As I started my PhD in October 2019, I felt compelled to join Twitter. Apparently, it is there were academics share their ideas, call for papers, and academic opportunities. As I was trying to figure out how Twitter works (and I still am), I discovered hashtags PhD students use to ask questions, advice, and at times communicate their frustrations with their supervisors. This inspired me to reflect on my own experiences with the supervisors I have had while studying in Amsterdam, Cambridge and Oxford as well as on the experiences my friends had.
Here, I would like to share with you some of these reflections. Specifically, I would like to share with you a typology of possible supervisors that students may encounter. While this blog may be most relevant to students who plan to continue with an academic career and to graduate studies, I still believe this blog might be interesting for those of you who are not students but are interested in the bright and dark sides of academia.
Supervisors that are not supervisors
“Supervisors that are not supervisors” is the first type of supervisor (under)graduate students may encounter in their educational path. These are the kind of supervisors students should really do their best to stay away from. This kind of supervisors will make you believe they are doing their job, that of supervising, just because they will fulfill the check-list (e.g. meet with their student two times at term, write the term report on your progress). Yet, these supervisors may not respond to your emails, may not suggest you further readings, may not invest any intellectual energy in the supervision meetings, nor any critical thinking. They will only provide you with minimum feedback and sometimes won’t even ask you relevant question. If you come across one of these supervisors, you may want to find another one (because you can!).
Supervisors that do their jobs (and sometimes a little more)
Then you may find supervisors that do their jobs, and sometimes a little more. They will meet with you, answer your emails, suggest new ideas and provide you with meaningful and helpful feedback. Some supervisors may stop here but others will do a little more. For example, they might suggest conferences where you could apply to present your research. They might encourage you to take part in additional activities. They might also promote their students by writing reference letters for you (on time!) or referring you to potential job or academic-related opportunities. For those who plan to stay in academia, this is key. If your supervisor is one of those who do their jobs and sometimes a little more, you should consider yourself luckly and happy!
Finally, the mentor
It is rather difficult to define what mentorship is and who mentors are.
Mentoring is a long term relationship that meets a development need, helps develop full potential, and benefits all partners, mentor, mentee and the organisationSuzanne Faure
I like this definition of mentoring as it shows how a mentor is more than someone who provides you with specialised advice on a given issue. In the academic context this means that a mentor does more than guiding you in your academic work. A mentor is someone who will teach you the politics of academia, how to navigate this highly competitive sector, while protecting you from sharks. A mentor is als invested both in your intellectual and academic growth but also on your personal development. A mentor respects you, values you, is loyal and trustworthy.
Mentoring is a mutual relationship with an intentional agenda designed to convey specific content along with life wisdom from one individual to another. Mentoring does not happen by accident, nor do its benefits come quickly. It is relationally based, but it is more than a good friendship…mentoring is not two people who just spend time together sharing.Thomas Addington and Stephen Graves
I also like this defintion of mentoring as it points to the fact that mentorship is a relationship. As a relationship, mentorship can never be truly effective unless the mentee engages with the mentor in meaningful and constructive ways and continues being loyal and respectful of his/her mentor. In the academic context specifically, mentorships works when students are open and ready to accept and learn from the moments of discomfort that mentorship may bring. A mentor may highlights your faults, your weaknesses and expect you to overcome these. This is something not everybody can handle. In other words, being mentored means learning to become humble.
Why we, as students, need more mentors
My mentor said, ‘Let’s go do it,’ not ‘You go do it.’ How powerful when someone says, ‘Let’s!’Jim Rohn
Education is not merely about learning new concepts, new theories, new ways of conducting research. Education is about development (or at least should be). Education should be about learning how to become a better world citizen, learning how to learn, and learning how to make mistakes, accept them, and learn from these. These are all reasons why we, as students, need mentors who can inspire us, who can take us under their arm and walk with us on this process of self-development.
In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care. You must care. You don’t have to know how many square miles are in Idaho, you don’t need to know what is the chemical makeup of chemistry, or of blood or water. Know what you know and care about the person, care about what you know and care about the person you’re sharing with.Maya Angelou
Finally, students need mentor because they care, they care about their students, their academic success but most importantly they care about thier wellbeing. And care underlines success and growth both within and outside the educational setting.