Mentoring and parenting

Like it or not, your mentoring behavior is intimately tied to the experiences you had as a scientific trainee. Let me rephrase that for emphasis. Tied to the way you experienced your training.

In the very general sense, if you thought something was good for you, you are going to tend to try to extend that to your trainees. And if something was bad for you, you are going to try to avoid that for your trainees.

Obviously, the ability that you have to emulate or avoid certain behaviors of your mentors-of-reference* is not going to be perfect. But let us assume for argument's sake that you can make a fair stab at mentoring the way that you would intend yourself to mentor.

This is not all that dissimilar to parenting, I find. There are obvious ways in which I think my parents did an absolutely bang up job of raising me. They set me on a path of life that is in many ways ideal. A career that is fulfilling, a political and social stance that I am proud of, a strength of will and freedom from many of the family-drama related pathologies that plague many adults. I would hope to provide this type of parenting to my own children. Absolutely.

In the same way, I received great mentoring on topics small and large from several people who were in an instructional or supervisory role over my career up to the point of being appointed Assistant Professor. And, let us face it, up to this very day. I am always learning stuff from people in my field and profession. When I recognize something good that was communicated to me by a mentor, I do try to use that in supervising my own trainees. Of course. Because I want them to be successful.

I also have several very specific things that I resent about the way I was raised. It is no coincidence that I find myself to be taking steps as a parent to avoid treating my kids that way. It helps tremendously that the financial security of my spouse and I is (I think**) greater than that of my parents when I was a kid. But even given that, I parent differently in several ways. And I can tie this directly to my perception of how I was parented. The hope is to, obviously, avoid having my children feel the same sense that they would much rather things had gone another way.

Unsurprisingly, I also have suffered under circumstances as a burgeoning academic that were less than optimal. To the extent I can do so, I try to head these off for my trainees. It should be basic. If you didn't like the effect that a mentoring move had on you, don't do it to your trainees. Right? This is not difficult.

The rub lies in those elements of your life that you see as negatives but that you also believe left you a better person for it. Adversity. Many of us have the sense that facing adversity and overcoming it has strengthened us for subsequent life events that may not be all unicorns and fairy dust. And we worry that if our children do not face and overcome adversity that they will be.....spoiled little brats unable to appreciate their considerable privileges and doomed to an inability to surmount future challenges.

This is my greatest worry as a parent.

Clearly, we spoil the ever loving crap out of our children. Compared to what we had.

It does not escape me for a second that this is a re-run of the drama that played out with my own parents. Who came from adversity greater than the environment that they were able to provide for their children. And there is zero doubt in my mind that one major area of resentment about the way my parents raised me was related to them trying to avoid spoiling the crap out of me. I still think they were wrong and I go the opposite way with my own kids. Probably way overboard the opposite way.

"Spoil" is too strong a word for trainees.

I do think, however, that undergoing adversity during academic training has left me better prepared for a career as a grant funded PI. I have said it before on these pages that I think my sole actual talent for this NIH grant game business is my ability to take a punch. That, I go on to argue, has much to do with my life experiences, most specifically the ones that occurred from graduate school through postdoctoral training.

But I would not wish one single bit of the really bad stuff that happened to me (no, I am not talking about an experiment going wrong one day) on any of my trainees. I would not prescribe any element of suffering as an experience for my trainees.

Because detrimental experiences cause detrimental effects on career.

So am I failing to instill robustness against adversity in my children and my trainees? Heck yeah. But I suppose I figure that this is not my job. Life will take care of the adversity. I prefer to work on the positive side.

I limit myself to worrying about it.

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*There can be indirect mentoring lessons. Of course.

**I don't actually know in comparable real terms. Which is probably closely related to one of the issues here.

20 responses so far

  • jipkin says:

    What if the kind of person that can push through adversity is the kind of person that would have been a good scientist anyway without the adversity? What if there are people who could have made a greater contribution than they did if they hadn't had a sexist abusive PI during grad school?

    Just throwing out the obvious devil's advocate stuff. I have no strong opinion here.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Like I said, I sure as heck wouldn't prescribe adversity.

  • meshugena313 says:

    Everyone's got adversity, it just comes in different forms. Hell, could any of us deal with the adversity that previous generations had for just getting through life? Even 100 years ago cold, poor shelter, minimal clothing, and food were real issues for many many people.

    But while my "real" kids don't have to lift a finger for many things that were outright luxuries when I was a kid, and my "scientific" kids don't have to struggle to get through basics that were torturous only a few short years ago, life and the lab always have new ways of throwing trouble at you.

  • dr24hours says:

    Oh don't worry. I'm sure you're better at providing adversity than you give yourself credit for.

  • namaste_ish says:

    Unhappy people will always find something to be unhappy about. Anxious people will create their own anxiety and so on. Ultimately you, and many others I respect, chose to view your adversity as a positive. And hopefully, your children will be further from truly horrible things than you were.
    But I can no more protect my child from a random horrible event than you than I can stop a perv asshole from spouting off about women's place in science or minorities being
    'Lesser than'.
    My only hope and my job as mentor and parent is to do my best to control what I can. There is no good time in your life or career to go against the system, the biases of others or prevailing ideas in science. You just suck it up and do it. But don't kid yourself. In spite of your best efforts, the ruthless reality is that you are not the biggest threat to your scarring your trainees. There is a douche fuckke out there you didn't coming who will level you. And that's when you hope you've instilled resilence.

