As anyone in a PhD program knows, your experience is highly dependent on your relationship with your advisor. We discussed in our earlier post, How to Choose a PhD Advisor, ways to hopefully make the “right” (best?) choice.

While there are many advisors in the world, not all can be called mentors. The difference is the personal connection. That is not to say that your advisor must be your mentor (in fact, it is sometimes better if you have a mentor who is not your advisor), but many students find it helpful. A mentor can provide guidance at a level that an advisor sometimes can’t.

That sounds vague, touchy-feely, and wishy-washy; it’s difficult to articulate, but it’s something that the mentee can feel. Mainly, your advisor is a mentor if you can talk to them deeply about the issues in your professional life without fear of judgment, and with the expectation that they can provide guidance (or at least be a sounding board for your thoughts).

Fear of talking to an advisor is the subject of this lovely article from Nature: A growing phobia. To summarize: a famous scientist neglects his student and is shocked that the student has an emotional response. After blaming his mentee for his own negligence, he then presumes to advise would-be mentors on how to handle fragile graduate students.

Graduate school, where advisors are made, teaches you a lot of things: how to think critically, how to see projects to completion, and to understand an insanely detailed body of knowledge about one particular topic. Ideally, graduate school would also teach you how to be an advisor and a mentor.  From what I’ve observed in my time in academia, few learn this skill before reaching a tenure track post.

How does one become a good mentor? There are probably classes on this topic, but I’ve never come across one. So we must learn the only other way: through experience.

The sad truth is that learning through experience only works if you:

  1. Get feedback about your performance
  2. Incorporate that feedback to change your approach

1 is tricky – a student is very unlikely to confront an advisor about unsatisfactory advising, because that advisor is something akin to a boss. Your advisor can fire you. Perhaps it’s more difficult at some universities than others, but the fact remains that your advisor has power over you.  Even if they don’t fire you, your advisor writes The Letter, the one that will be used for the rest of your career. Staying on their good side is important.

Therefore, if you’re actually interested in being a good mentor, you will need to ask for feedback on your mentoring skills. Furthermore, you will need to make it safe for students to answer.

2 feeds directly into this. If you make changes to your behavior based on feedback, it will make it easier for the student to give feedback in the future.  However, habits are hard to break, and the only thing in academia more inflated than effect sizes is egos.

In any case, do not be like Eleftherios Diamandis. If you are so busy that you ignore a student for six months, why have a student at all?