I’ve been meaning to write a short post about the importance of having a good mentor in your life, but as the man said, it takes longer to write something brief than an exegesis that is more, well, exegetic. So this will have to do.
I’ve been sufficiently lucky to have had two people to whom the term ‘mentor’ might well be applied. The first was Professor R. McN. Alexander of the University of Leeds, with whom I studied as an undergraduate. The second was the late, great John Maddox, erstwhile Editor of your favourite weekly professional science magazine beginning with N, who had an aberration the wisdom and prescience of hiring me. My mentors were (I say ‘were’, but one of them is still very much alive and active) very different from each other in many ways – this difference is all to the good, for it allows me to distil those qualities of mentorship which, I think, they had in common.
First – they had connections. The Old-Boy Network is not to be sniffed at.
Second – they would seek to guide, but never to dominate. Micromanagement is not a good sign in a mentor. My mentors always gave me a nudge in the right direction, but on the whole left me to make my own mistakes, and learn from them.
Third – they were always mild, calm and reasoned. Raised voices are not a good sign of mentorship. This isn’t to say that they didn’t know how to deliver a salutary blow, where needed, but such things should be used sparingly, if at all.
Fourth – mentors leave a legacy of achievement, not only in their own right, but in the people they’ve mentored.
Fifth – in summary, mentors often bear a strong resemblance to Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Albus Dumbledore, or God.
And finally, a little story.
One sunny morning in Spring, a rabbit is browsing in a lettuce patch, when she is ambushed by a fox. “Yum yum little bunny!” leers the fox, “I’m going to take you home for my lunch!”
“B – b – b – but you can’t do that,” says the rabbit, “I haven’t finished my Ph. D. thesis!”
The fox is so surprised he drops the rabbit. “A rabbit? Doing a Ph. D. thesis? Pull the other one.”
“No, it’s true!” says the rabbit. That she didn’t immediately bolt for cover is a mark of how much she welcomed anyone taking any interest at all in her Ph. D. thesis.
“Oh yeah?” says the fox, “what’s it about then?”
The rabbit draws herself up to her full height and says, somewhat portentously, “the title is ‘On The Superiority Of Rabbits Over Foxes and Wolves’”.
“Right, that’s it,” says the fox. “Enough of such twaddle. I’m going to take you home for my lunch anyway.”
“Please don’t!” says the rabbit. “If you don’t believe me, I can show you my work, and if you still don’t buy it, you can eat me. How about that?”
“Deal”, says the fox, already slavering at the thought of bunny bourgignon. So the rabbit leads the fox down her rabbit hole – but only the rabbit emerges.
Time passes. Spring becomes Summer.
Autumn finds the same rabbit picking blackberries in a country lane, when she is set upon by a wolf. “What luck!” says the wolf, “I’m going to take you home for my dinner!”
“Hang on,” says the rabbit, “I still haven’t finished my Ph. D. thesis!”
“A rabbit? Doing a Ph. D. thesis?” says the wolf, “I’ve heard about bunnies like you from my vulpine friends.”
“No, it’s true!” says the rabbit. “It’s called ‘On The Superiority Of Rabbits Over Foxes and Wolves’”.
“You really are quite something,” laughs the wolf, wiping tears of mirth from its eyes. “I’m going to take you home for my dinner anyway.”
“Please don’t!” says the rabbit. “If you don’t believe me, I can show you my work, and if you still don’t believe me, you can eat me. How about that?”
“Sounds fair enough” says the wolf: “what have I got to lose? This is easier than stealing blackberries from a – er – bunny. Lead on, O Doomed Bunny!” So the rabbit leads the wolf down her rabbit hole – but only the rabbit emerges.
Winter comes, with its chill breezes and its snow and ice, but after winter comes the Spring, whan that Aprille with his shours soote, the droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote, to coin a phrase, and our bunny is in a field cropping fresh new grass. Another rabbit comes to join her. “I haven’t seen you for simply ages,” says the visitor. “What have you been up to?”
“I’ve been working hard on my Ph. D. thesis, and – guess what – I’ve just submitted,” says our heroine, proudly.
“That’s fantastic!” says the second rabbit. “Congratulations! The carrots are on me! What’s it about?”
“It’s called ‘On The Superiority Of Rabbits Over Foxes and Wolves’”.
“Amazing! Like, totally wicked, cool and awesomesauce! How did you reach your conclusions?”
“Come down my burrow, and I’ll show you”, says the first rabbit. So down the burrow they go.
In the first chamber, they see a workstation, surrounded by piles of disks, papers, experimental equipment, half-eaten lettuce leaves – a scene that any graduate student would find familiar.
In the second chamber, they find an impressive pile of bones – bones of foxes, and bones of wolves.
And in the third chamber, they see, fast asleep, an enormous and very satisfied looking bear.
Moral – do any damn fool project you like, but make sure you have a good mentor.