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Career Advice

Reflections on mentorship

Two doctoral candidates look back, with appreciation.


In the midst of the current conference season, we have been spending some time reflecting on the importance of mentorship in academic life, especially in our lives as doctoral students. This may have something to do with the fact that we are both approaching the end of our graduate work, and we feel a bit sentimental about the people who have influenced us and have helped shape us as professional academics. Conferences, as we all know, offer the opportunity, not only to become informed about new developments in our fields, but also to maintain important connections with colleagues, renew acquaintances, and meet new people. In an age when social and professional connections are fast and easily navigated online, we have been thinking about the enduring value of in-person, ongoing personal connections with others. What have we learned about the academic life through these relationships?

Each of us had three of our most influential mentors in mind as we sat down to write this article. Here we present six lessons we have learned about academic life from our mentors, and we consider the influences these mentors have had on us, and the admirable qualities that led us to choose them as mentors.

Lesson 1: Just go for it.

On our individual academic journeys we have both learned the importance of taking risks. While this is often (or always) stressful, positive results have occurred when we have stepped out of our comfort zone and have “gone for it.” Some of the things that at first seemed intimidating, such as e-mailing the author of a journal article to ask some follow-up questions, or introducing ourselves to researchers at conferences, resulted in new connections and thought-provoking discussions. When we decided to embark on our first collaborative project, we definitely took the “just go for it” attitude. At that point we did not know one another and we worked in different fields of education. This was a risky move, but the results of that endeavor have been incredibly beneficial to us both. Our mentors often demonstrate this risk-taking attitude, especially with publications: do your best and then just get it out there.

Lesson 2: Keep your door open.

We have learned the importance of keeping your door open (in both the literal and figurative sense). We are fortunate in our program to have dedicated doctoral student space, and our offices are across the hall from one another. Our doors remain open 95 percent of the time we are in them, and this seemingly minor detail was an essential component to the success we have had as collaborators. We have learned that if we keep our doors open, we not only become more inclined to meet new people and engage in discussion about our fields of work, but we also become available to junior doctoral students, able to share concerns and offer advice easily and without the need to set a formal meeting time. Of course, sometimes solitary space is needed, but much success seems built upon chance encounters and interactions with others.

Lesson 3: Nurture relationships.

Many would agree that successful relationships of every kind require dedication; academic relationships are no different. We have learned that to properly engage in the academic profession, relationships, once formed, need continuous attention. This does not mean constant interaction or superficial communication. It does mean honesty, respect and effort.

Lesson 4: Don’t underestimate the value of food.

If you know us personally then it will come as no surprise that many of our conversations take place during meals. We can often be found enjoying a meal or taking a break with a cup of tea, surrounded by scraps of paper on which we scribble notes and visions of new collaborative projects. In fact, we wrote the outline of this article at a conference, just as dessert was being served to us in a local restaurant.

It does take some effort, but even the minimal provision of a drink and snack at a meeting goes a long way to establishing a collegial atmosphere. Sharing food and drink not only helps to promote community, it also can be a good measure of your community: if you are in a place where people rarely demonstrate such sharing, this might indicate that more attention is needed to community building. Why not start by inviting a colleague for a cup of coffee? Mentorship thrives in supportive communities.

Lesson 5: Be aware of politics.

The politics of academia are inescapable but they do not have to be debilitating. As graduate students, most of us enter our programs blissfully unaware of the administrative and personal tensions operating around us. As we participate more in the research and service work of our faculties, we become increasingly aware of these dynamics. Having someone who can discretely inform you about the histories and relationships in your faculty can help you to anticipate problems, avoid putting your foot in your mouth and even to suggest ways that you might contribute to positive changes.

Lesson 6: Mentor others.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson that we have learned is the value of mentoring others. Mentors have played significant roles in our lives as novice academics, and we know that we can be capable mentors for others. It is critical for us to assume the role of mentor for our peers who are at an earlier stage in their careers. We take this role seriously and we believe in guiding our peers as we have been guided. This includes not only sharing knowledge and skills and passing on the lessons that we have learned but also being willing to spend the time to “walk the talk.” One of the most impressive, and humbling, realizations is that some of our mentors have dedicated enormous amounts of time to us and asked for little in return. Yet we know that mentoring others is in and of itself enriching – we all benefit.

Our mentors have had various influences on our academic journeys. When a mentor has also held the role of supervisor or program adviser, they have influenced our decisions about everything from course selection to reading materials to career choices. Sometimes our mentors have become personal advocates for us, acting as supporters and cheerleaders as we navigated our way through comprehensive exams, proposal presentations, conference presentations and publications, and personal dilemmas. Some have influenced the ways that we think and act in our field, pushing us to learn more, to read more widely, to consider more carefully. Often our mentors were experienced academics whose behavior and approaches we strove to emulate, and whose generous advice we tried to follow.

This article would not be complete without a reflection on the qualities that we most admire in our mentors. Their lessons and their influences took hold because they demonstrated in their professional lives the enduring qualities of honesty, integrity, generosity, strong work ethic and dedication. While each of our mentors demonstrated special and specific academic and research skills that we admired, it was often these strong character traits that made our mentors stand out and served to motivate us to learn from them.

As graduate students we have seen that active mentoring is essential at all stages of academic life, especially for graduate students and new faculty. But it is also important to consider the qualities that contribute to effective mentoring so that we can seek it out and evaluate our own conduct as possible mentors. As one of our mentors says, as you take the hand helping you up the ladder you must also reach out your hand to help someone behind you.

Jordana Garbati and Boba Samuels are PhD candidates in the faculty of education at Western University in London, Ontario. Ms. Samuels’ research is in writing studies and she currently works as a writing consultant at Wilfrid Laurier University. Ms. Garbati’s research is in applied linguistics.

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