On mentoring

One of the most important jobs a professor has is to pay it forward: that is, to teach, train, mentor, support, and open up opportunities for their students and postdocs. It's a job that is undervalued by those who focus on the short term -- the administrators and review committees that judge us by the money we bring in and the papers we publish. It's a misunderstood job, as well; the goal of a good mentor is not to mold their students in their own image, but to push them; to expand their horizons, not to contract them around the mentor's own views. And it's probably one of the two or three most rewarding parts of the job (surpassed only by the fun of actually doing the research!)

I came to academia to do science: to research biology, and to solve problems that are as yet unsolved. And my goal is to become a good researcher, and to solve really hard problems well; hopefully that will be part of whatever legacy I have. But it's increasingly clear to me that the best, most lasting legacy possible is to train the next generations of scientists in doing good science, be it in industry or academia. For example, my father trained nearly 100 PhD students during his research career, and always felt that his training record was one of his most impactful contributions -- many of those 100 students are professors today, doing their own training. Pay it forward, indeed!

Recently, I realized that if I drop dead tomorrow (or don't get tenure in three years -- same thing, right?) I would still have touched a number of people's lives in really positive ways. For example, I received an e-mail from one student that participated in GSoC, telling me that she felt she had learned an immense amount about self-sufficiency and the value of making an effort from that experience. I hired another student to do lab grunt work; she ended up liking science, switching majors, graduating, and has now received several national fellowships and is going to graduate school. I don't take credit for much past hiring her, but if I hadn't hired her, she would not have had the opportunity to show how good she is. Blogging and writing tutorials counts, too: at PyCon, 2-3 people a year come up to me and tell me how much they appreciate one or another of my blog posts or tutorials. Even class teaching can be impactful -- at graduation recently, an entire group of CS students told me how much they'd enjoyed my class on Web dev, with one particular student introducing me to her parents as "one of the good ones".

It's hard to overstate how fantastic it is to watch students grow and change.

Despite the joys of transforming lives, many professors only want to take energetic, intelligent, well-spoken, well-trained students. Yet these students are the ones that already have opportunities, and frankly need less mentoring than others -- they already "get it", and really just need experience. Providing that experience is valuable, and a key part of training. But the same professors that jump at the 4.0 GPA student who speaks English natively and has tons of energy will turn down opportunities to take students from non-research intensive institutions, or unfocused students who come from non-academic backgrounds, or people who haven't the faintest idea what science is. And I think they do themselves and the students a disservice. These students simply have never seen the same opportunities that many students at (e.g.) MSU take for granted; the difference you could make in their lives dwarfs the impact you'd make on most better prepared students.

It's worth remembering that at some point we all start as wet-behind-the-ears youngsters that have never confronted a problem without an answer. Someone took a chance on us -- maybe it was easier to get that chance for those of us from a top-ranked institution, with an academic background (...me), or maybe it was a random "hey, do you want to work for me over the summer?" chance (...lots of people), or maybe it was an organized program to introduce underrepresented minorities to research (...lots of people). Now that you're a grad student, or a postdoc, or a professor, or an open source hacker with commit privileges to a dozen projects, take that chance. It's a lot of work but it can be more rewarding than pretty much anything else.

If I have a point with this blog post, it's this: one of the privileges of academia, and mentoring programs like GSoC, is being put in a position where you can touch many people's lives, as a mentor and a teacher. Do so! Take chances on people! Lay out some expectations and see who rises to meet them, and then chase down those that don't understand what to do. Don't start out with the expectation that you must be, or will be, rewarded in kind -- many students take years to be productive, may end up working on something completely different with someone else, and may never even say thanks. But that's OK, if you don't treat teaching and undergraduate research as a way to get more work done ('cause honestly, it's not), but rather as an opportunity to introduce the joys of your work to people who may have no idea that such awesome jobs exist. Pay it forward.


Legacy Comments

Posted by Greg Wilson on 2011-08-07 at 16:52.

Mentoring is the only part of academia I miss...

Posted by Nick Coghlan on 2011-08-07 at 17:43.

I think there's also a multiplicative effect involved as well. I can't
get more hours into my own day, but by encouraging others to get
enthusiastic about open source and helping them with the process of
getting involved, the payoff can be far larger than if I was to spend
that time just doing my own coding.

Posted by Steve Holden on 2011-08-08 at 10:33.

The reason I left the academic world was its ridiculous under-
valuation of teaching and mentoring work.

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