Mentors, Friends and Saying No

Who needs mentors? It is clear that when setting out on a career, having supportive mentors can be immensely helpful: people who you can turn to for advice when decision crunch-time comes, or who provide pointers about things you should be doing or looking into.  At early career stages mentors are quite clearly separate from your friends, who are the ones you moan with in the pub or exchange anecdotes with about the evil ways of your supervisors. Friends are typically contemporaries, mentors somewhat ahead of you up the career ladder (anywhere from just a year or two to the head of department); what matters is that they have had more time to gain experience, absorb the culture and learn the ropes – and that they are willing to pass on what they know, simultaneously with taking enough trouble to know you sufficiently well that the advice they give is constructive for you as an individual and not just correct but irrelevant.

As one climbs up the greasy pole, I suspect for most of us that need for objective advice never actually goes away. It may be about very different situations and questions than when a student or postdoc, but I think practically everyone would like access to a cross between an agony aunt and a careers’ advisor. Do not believe that being a professor makes one immune to indecision or a suspicion of being manipulated or unreasonably challenged that would be good to air.  However, by this point the number of potential mentors is likely to be pretty small. Who does a head of department turn to, for instance?  The answer is, of course, mentors are likely to be those colleagues you have learned to trust ie your friends within the academic circle. The trust bit is clearly crucial. If you are in the midst of a quandary, exposing yourself to ridicule from a colleague who perceives you as a rival would be unwise. Perhaps you have no desire to do something that on paper looks excellent, because it might conflict with caring responsibilities, mean uprooting your family to another part of the globe or cause you more stress than you feel your high blood pressure can cope with. You may have excellent reasons for not wanting to do something in terms of your work-life balance but still want to talk it through – just to check the reasons really are excellent – with someone who isn’t an involved family member. Choose the wrong colleague and you can end up labelled emotional (certainly an adjective tossed in my direction from time to time), or provide ammunition to be thrown in your face at a later date to prevent you doing something that is your cup of tea.

These thoughts are provoked by a handful of recent events. Firstly, when writing the blogpost on impostor syndrome I went back to listen to the podcast of the discussion with Linda Partridge and Vivienne Parry, to check exactly who said what on the subject. During that debate, Vivienne asked us if we still had mentors. My answer was that I had friends who served that purpose; Linda likewise still had a clear need for people to turn to for advice. Secondly, I met up with a senior academic colleague for lunch, the vacation providing a brief moment of relative calm, although we still had to fix it on a Saturday due to our insane diary over-commitments. This person, who I’ll refer to as Prof A for simplicity, was bemoaning the lack of support and assistance she was able to access when it came to making decisions about which requests to accept, although she felt there were ‘experts’ around who could have provided welcome insight.  And thirdly, I finally reached the point of declining to serve on a university committee.

So let’s start with what is so often the difficult task of saying ‘no’. I wear various hats within the University, one of which is serving on University Council, and from that role many committee memberships naturally flow, because our governance (don’t ask me if it’s a Statute or Ordinance which requires it, but I suspect the latter) requires that many of the central committees have a certain number of Council members appointed to it. So, I have a heavy tranche of committee work to get through, much of which is interesting, much of which is important but some of which probably doesn’t fit either category. However, when I was asked to serve on yet another committee out of the blue, I wondered why. A little research revealed that I was being asked neither because I was a Council member, nor because they needed a scientist, not even a female scientist (they already had at least one). So, despite the fact the workload was going to be slight, I felt it was time to put my foot down as a point of principle. There are a lot of professors in the university, and some of them I suspect remain happily removed from the reality of committee work, which I would call community service. Ask them for once, I thought. (In fact they didn’t, they asked another overloaded, hardworking but male physical scientist.)

On that occasion I had no trouble saying no, but – to go back to Professor A – it isn’t always so clear. Maybe you should make choices based on whether task 1 or task 2 is ‘better’. But what does better mean, and for whom?  Better for you, your department, your university, for some professional body or for society at large? What is better for one of these will certainly not necessarily be better for all. When Martin Rees was asked to serve contemporaneously as President of the Royal Society and Master of Trinity College I have no idea how he weighed up the pros and cons of doing one, or the other, or both. In fact I rather think he was already the Astronomer Royal. Did it bother him that he might be over-committed? Who did he discuss it with? Now most of us would not be in quite such an extreme position, being offered such an embarras de richesses, but nevertheless at any stage there may be choices to be made. Is it better to get buried under a mountain of ERC paperwork or a UK research council pile? Should one dare to appear on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, however much media training one has had, or simply accept that something less challenging such as Start the Week is the limit to aspire to? Is university committee X better than Institute of Physics committee Y? We all need to talk these matters through with someone; ideally someone who has a relevant track-record, or at least familiarity with that bit of the system.

