Several days ago I had scheduled a lab lunch with my group, where I was supposed to treat everyone to Sushi in honor of a paper that one of my students recently had accepted. However, someone was sick, and we had to postpone. So I found myself in the unusual situation of not having brought my own lunch, which I like to eat in front of the computer screen. So off it was to the cafeteria.
As I put together a salad from the salad bar, I was amused to see that beside the rolls and croissants was a tray full of Matzah–that bland and untasty form of unleavened bread that Jews typically eat on Passover. Personally, I can’t stand the stuff, and when I lived in Israel I would drive to nearby Arab villages for fresh Pita–or barring that, actually bake the unavailable stuff in my own oven.
While I am clearly a member of the tribe described by Cromercrox recently–(to make it perfectly clear, I am NOT a Norwich fan…)–I am certainly not a practicing or believing member. Nonetheless, in my own atheistic, secular and somewhat anti-social fashion, I do possess a sense of belonging. And I followed Sarah Palin’s “Blood Libel” comment in the wake of the Giffords shooting with some serious concerns.
Passover, however, with its legend, folklore and myths, does contain a pretty strong message–summed up in the plea to the Egyptian Pharaoh to “Let my people go!”
This phrase has become extremely well used in modern history, with countless examples of peoples crying out to be freed: the African American slaves, the blacks in South Africa during the apartheid years, jailed political prisoners and so on. However, it has not typically been associated with science labs, Ph.D. students and post-doctoral researchers.
While I feel awkward boasting about my own achievements, I see little recourse this time–added to the fact that this particular achievement really DOES mean a lot to me: this past week I was awarded the University of Nebraska Medical School’s “Outstanding Mentor of Graduate Students Award“. Aside from the pride at being nominated by former students and selected from a large pool of nominees (and being the faculty member at the earliest stage of his/her career to receive this honor), this caused me to reflect a good deal about the meaning of mentorship.
The summary of my philosophy of mentorship is described in the brief and edited interview that I had. But I would like to add the important Passover message of “Let My People Go!”
It seems that this is frequently the root of conflict between mentor and student, or mentor and postdoc. Ordinarily, the goals of the student and postdoc mesh with those of the mentor. However, some mentors see their goal as extracting every last bit of work from the lab trainees, disregarding their interests entirely. At the same time, the trainee wants and needs to go forward with his/her career. An egregious mentor will push the student or postdoc on and on, in an endless cycle, using his/her power over the situation abusively. In the US, this can frequently end in Ph.D. degrees that take 7 or 8 years to attain, and postdoctoral fellowships that go on to infinity.
“Just need to finish up a few more experiments, and then we can publish a bunch of papers. You don’t want to quit now when all the credit is there for you, just around the next bend?”
Ever hear that phrase, or something similar?
Yes, a Ph.D. student needs to complete a body of work, and yes, a postdoc needs to publish papers for career advancement. But generally speaking, if it doesn’t happen in the first 4-5 years, it ain’t gonna happen.
So I say –listen to the student and postdoc who are whispering, or even imagining those words: “Let My People Go!”
And have a great spring, Easter, Passover or whatever you may or may not choose to celebrate.