Shopping for old-style hats and coats
My brilliant undergraduate research assistant just informed me that they will not be continuing with me this spring. The parting is on the best possible terms; we did good work together and (though I am not keen on admitting it) it is really time for them to broaden their horizons, especially to get a variety of recommendation letters for graduate school applications.
As this young researcher takes the next step in their career, I wonder how their time with me has impacted them. Neither my department nor the MIT undergraduate research program mandated any mentorship training for me when I took on an undergraduate research assistant (though they provided some general-purpose resources). I did my very best and am proud of my mentoring, but there must surely have been times when I was unwittingly confusing or discouraging in my feedback. I probably passed on many of my bad habits, and probably created new ones too. And did I leave my student toying with the same cynicisms that I find myself hung up on? The pressures of academia shape how I work, which in turn shape how I mentor, which must ultimately shape how younger researchers see the enterprise. It can be almost paralyzing to contemplate the impact a mentor’s every action can have on their mentees.
The role of mentors in a research community is far from parental in nature, but as I sit here processing my student’s departure I am thinking of Larkin’s verse. The poem arrives at a harsh conclusion—“get out as early as you can / and don’t have any kids yourself”—and indeed many PhD students arrive at that conclusion and decide to leave academia after one too many bad experience they are unwilling to endure and perpetuate.
I wonder, though, if there is a better way: one that recognizes that most professors (and graduate students) are only experts in their research areas, not necessarily mentorship and management. If we are doomed to “hand on misery” to our advisees, let us at least be transparent about it: let us remind them that we are fallible and growing, let us be deliberate in creating opportunities for feedback, let us thank our students for mentoring us in the art of mentoring.
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.