Which is where mentors/friends come in. In my experience, talking through what is good and bad about options, and working out what ‘better’ means in different circumstances, is a helpful exercise, even if it only reinforces the prejudices one started with. Now Professor A and I are both, clearly, female. I have no idea if there is a gender slant in this desire for advice (or at least a chat), but I suspect it is much more a personal issue than a gendered one as to how much of this one wants. But the reality is that being senior means both that the choices seem much larger not to mention diverse, and that the choice of suspects to discuss the matter with is more limited. Maybe other universities cope with this better than Cambridge and have an in-built support system. Maybe this is part of the competitive rather than supportive environment that is an oft repeated Cambridge characteristic, simultaneously both a strength and a weakness. However, I rather doubt that this is so. What do others feel?

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14 Responses to Mentors, Friends and Saying No

  1. Mary Beard says:

    professor x says that this post is SPOT ON!

  2. Sarah Bridle says:

    Thanks for this Athene. I definitely agree. I have questions like this, and luckily a few great people to turn to for advice (including outside my university). I didn’t always feel like this though, and I would often be grateful for more advice. You are right that the division between mentor and friend becomes less clear as time passes – this used to confuse me but I’m getting over it these days, so it was helpful to see it written down in your post. Great if there can be some mechanism that would catalyse these relationships. Not sure how to do it. A lot of the questions are not especially subject-specific too, yet too often we only know people in our own specialist area. At least its good that you’re bringing this issue up in your post, so people have more confidence to seek out mentors (yes, ask advice from several people and see how they react) and to consider trusted colleagues as true friends.

  3. karen sund says:

    Thanks for good points, Athene!
    Saying no is difficult, especially when you are passionate about your work and dream tasks come along. Best advice there is to keep calm and remember new offers will come.
    Having a mentor or “coach” at work is often useful, but make sure your interests are taken care of, that there is no competition – different department, different generation, and even different gender helps here, in my experience. Friends are good too, but may not see the full work situation.
    Far too often the few good and busy people get asked for yet another committee, making them over worked. Mentoring could be part of tasks, too, and often more rewarding (personally) than yet another committee. So, get one, but also be one 😉

  4. My new approach to this problem, inspired by Francis Crick’s “all-purpose reply card” has been to define a list of peripheral activities outside the core trio of “writing, teaching, doing research” that I will not agree to take on. While Crick’s tactic was clearly tongue-in-cheek (and was apparently infrequently used in reality) and few of us are in a position to avoid all “non-core” activities, I think it is useful precedent to insipre us all to have a clear set of academic activites we do/don’t support in order to help to stop the endless proliferation of non-essential activities that are taking over the true purpose of academic life.

  5. Karen
    I should have linked to an earlier post of mine, here, where I more specifically looked at mentoring of junior scientists by more senior ones. That is hard enough, but by the time one is a senior professor I think the challenges are different. Being mentored – as opposed to doing the mentoring – would feel strange. Being able to access someone as a trusted equal is what one needs. Mentoring should undoubtedly count as a ‘task’ in one’s workload, along with all that commnittee work – again I discussed this previously.

    I suspect that you would miss out on a lot of interesting stuff if you stuck to that trio too closely. Where does sitting on a grant-giving panel get factored in? That is undoubtedly good for your CV as well as probably being informative and an eye-opener. What about mentoring, or admissions? I hope you don’t follow your trio too slavishly, because I think it would make you ultimately a rather bad departmental citizen (though it does depend on the stage of your career, which you don’t mention).

    Allegedly in Cambridge we are meant to meet people from other disciplines in our colleges. It’s a nice ideal, but I for one don’t have time to nip in to mine for an interesting converation over lunch. But I totally agree, most of the problems are generic and not subject-specific. Mary Beard, who says I’m spot on, is indeed not a scientist but a classicist (and not in my college anyhow)!

    • Reviewing & serving on grant panels are all a part of doing research in my book, and I do serve on two RCUK panels/committees. Mentoring is teaching. Admissions I wouldn’t touch since it is a highly coded, qualitative and non-meritocratic system in the UK. I am talking about the non-essential activities that the bureaucrat/adminstrator/media class foist on us that don’t impact the core academic trio.

