Faculty members are constantly advising students about academic issues. Advising becomes pretty murky at times when students don’t know where to turn for help with financial, mental, family, and even extreme academic problems. In the best of situations academic advising becomes mentoring. Good mentors for students, careers, and life stages are priceless.
Who mentors the mentors?
Nancy Williams Walls passed away not long ago. I count her among my academic mentors. She was one of the few women scientists I knew early in my career who really understood all the barriers to women in science, including the regional and cultural ones. Sharing her understanding of those barriers kept me going through some rough periods. Those barriers haven’t moved very much in over 30 years since graduate school. In some ways, Nancy Walls was an unlikely mentor to me. We were in different fields in different institutions. She was the only woman in her department for many years, while I was one of several women in mine.
When I started my academic career there were no such things as mentors for new faculty. No one officially mentored me, except for maybe my department chair. Rather, I received spurts of good advice, especially during the early years, from a number of mostly senior colleagues. My last academic appointment was as an adjunct. That college has a policy of assigning new faculty members, even adjuncts, faculty mentors. My mentor and I were both of a similar age and career stage, it was a good match. Realistically it was mostly about learning the new work environment and having someone I could go to for advice. It was invaluable.
Leaving academic science has left me bereft of, colleagues, contacts, and mentors. It’s not an easy job to build a new career from the ashes of the old one. Keeping current with higher education, science, and staying intellectually engaged are some of the challenges.
Where did I find new mentors?
Like Nancy Walls, new mentors came from unexpected places. I started grant writing as a musician member of a community orchestra. Grant writing led to the nonprofit sector, new mentors, and a new career. Some of these new mentors cost money as they are business, fundraising, and grant writing coaches. Their advice was worth the price at any cost. These people showed me the way forward, but higher education and developing a post tenured faculty career was outside their collective experience. Fortunately, my current business mentor grasps the cultural nuances of higher education, including the sciences.
Only those who have had and lost academic careers understand the career stakes within the system. Through networking with another amateur musician, I joined a chamber orchestra. The director of that group retired early from a tenured faculty position for health reasons. Recently, I realized that in the months since I joined this group, I’ve found another unlikely mentor. This former academic lives well, staying intellectually engaged through composing, arranging, and teaching music in retirement. Now I have two mentors, one for business and one for living well in the next phase of life. Both came from unlikely places.
On the home page, I recall an old NSF program officer telling the panel I served on at the time, “Everybody needs mentors”. That was over 10 years ago and that advice remains timely, given this quote from a recent article on mentors,
As my father once told me, “Success is about finding your mentors and avoiding your tormentors.”
We need mentors for different stages and ages of our lives. So go find one. Meanwhile, my newsletter The Grant Science Journal is full of academic science survival tips. Subscribe to it and the blog if you want to know more.
Now, where did I put that 2nd violin part to the Beethoven string quartet movement I should be practicing?