Monday, October 29, 2012

Finding mentors

In the comments to my last post, a grad student, Canuck Down South, asked how I managed to make friends and find mentors among senior scholars. It's a good question, and something I think is important for grad students and junior faculty to start working on as early as possible.

This is partly because it takes time and it's nothing you can force. I'm not a model of success, but it's definitely something I've been thinking about from the moment I got this job: I either already knew or vaguely intuited that, with the exception of my advisor, my recommenders going forward should absolutely not be faculty from my graduate institution. At the same time, there was no one at RU who would be appropriate, since I didn't have in-field senior colleagues. So, if you can't or shouldn't lean on your grad school profs or your colleagues at your first job, where do you turn?

Unless you're already publishing work that gets you unsolicited fan mail, I think the only answer for a junior scholar is conferences, professional societies, or anywhere else you meet people in person (for example, if there's a regional colloquium or working group that draws scholars from institutions other than your own). And your best bets at an early stage are the smaller venues: special one-off conferences, where you might actually get to talk at some length with people who are vastly your seniors; small societies dedicated to a specialized aspect of your research; or conferences that involve workshops or seminars rather than formal paper presentations.

And then. . . you present good work and you seize any opportunity that presents itself. If you see people whose work you admire, introduce yourself and tell them so. Sometimes--not always, not even most the time--they'll ask you about yours. And for goodness sakes, if someone comes up to you after a paper and wants to talk to you about it, keep talking. If you chat with someone for more than a few minutes, and especially if they offer you something in the way of real advice (even if it's not actually immediately useful or relevant), drop them an email after the conference saying how nice it was to meet them and how much you appreciate their suggestions. Most of these people, too, will not turn out to be actual mentors, but as I wrote a number of years back, the point of networking is that you never know.

Gradually, you'll start to know people. And sooner or later, someone will explicitly tell you that they'd love to read your work, or keep in touch about the results of your research. You'll be flattered, but you may not believe them. Believe them. Take them up on it.

Because here's the secret: most established scholars really want to know what younger people are working on, and where their corner of the discipline is headed. Many fear, at least a tiny bit, losing their finger on the pulse of what's happening. This is especially true for scholars who aren't teaching at doctoral institutions, or who teach at second- or third-tier ones. We all need mentors. But many people also want mentees: they're an additional way to stay engaged, an opportunity to give back to the profession--and, yes, a means of extending their own scholarly influence.

When it comes right down to asking for a letter of reference--or seeing whether someone would read an article draft or whatever--there's still usually a point where you just have to ask. And for me, anyway, the cold ask has never gotten easier: even when I'm asking for a letter from someone who's written letters for me in the past, it still takes days or weeks of avoidance before I'll actually send that email. But if you've laid the right groundwork, and the other person is someone who's been sincerely supportive of and enthusiastic about your work, they won't mind. After all: it's their profession, too.


Wise and worldy readers, what additional advice would you give?


Comrade Physioprof said...

This is all really good advice, and getting good at networking and mentor-finding requires getting. Over the fear of the "cold ask". One thing to keep in mind is that everyone likes praise, to talk about themselves, and to feel appreciated. So as a junior scholar, the best way to initiate connections with senior scholars is to tell them you find their work fascinating, ask them to elaborate on certain aspects of it--a great conversation starter is always to ask a scholar how they got interested in their field of inquiry--and then explain how valuable you would find their input on your work. Only the coldest-hearted douche would fail to respond to that kind of sincere approach.

Miss Self-Important said...

I have no advice, but do wish to share this example of mentorship relations gone wrong:, The circumstances suggest that this woman may have been kind of a twit, but she asked FIFTEEN different people chair her committee and they all declined. Doesn't that make your grad school experience seem a lot cheerier by contrast?

Susan said...

What CPP said. Flattery really does help; and saying to someone, "I found your work on X particularly helpful when I was figuring out Y or Z, and I would really appreciate the chance to talk about it more" is a good starter.

The cold ask is always the cold ask; I know many colleagues whose take I'd like on things are as busy as I am, so I am always hesitant... But actually, if someone has shared interests, then they will want to read!

moria said...

It's been my experience that most senior scholars don't want to know what their juniors are doing – so it has become my practice to seek out and befriend (bementor?) those who do. They make it obvious. How? They ask. And then they listen. I think it's really easy to indulge the Grad Student Neurosis Centers of your brain by neglecting to believe in that asking and listening as real interest – one of my main tasks these past few years has been to learn how to resist that indulgence and believe in those expressions. And when someone has said, "I'd be interested to read x or hear more about y," to SHOUT DOWN the insecurity that says not to send that e-mail. I've lost nothing by believing in their interest, and in one case gotten a valuable (in both personal/intellectual and professional terms) relationship out of that leap of faith. So my two cents amount to this: grad students, shut up your jerkbrain. Because it doesn't know what it's talking about.