  • Former Technician says:

    I respectively disagree. I witnessed a colleague as a trainee. Her mentor style is entirely different. It has to do with her personality and proclivities more than training. Her mentor was very hands off. On the other hand she is a total helicopter parent and mentors the same way. Micromanagement doesn't even begin to cover it.

    While this might seem like going from one extreme to the other, it really isn't. This is how she is with her son. He wants to go far away for college for obvious reasons.

  • Juan Lopez says:

    Nice text DM!
    You help your kids and trainees on the adversity/resilience by showing them how you do it.
    I remember clearly a day when I was about 5 or 6 and a friend of my parents was killed. I remember their pain, and the way they dealt with it. That was a big lesson they probably didn't notice they were giving.

  • LIZR says:

    My graduate experience is best described as "free-range." This mentoring approach certainly fostered independence, but the cost was probably 1.5-2yrs additional time to earning my degree.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I've had intervals of free range training. It seemed great at the time but it really hurt my career in the end.

  • JustAGrad says:

    I thought "free range" mentoring was generally a good thing because it forces the student to become independent or wash out. But I could see how it could hurt a career when no guidance is given for research.

  • pinus says:

    I had a free range PhD. I don't actually think it harmed me. If anything, it prepared me for success. but, that may also be a load of shit. who knows.

  • Datahound says:

    This post reminded me of an issue I have seen over time. To what degree are students/post-doc treated the same or differently in a particular lab (yes, this is similar to a question about parenting). When I I was a graduate student, my roommate was in a lab (chemistry) where the professor treated each person (over 40 in the lab) quite differently. The professor was very good at reading what would motivate a particular person and then acted accordingly. If they were sensitive, he would treat them gently and encourage them and they would work hard; if they were combative, he would be confrontational and they would push back and work hard. I remember being both impressed with his skills and a bit disturbed by his manipulation.

    I think the same is true in most labs I have seen although not to the same degree and not will the same effectiveness.

  • DJMH says:

    There's free range and there's free range. If it means, "design, execute, and interpret your own experiments, and the PI will guide you through contextualization, paper design, and publication," it's pretty great, though it does lengthen the process. If it means "cc me when you get reviews back," it is pretty bad.

  • Lots of good points above.

    I'd also point out that we mentor by example too even when not thinking about it.

    When faced with adversity as PIs such as grant rejection, paper rejection, major lab setbacks such as projects failing, personal stuff (cancer diagnosis), etc. our lab kids are watching us and learning from how we handle (or not) this crap.

    When things get really tough in situations like these...are we stoics? Do we go to the other extreme and lash out at our trainees? Are we somewhere in the middle? Do we bounce back?

  • The New PI says:

    This is a great post and a great discussion. I have been thinking about hardship in training a lot lately as it pertains to graduate education. In particular whether grit and scientific intuition can be taught or whether you just have to find the right people who have these qualities. I was pretty "free range" in grad school, so much that I was ranging across two labs and had no scientific direction apart from my own, which I think definitely hurt me as far as output. At the same time, a lot of my classes were geared towards learning to look at the literature and distilling the next big questions and were often so difficult that you thought it impossible. But then you managed to complete these "impossible" tasks, finding answers for crazy questions, running your own project and this made you really confident as a scientist. I was very angry at my committee in grad school, as I was trying to learn how to swim on my own, I often saw them unhelpful Gods sitting on a boat watching me from the sidelines. Yet, now, 10 years later they are still there helping with my Specific Aims as needed, providing career advice. So were they really feeling like my mom at the side of the pool counting the seconds until I reemerged? Was I completely unaware of the training I was receiving? Maybe a little. I always say the the PhD is like being a teenager again.
    As I work with and train people coming from different schools I find that many have not been prepared the way I was, have not been pushed go further and the question is how do I teach them? Can I teach them? As DM says should I go back to how I was taught and hope for the best? Just new PI doubts

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    I was very free range as a graduate student, and like many here, it helped a ton with independence, but certainly delayed my progress. My postdoctoral mentor was much more hands-on with early stage graduate students, which I think helps keep students from banging their heads against a wall for months. I've tried to strike my own balance, but I'm certain that I have my own weaknesses as a mentor that I'm unaware of. But I'm sure DM is right--most of us try to take the best experiences that our own mentors gave us and pay it forward to our trainees.

  • bacillus says:

    This Be The Verse
    By Philip Larkin

    They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

    But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

    Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

  • JustAGrad says:

    "There's free range and there's free range. If it means, "design, execute, and interpret your own experiments, and the PI will guide you through contextualization, paper design, and publication," it's pretty great, though it does lengthen the process. If it means "cc me when you get reviews back," it is pretty bad."

    Why is that necessarily bad? It can be clear if a student needs more guidance if they are failing at things like contextualization, paper design, and publication. But what if they aren't? I don't think all students need guidance in the publication process if they read enough and can emulate the necessary characteristics of published papers to get their own paper published.

  • Anonymous says:

    I agree with DM that it's wrong to manufacture adversity for your kids -- life will surely take care of that without any help from you. But it makes even less sense to me to do this with trainees. Your trainees come to you as adults -- inexperienced adults who need mentoring, but adults nevertheless. They deserve to be respected as such. You likely have no fucking clue what they've been through or what they've had to survive before they landed on your doorstep. So stop kidding yourself that what they need most is shit from you to toughen them up -- as if!

  • DJMH says:

    JAG--I have never, ever seen a graduate student writing their first paper produce even a passably close first draft. That includes me. Students simply cannot "emulate" papers without guidance.

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