What is the most important aspect of a mentor–mentee relationship?
Explore This IssueJuly 2018
JV: The part that is most important to me is having a person who has been where I have been, but also has the added perspective of time and experience to help guide my trajectory. I sometimes struggle with the “big picture,” such as how to turn a solid research idea into a longitudinal and fundable project or choosing opportunities to best improve my skill set and further define and develop my academic niche. I think it’s also important that my mentor is not trying to make a carbon copy of himself. When you Google image search “mentor,” often a picture [appears] of someone at the top of a mountain, reaching a hand down to pull another climber up. I think the relationship should, instead, be that of a climber (mentee) and the person belaying her (mentor). The belayer can often see a potential route or next step that the climber cannot. The belayer is not there to use his might to single-handedly hoist the climber up or dictate which hand- and footholds to use next. Rather, he protects the climber from injury, allows for respite and rethinking when trouble is encountered, and then perhaps shows the climber that it can be done, and encourages the climber to find her own best route.
This relationship differs from other professional relationships because of an increased level of authenticity. As a young faculty member, I can feel pressure (from myself) to try to always put my best foot forward. The faculty in my department have been immensely kind and supportive, and I know that I have been very well trained, but I do struggle with impostor syndrome. Sometimes this means that I am actively trying to exude more confidence than I feel or that I [feel I] should be smarter, stronger, faster in particular moments. With my mentors, I feel that I can drop any semblance of a charade and be completely honest. If I am struggling, I can say so without fear of judgment and start to work through, over, or around whatever the stumbling block is. Some of my most meaningful moments with mentors have been connecting over struggles
TS: I’ve learned to help my mentees find their way, not my way. I’ve worked hard to embrace the ego-challenging concept of reflecting accolades toward your mentees rather than accruing them for my own satisfaction. My relationship to my mentees and to my most impactful mentors is more like a personal relationship than a professional relationship. They really know me and my personal sufferings and my real struggles, and I know some of theirs. There is no way to do what I do without the personal getting mixed in with the professional, within reasonable boundaries. When I am more human, I feel I’m always in a better position to offer and receive counsel.