We're a little crazy, about science!

More on mentorship

I’m not sure I would enjoy being a teacher. With the typical size of the class you teach I don’t feel like I could give each student the personal attention that I would want to give them. Thankfully, one of my jobs is mentoring, which is like teaching, but with just a handful of people. I absolutely love it and today I’m going to share a very funny (or maybe just fun) story.

I’ve written about being a mentor before, but it’s hard not to want to revisit it from time to time since it’s a big part of the things I do. Each person I mentor needs something slightly different from me so my relationship with each of them is different. Some people are just being mentored over the summer, some most of their undergrad education. That means being a mentor is a dynamic thing, there’s no one size fits all approach.

Mentoring is probably one of the few things that keeps me sane. It’s one of those things that you get to see results quickly and that makes the long road to my PhD a little more manageable. First, I want to talk about my mentorship style and then I’ll share a recent story of success that I’ve been laughing about since it happened.

As I mentioned mentorship is a very dynamic thing, different students need different things from me. I like to say my approach with the people I mentor is a very hands on at a distance approach. I’m here when they need me and if they want something or have a specific goal I make sure they can get it. I’m not in the business of telling them no. Instead I tell them if they do the work, I’m going to make sure what they want happens.

This means that I meet with some of the people I mentor once a week, others once every two weeks, and some we exchange emails once a month. That doesn’t mean I’m invested in some more than others, it just means that some need or want more guidance than others. I don’t want to force people to do anything they want to do, but I also don’t want to hold anyone back either.

That said, one of the people I mentor is super motivated. She wants to publish and do experiments, the whole research experience. So she and I have arranged basically her whole undergrad experience. She’s going to be an extremely published undergrad, we’re aiming for two conference papers and a possible journal paper on the work she’s doing. It’s ambitious, but she wants it and is doing the work. I remind her to take breaks and not overwork and so far it seems like things are going smoothly.

They are going so smoothly in fact that we had a request for a small abstract paper for a conference and decided to use the work she’s been doing. Originally we weren’t sure if we were going to answer the call for papers, but she emailed and said she really wanted to do it, so we did it. I don’t think she realized what that meant for her. The thing was, she wanted it so she was going to do the work and write the paper… but that also meant something she didn’t realize.

I don’t know that I can do it justice, so I’ll just set up the situation really quick. I had a short meeting with the other person who is part of the project the day she emailed saying she wanted to do it. She was invited, but since it was last minute she didn’t respond in time and so we both met, agreed to do it, and discussed who was going to do the work. As I already mentioned, she wanted it so she was going to do the bulk of the work and we were going to help her. Eventually she saw my email and messaged me, well let’s just say she was surprised, just read the conversation you’ll see what I mean.

That right there? That’s why I mentor. I know K is going to go on to do great things and I’m happy I get to help her navigate the new and confusing world of academia. It reminds me that I’ve actually learned a few things along the way. It also helps remind me why I came into academia to begin with, why I’m getting my PhD, why I’m doing the work. At the moment, I mentor three undergrad students and K is probably the most motivated out of the bunch.

It’s interesting because she knows what she wants, but she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. She’s still undecided about her field of study. She’s waffling between design engineering and brain machine interfaces, I did both, so I suggested she could do the same since they are somewhat complementary fields. She’s not sure, but we’re working on it. She’s only a junior right now so there’s some time to figure things out and there’s always a Masters to PhD option (like my path) since she knows (or at least really thinks) she wants a PhD.

I don’t know how many other students I’ll get to mentor as I finish my PhD, but I really enjoy it and I’m excited to see what each of them can accomplish. While I hope that in the distant future my research will help people, it’s nice to be helpful now in the present.

The point of today is obvious, but it’s worth stating succinctly. A PhD is more than just your education, there’s a lot of hats you wear and one of the most rewarding for me is being a mentor. In my field at least, there are very few chances to see a return on the work you put in so quickly. It’s a great reminder that you’re actually making progress, even if it’s just by seeing others make progress under your mentorship.


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