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?