Over the years I have benefitted significantly from mentors. Two in particular stand out: in Cambridge Sir Sam Edwards (whom I wrote about here) and, at that critical juncture when as a postdoc I quit the world of metals that had left me cold and started working on polymers, Ed Kramer. The latter was the man who metaphorically picked me up and inspired me (rather late on) with a true love of research, nurtured it and me and made sure that I got to think about the right questions and meet the right people. Sir Sam continued the process a couple of years later, throwing in some significant funding opportunities along the way. I owe them a great deal. I hope I also learned a lot from them about what a mentor is (and also perhaps what they aren’t).
Mentors, in my view and as these examples show, do not have to be the same sex (they weren’t) or your line manager (one was, one wasn’t) or formally assigned (they weren’t). They may be any of these things or circumstances may mean they are not. What matters is that they are willing to invest time in talking to you, taking you and your inexperience and/or naivety seriously. You may meet them regularly or just occasionally when the need arises or circumstances permit. For me, the other class of people I have turned to for wise words are those I have met infrequently at conferences but with whom I have ‘clicked’ to the extent that a chat in the bar can turn into serious advice, stuff to mull over at leisure and possibly subsequently follow up with discussion via email. People like this have also played an important part in my development as a scientist and facilitated my career progression.
It is that latter kind of mentor/friend I want to discuss here. I hope – indeed I know – that I too have fulfilled that role for both men and women whom I have met at meetings, be they purely scientific meetings or through committee work. Attending an annual conference last week, at which I have been a long term habitué, I was struck by one thing: those people I thought I might have served some useful role as mentor to were now, not mere raw young researchers, but fully paid-up professors and heads of department. We had all grown up. It no longer seemed appropriate to think that I could act as mentor to them now; I’d have to rebadge them as friends who might turn to me for advice (or maybe not, as I’ve never been a head of department myself). On the other hand the next generation of young researchers seem so far removed from me it is harder for me to imagine getting into a mentoring relationship with them in that casual way. Although I can imagine it could still happen in a departmental setting, at a conference bar I must merely seem like an impossibly-old fogey who anyhow no longer has the stamina to stay up setting the world to rights beyond midnight. So, although I’d be perfectly happy to make time for them or answer specific questions, I find it harder to imagine a situation arising where that ‘clicking’ moment might arise that would lead to a fruitful long-term interaction.
It makes me think that I have a personal classification for this class of mentor-mentee relationship that has an age component, or rather an age-differential aspect. Those whom I regard as mentors for me, those two named above, are at least 15 years older than me. Others, older than me but who are closer in age and who have given me sage advice over the years I consider as friends rather than mentors. Maybe initially that wasn’t so but by now the age difference seems irrelevant. Likewise, those who are a little younger than me but whom I’m more than happy to toss thoughts around with couldn’t possibly count as mentees but as friends. But that group who are relatively recently promoted to professors, who are probably in the 10-15+ year younger-than-me bracket are those I’d initially have considered as people I was potentially mentoring but suspect I need to reclassify. However, given that I can’t imagine rebranding my older mentors of that age-gap as friends, because it would seem cheeky and inappropriate, it is possible that the same applies to those younger than me and I will also permanently stand as mentor not friend to them, however old they may themselves be.
As I haven’t mentally articulated these thoughts before I’ve no idea if the distinctions I am making here are usual. Maybe it’s just semantics and irrelevant. What matters is that we all have people we trust to turn to when the going gets tough, the questions pressing and difficult or the choices that lie ahead make it hard to know which way to turn. Mentors, however found and however defined, serve a vital role for all of us. However senior we get to be, I believe we need people we can use as sounding boards occasionally, people who feel comfortable saying you’d be a fool to attempt some task or other because….you have no time, you have the wrong skill-set or maybe that it would take too much out of you. But being able to say that you’d be an idiot to try something is just as valuable a role as telling someone they’d be an idiot not to try. What matters is that objective advice is given kindly (even if the recipient chooses to ignore it). It takes time to develop that kind of trust, particularly if the individual is not your line manager and seeing you day to day, which is why so often the mentor relationship blurs into friendship without any loss of value.
Making sure that one establishes these relationships before one’s career hits turbulent waters or difficult decision times is important. What you call them less so.