals with a doctorate working outside of academia—that this path is not for all people earning a PhD. This is not only because of the ever-shrinking number of tenure-track positions available (especially within the shrinking budget of the average university, the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn), but also for the many opportunities available to PhDs. This includes director positions at museums and nonprofits, research jobs for private and public organizations and multiple consulting gigs, to name only a few.

All of these jobs can offer things that academia and the tenure track do not. Importantly, the personalities of different doctoral students almost demand this flexibility in careers. Some might flourish as a museum director, whereas others might excel as a data scientist—neither would be in a traditional academic role. But they could be successful and happy using the doctorate that they worked so hard to achieve, as well as be compensated for it with both a decent salary and work–life balance.

Gender and Mentoring

For women, an additional challenge is the societal expectation of marriage and motherhood, a knife's edge that women are judged on regardless of their choice. One of my advisers in my doctorate program often lamented her choice to delay motherhood. Other academics at conferences bemoaned the challenges of raising a small family while either earning their graduate degrees or chasing tenure at the same time they were chasing toddlers. For a mentor who brutally fought her way to tenure in lieu of starting a family, seeing a mentee eschew academia for motherhood can be incredibly frustrating.

Motherhood is not the only path a mentor could feel conflicted about. Indeed, as an adviser, it can be a knife in the heart to hear that someone you have selected and mentored throughout their career as a scholar is choosing a path so completely different from your own. I've seen unhappy doctoral students—who wanted to be consultants and designers, staff scientists and writers—smashed into post-doctoral positions at universities where they felt out of place and frustrated even though their hearts and minds pleaded otherwise.

I saw this happen in person. One of these students was in my lab at the University of Illinois. They once confessed to me that they hated the thought of becoming a professor, the position that our adviser strongly implored all of us to take, if we wanted to stay in their program. The student told me that all they wanted to do was write textbooks and do consulting work on the side while raising their family. However, being dutiful and loyal to our adviser, who held so much power over us, led them to take an assistant professor position, in a field they were not passionate about (but our adviser was).

Pushy advisers aside, one does not simply get into a PhD program out of a bored whim. In addition to an excellent GPA, GRE score, teaching and/or research background, one needs glowing letters of recommendation from other academics. One does not get said letters by being a renegade, but by being obedient and dutiful to the professor while they are teaching you. PhD programs attract perfectionists and people pleasers, and those behaviors are incredibly hard to lose. Hence, a mentor often knows—and in some unfortunate cases, takes advantage of—this psychological background of their mentees.

Recommendations So, where can mentors and mentees go from here? Here are some recommendations:
  • Always recognize what the relationship is. Are you and your mentee comfortable in your relationship? Are you proud of them? And importantly, is your mentee going to succeed in the field that you hope they will? Or one that they will? There are so many paths within and outside of academia, and a PhD happily working as a career scientist for a cool start-up in a big city might feel safer and happier there than, say, in a tenure track position in a rural town that is not safe for someone with their ethnic background or gender identity.
  • Always recognize that your mentor/mentee is human. And, if there's one thing research has proven time and time again, humans are a resilient and flexible species. We can outsmart viruses, smash atoms and break sound barriers. New types of jobs that require the incredible backgrounds that PhDs possess are constantly coming up and evolving. After all, how many doctorate holders in the 1990s would have guessed that much of the research we conduct is done online now?
  • Finally, always recognize that we live in a strange, always changing world that we are constantly struggling to understand. COVID-19 has dramatically changed our world and we have been forced to reckon with it. After all, isn't that why we went into doctorate programs and research—to better understand and comprehend the world and the human condition therein? There are so many ways in which one can be successful, and we should all be aware of that, no matter our tenure status, job title or state of our lives.

PhD programs are not, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy feat, and neither is being a good mentor or mentee. Both require stamina, grit and resourcefulness, as well as the flexibility to understand personal and professional change. Mentors—and mentees—must follow and acknowledge this path as well, to both preserve talent and to promote their own growth. Mentor by growing, not pushing, and your people will succeed.

Dr. Kristen Vogt Veggeberg, MPA, is a nonprofit director and writer in Chicago. She earned her doctorate at the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where her research focused on discourses of equity in and out of school science education.