Friday, June 08, 2007

Trying to be somebody useful.

That's what I've been up to lately.

Aspect 1: Be a mentor to my junior colleagues

Now that I have a full contingent of graduate students (well, as many as I feel I could reasonably handle at this stage of my career) I have realized I need to develop some kind of core of mentorship with my graduate students. Up until now I have pretty much just been getting by - answering questions as they come up, being more or less completely reactive, and not really helping them develop in their career.

I have only the vaguest ideas of how to do this, but making up my mind in a concrete way that I have this goal has led to some positive forward motion. Yay for that!

Aspect 2: Be a source of preparation for my undergraduates.

Instead of just teaching them. These people are, in some sense, the product of a goodly portion of my work - they are what I produce. And so I really want them to be as awesome as they want to be.

Aspect 3: Be a contributing member of my scientific field.

Now that I feel like I am rolling steadily towards tenure, I don't feel like I need to be quite as me-oriented. Which is good, because "me" doesn't end up being a very strong motivator for me. Now that I'm not so frazzled, I think I am regaining my passion for the social value of the work that I do, which makes the work a lot more enjoyable and satisfying.

Aspect 4: Be a contributing member of my family.

This one will be reaching a critical point later this fall, since my husband and I are expecting our first kid. I am, honestly, trying not to think about it too much, because I know I'll just worry about it (balance, tenure, blahblahblah), and that's really not productive.

You know, in the back of my mind one of the things I'm not looking forward to is that my homelife will no longer be mostly about me. Is it weird that in my professional life, I'm relieved that it's no longer mostly about me, but am dreading this at home?

Hm. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised to find some satisfaction in giving up my generally selfish ways?


CSS said...

Congrats on a baby! I was wondering why you weren't posting for so long. I enjoyed reading your blog and am looking forward for the 'baby aspect' of it as well. Don't worry about finding a balance - we are all bound to hit a steady-state at one point :) I just wish it will happen to you sooner than later.

Anonymous said...

As a first year assistant professor, I am interested in your thoughts on being a better mentor to your grad students. I basically received no career mentoring by my advisor and want to do better for my students. But, I do not realy know how to do that well. What would you suggest?

Average Professor said...

Well, like I said, I only have vague ideas. I didn't get much mentoring from my advisor either, until the very end, and by then it was all geared towards "positioning onesself to be a sucessful assistant professor." That info is good, but it shouldn't be the entirety of a person's career preparation.

But here are things I've noticed.

In my limited experience, the main thing that trips up a number of graduate students is their misunderstanding of the research process and their role in it. I know it varies from discipline to discipline (some are very hypothesis driven, some are some other way, etc.) but whatever the research culture in your field, your graduate students likely have only a foggy idea what it is.

So, with a few years behind me I now know that with most (but not all) grad students, we need to spend a lot of time at the outset getting on the same page about the process before we move too far forward with the project. Like, why is it so important to have a solidly constructed research objective, and how will that help them solidly construct an approach to tackling it? Etc.

Admittedly, it took me a while to figure out what the process and culture were in my field, since I myself didn't really understand it.

The other thing is to help them understand the greater purpose of the other things we'll ask of them: identifying the key journal articles relevant to their work, writing a proposal, presenting at a conference, writing a paper, etc.

My training in writing a paper was basically, "You've read a lot of papers, so you know what they're supposed to be like. Write one." But, this is not really that effective. I think it's much better to be explicit: here is the purpose of writing a paper, here is what you're trying to accomplish with each section, here are some common pitfalls I've found in my experience as an author/reviewer/journal editor.

But, yeah. Every student is different, so the level of intrusion into their work that will be helpful to them varies widely. That's the part I have the biggest trouble with - figuring out how much pushing or questioning they need from me, and then giving them just that amount. That sometimes keeps me up at night.