Personal Tutors or Personal Responsibility

At every stage of one’s career one needs to know who to turn to for advice. This need doesn’t stop just because one is senior, but probably feels most overwhelming when first setting out. That crucial stage when newly independent, probably away from home for the first significant time, and facing new challenges in an unfamiliar setting i.e. when one first starts at university, is likely to be particularly unnerving. However, every time one starts a new position of any type one needs to learn a new set of practices and memorize a new set of faces; without a mentor or well-disposed colleague to help you negotiate the maze, things may feel decidedly tricky. Often one doesn’t even know what one doesn’t know or what questions one should be asking.

For that reason, a couple of years ago the Athena Forum put out a simple bookmark  aimed at postdocs, to help them take control of their lives by suggesting questions they should be asking themselves and others while they worked out whether academic science was the right path for them. These aren’t simple yes and no questions, nor are they necessarily going to be answered swiftly. But they are supposed to highlight areas where answers are needed. The bookmark was supplemented by a guide on the Athena Forum website. The further hope was that individual universities would ‘personalise’ these bookmarks by adding in the names/locations of relevant contacts (such as their Careers Service) or giving weblinks to where more information could be accessed, on the reverse side. My own university certainly did, and gave it out to all new postdocs with their contracts.

For freshers arriving at university a wealth of information may be tossed in their direction – either verbally, by pointing students to appropriate websites, or possibly even in voluminous tomes which are hard to penetrate – but that doesn’t mean the information is either what is wanted/needed or that it sinks in. A few weeks into term, or possibly even a year or more later, the anxious student is left floundering and uncertain of where to go to for advice. Unfortunately, in many universities, systems to detect the floundering fresher or the stranded sophomore are sometimes not failsafe.

It is one of the beauties of the Cambridge collegiate system that the combination of regular small group teaching (supervisions) with continuity of teachers throughout the term (at least in the first year or two), coupled with the existence of (pastoral) tutors to advise if money matters go astray or family matters come to a head in one distressing way or another, mean that students shouldn’t  slip through the cracks. Add in a Director of Studies who is the point of contact to help the student negotiate their way through course options and prerequisites and it all means that the student should be well supported. (The DoS is also the contact point for supervisors concerned about a student’s lack of progress or signs of distress. That several supervisors will independently pass on concerns to a single point of contact over a student perhaps with suspected anorexia or a sudden deterioration in quality of work from one who was previously stellar, means that problems should be picked up swiftly.)

I know from discussions with students from elsewhere that not all universities are able to provide this level of support. I hear tales of students finding wrong choices were made in one year which then bar them from following a course they are really keen on in a later year. Students who are struggling may also find it much easier to hide the fact if there is no continuity of teaching and no one checking up on them if they don’t turn up to lectures time after time because they’re unwilling to come out from under the bedclothes and face the world. These can be tough times.

By the postdoctoral stage, individuals should have resolved many of the issues that first beset them. But undoubtedly there are new questions to be addressed and times can still feel tough. Maybe all their experiments bomb and there is water coming through the ceiling in their flat. The latter is a problem that (probably) needs a plumber to resolve, but if the former arises how is one supposed to tell if one is not cut out for research or the experiments the supervisor has demanded to be done are daft? It may not be obvious, but it is certainly an important distinction. The Athena Forum bookmark and guide I allude to above make it clear that for the postdoc their career is their responsibility. They need to find their own answers to questions about what they are – and just as importantly are not – good at. They need to use answers to questions like that to help them work out what they want to do next, although they should certainly seek advice in reaching those answers. A personal tutor is not the solution; but personal responsibility combined with supportive mentors/PI’s and peers are. Getting that happy blend of personal insight and external advice is all important, but may be easier said than done.

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