We're a little crazy, about science!

Mentoring and mental health

With great power comes great responsibilities. Well as a grad student, you don’t have a whole lot of power (see: none), but you do have responsibilities. You also have more freedom to do the things you want (need) to do the way you want. One of those responsibilities, and my favorite frankly, is mentoring. With all the stress of doing my PhD, being a mentor is something that helps keep me sane, so today I’m going to share some great news along with why I enjoy doing the mentor thing.

Doing a PhD is a lot like being pulled apart slowly. You have several projects, all needing your attention, all of them important, and all of them need to be done NOW. It’s a lot, I mentioned that when I started my PhD I thought it was a long master’s degree, but that is certainly not the case. For one, you have more responsibilities and somehow even less structure. I had very few classes I needed to take, certainly not more than a year’s worth even at the lower threshold for full time as a PhD student. Even with that fluid structure, I found that my time was a scarce commodity and I’ve had to take efforts to guard it on occasion (mostly by saying no).

With all the projects and education going on, I still find time to do things that help with my mental health. Turns out just doing my little daily blog project has really helped, so that was unexpected, but welcome. The other thing that really helps is mentoring. I think there are a lot of reasons why mentoring has helped my mental health, but the biggest is success.

It’s not that I don’t have my own successes, because I do and I forced myself to celebrate a bit when my project got awarded $150,000 for two years which is so much money to me, but strangely not really when you look at other grants (here). The problem is that I’m not a fan of celebrating me. It feels awkward and almost painful, plus it (to me anyway) a touch depressing celebrating myself. I don’t know, I’m weird I admit it. I can however celebrate all day when someone I’m mentoring succeeds at something.

One person I mentor, “Kay,” has been working with me basically since she started her undergrad. The girl has motivation, that’s for sure! I started working in a lab in my undergrad degree the last year I was in the program before doing my masters, so she has a lot of experience already even though she’s very early in her career. We’ve met almost every week (at least once) for over three years now and she’s about to graduate.

Getting the chance to mentor long-term has been good for me because it was a great chance for me to watch someone learn. Going through it is different than being on the outside looking in. I’ve seen a lot of the same struggles I had, the feeling that you didn’t really learn anything, and the feelings that everyone around you is doing a far better job than you are. For me, was an earnest look at the process and a good reminder why I even wanted to be a mentor in the first place.

Academia is confusing. There are rules and etiquette that you are expected to know by virtue of being there. I was the first in my family (not that I speak to my family) to go to college, so I had no idea how to navigate anything. I stumbled around and somehow found my way, but there were a lot of hard and painful lessons that I had to learn. Lessons that I wish someone would’ve told me. Even applying for my PhD, I had no real guidance because my former PI had a… let’s say non-traditional path to his PhD. I don’t know how he managed it (and neither does he), but he wasn’t formally accepted to any program so he had no idea what I should do.

Now being in a position of nearly done with my PhD I’ve been lucky to have those answers and thus Kay didn’t have to go through any of this process alone. From day one working with me, she’s had someone to help answer all those questions and teach her about the rules/etiquette that she needed to know. She was already incredibly competent, but our arrangement benefited her just as much as it benefited me. I think we don’t talk about that enough, the reciprocity that comes with being a mentor.

Seeing her succeed was a reminder that I helped, I was a good mentor and I taught her well. When she joined the lab, she was given a 3D modeling project with no experience using Solidworks (my prefered software and it’s prefered most engineering schools/workplaces). I had the chance to teach her and over the years I even taught classes where she attended (free to anyone who wants to learn). She’s given presentations on the work (even in the pandemic) and I’ve laughed at her shock everytime she got to be the lead for something. Like my favorite exchange with her….

In short, working with Kay has been an exciting chapter for me and it’s been extremely good for my mental health watching her succeed. Yesterday evening she text me to let me know about her latest success. She’s been offered a position in her first choice school to do her PhD. I knew it was coming and told her as much, but I’m glad she got a formal offer finally. The lab flew her down to meet and it sounds like they were a good fit, so she’s going to accept the offer.

She even asked for advice on how to tell school-PI and what the etiquette was for telling him since I’m sure school-PI wants her to stay to do her PhD if she was willing. It feels like only yesterday I was (somewhat) harassing her about what she wanted to study for her PhD so we could narrow down the selection and find her the right lab (more) and now she has a spot in the lab she wants doing the type of research she really wants to do!

I’m very excited for her and for her future. There’s still a few months before she graduates (she already invited me to attend, which I thought was very kind of her), but I’m just overjoyed that she got to this point. I was very nervous for awhile there that she wasn’t going to narrow her scope down enough to find a good fit or she was going to go in knowing she wanted a PhD, but with no idea what she wanted to learn (more).

I’m very proud of her and proud to be her mentor. Which is also a good mental health boost for me.

4 responses

  1. Cheers to you both 🥳

    Liked by 1 person

    March 7, 2022 at 1:47 pm

  2. Congratulations to both of you. It sounds like Kay has a bright future ahead of her, and I bet she was fortunate to have you as a mentor, given how seriously you take the job. I’m sure it feels good to break the cycle of confusion and help somebody else skip a few obstacles or mistakes.

    Even if you feel awkward about celebrating yourself, do make sure you always tell us about your successes, so that we can celebrate for you. Don’t hesitate. You can give us (your regular readers) the same kind of joy you feel at seeing Kay be successful. I’m not your mentor, but even so.

    Liked by 1 person

    March 7, 2022 at 9:06 pm

    • Thanks and yes it makes me feel better knowing that she doesn’t have to figure out the same things I had to navigate.

      I appreciate the reminder, you’re right I should share and normally I try to. The last thing was a bit more personal than my publications, but I’m glad I shared it and you’re right you and the rest of my readers should get the chance to celebrate successes like that.

      Liked by 1 person

      March 8, 2022 at 9:11 am

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