      With respect to your “bad departmental citizen” comment, it is this top-down notion of “collegiality” that is precisely the reason people have difficulty saying no to things, but also the reason we (especially junior academics) permit endless proliferation of non-essential tasks.

      Collegiality is supporting each other in the share of essential academic tasks, not a guilt stick to use to go down the list till you find someone to do non-essential work. If we collectively had the courage to say that non-essential tasks are just that, then no-one would have to do this make-work.

  6. Professional Mentors (I am one so declare my hand now!) range from the very good to, quite frankly, very poor. They do however, share one motivational perspective: they seek to be your trusted advisor / sounding board / thought provoker, challenger. In that capacity, they seek to provide an independent view, fresh perspective or challenge to thought. Find the right individual and their mentoring skill set is what is most important, not their background of business vs academia, friend vs professional. Mentees most often seek someone to challenge their thinking, perspective, process or decision. So long as the mentor is of matched intelligence, the Mentee should find the experience fruitful. Mentoring isn’t about being brighter, more experienced, “better”…. it’s about asking searching questions, understanding the responses, testing thinking and potential outcomes such that the Mentee feels stretched, challenged and “tested for soundness”.

  7. I think we should avoid words like mentor and advisor. It’s really quite simple. Everybody needs somebody to talk to.

  8. Rob Daley says:

    While I would certainly recommend that anyone finding it difficult to make professional decisions should seek appropriate help/support it is not always clear to whom one can turn.

    A mentor is great if you have one, but it is probably too late to find one when the need for such discussions arises. career coaches can also help if the issue is one of reaching an impasse or a crossroads in your career. However, for many of the issues raised in Athene’s post something else is required. Essentially a well informed sounding board who will listen to the issue and will help you consider the various positive and negative aspects, help to balance these and then leave you to make your on mind up without judging. I would recommend considering setting up an action learning set of like minded individuals facing similar issues who can meet regularly but not too often to provide mutual support.

  9. Laurence Cox says:

    Whilst a little peripheral to the main thrust of your excellent posting, this blog by Flip Tanedo shows that being a post-graduate is pretty much the same everywhere in the world. See:

  10. Ursula Martin says:

    I’m sure I’ve benefitted from people who said no to things, and suggested my name instead, and I try to do the same thing from time to time. I have to thank Barbara Liskov of MIT for introducing me to the phrase “A tremendous opportunity for a younger person” when I asked her advice about how to politely decline something.

    And yes, the support network of people to talk things through with is vital. But even if one is being “mentor” rather than friend I try not to give opinions on something unless I am asked for them, and to not say things unless I can find a kind and constructive way to do so (those noises off are my immediate family and research group ROFL).

    So I never did tell the young woman who spent an entire job interview fiddling with a water bottle that sh’ed have been better off without it, and on more than one occasion I have not found the right way to say to someone trying to resolve a two-body problem “I think you are worth ten of him so doesn’t he chose a career move that supports your inexorable rise to a chair rather than vice versa”.

  11. Prof A N Onymous says:

    An excellent posting, and set of discussion responses, raising and exposing issues many senior academics will recognise. The reality is that it is very difficult to find suitable Mentors in the upper strata of academia, knowing that ‘they’ are all as busy and over-commited as the potential ‘mentees’ are. In reality this is a far wider issue than many people recognise, and something that University HR Managers are totally under-equipped to deal with. So, well done for raising this issue. VC’s and Pro-VC’s please take notice to look favourably on future approaches you may have from Senior Professors seeking your time, experience and Mentorship!

  12. Christa says:

    Athene, regarding your last paragraph I suspect that it is rather gender-related than a personal thing.

    For women it is often a need for confirmation for decisions already taken or about to be taken. I think that women like to have this second opinion of someone they trust “to be safe” or “sure”. But they are also more willing to ask for advice whereas many men are to a lesser extent doubtful and do not see necessity to ask (the classical “lost on the road and he as a driver will not ask for the way”).

    This holds not only for the academic career (post PhD or so), but also earlier (as an undergrad, where I saw us girls doubting much more than the boys if we had chosen the right subject at university,…) and now that I am working in the private sector, where female colleagues also have a tendency to be more doubtful and ask a mentor for advice than the male colleagues (my personal impression).

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