Canuck Down South said...

Thanks a lot for the detailed response, Flavia. Your post and the comments to it have confirmed the impression I already had about the importance of conferences. Now I just need to start going to them, and start hunting down the small ones that might be relevant to my field.

i said...

The ask is the hard part, at least from where I sit. I've never had trouble making (more) senior contacts, because I go to conferences, am interested in work in my field (like, in a "I would do this for fun" kind of way), and I really like meeting people. But asking is very hard for me. I don't even mind asking for advice, because that's easy to give in 10 minutes over the phone. But a ref letter is a lot of work to do well -- it's not just the writing, it's reading the candidate's work, contextualizing it, etc. We owe that effort to people we're institutionally bound to, like our students or younger colleagues, but how to ask a senior person who has their own posse of students to write for, their own junior colleagues, and so on? I did ask for such a letter once, and I got a very kind "no" in reply -- which was fine, but made me wary of asking again.

I'd love to hear from some of the senior people who read this blog. Do you consider it an imposition if someone junior you know from the field asks you for a letter? Does it help if s/he makes it easy to say no? Or if your work is really closely related?

Flavia said...

I: I'm not a senior person (obviously), but I've now asked a good handful of them for letters or some similarly labor-intensive favor at one point or another. I always make it very easy to say no--indicating that I know their time is precious, that I do have other people who can write for me, but I would value their recommendation/review of my work for X, Y, or Z reasons. Only one person has declined, and one person whom I REALLY didn't expect to say yes--a very big name at a very big school--did.

But I've also chosen these people pretty strategically. I've had most success when asking favors of scholars who, though they're big names in a specific area, don't have their own doctoral students. And all of them are people who've actually read my work or at least come to many successive papers and who have initiated real conversations about my work. Generally, they're also people I've socialized with at conferences. I still HATE asking, but I've always felt 80% certain they'd say yes, because they're people I've got a real relationship with.

And. . . as someone who's just starting to move into what you might call early-mid-career myself, I recognize the enthusiasm for younger people's work, and the desire for mentees, in myself. An actual rec letter from me isn't worth anything, but I've started spontaneously volunteering to read younger scholars' work, when it seems closely related to mine.

ntbw said...

I guess I am senior (full prof, department head, decent list of pubs), though it still feels a bit odd to claim that identity. I never mind when newer folks ask me to read their work or ask me for letters. I figure I will never, ever be able to pay back the generosity of all those who have written letters beyond counting for me in my forays on the market, applications for fellowships, etc., so it's my duty to "pay it forward." I am pretty sure I have never said no to a request for a letter from a grad student, junior scholar, or from a tenure and promotion committee seeking an external report (though I have declined to write letters for a few undergrads wanting to apply for grad school who just were not academically qualified).

Also, I go out of my way to offer to read scholars' work, to engage in ongoing dialogue. For instance, when I hear a more junior professor or grad student give a really good conference paper, I'll try to meet her afterwards, chat for a few minutes, and give her my card, telling her, "If you ever want me to read anything, I'd be very glad to do so. I'm interested in your work and would like to get to know your project better."

EngLitProf said...

This is excellent advice, Flavia. I’m assuming that if you are a newer scholar (0-6 years past the Ph.D.?), your need to rely more upon letters from outside your doctoral institution is dictated not only by the time since your doctorate but also by the nature of the application—whether you are applying for a job or applying for a fellowship; whether the job you are applying for would be your first on the tenure-track.

I’m thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of people asking “scholars who, though they’re big names in a specific area, don’t have their own doctoral students.” It surely helps if these “big names in a specific area” can be recognized as such by whoever reads recommendations they write. I can identify the important and authoritative people in my specialty who do not teach at doctoral institutions, but I’m not as good with similar figures in Early Modern or in Nineteenth-Century American. I recognize, nonetheless, that one advantage of using such scholars is that they will often be able to write unusually persuasive letters. And not only would these scholars probably like to be asked to write, but there also are disadvantages to relying upon scholars at Ph.D.-granting departments, even though the latter are often the big names you want on your recommendations. An anecdote to illustrate a point that “i” made: one very distinguished scholar in the University of California system wrote for me when I was three or four years past the Ph.D., and was great about it, but she then declined because (as she explained) I was competing for jobs and fellowships with students from her own department. (I remember thinking her decision was strange because as time went by I would be less, not more, likely to be competing with them).

i said...

Two quick notes --

First, I'm loving this discussion, especially since it's also quite useful.

Second, and especially because I'm not making efforts to maintain my anonymity: I should make it clear that the senior scholar I asked claimed to be too busy, that scholar is genuinely super busy and committed to many things, and the letter was for something that would almost certainly not have put me in competition with any of his students. It really was on the up and up, and I respect someone who says no rather than writing a poor letter. (And I wound up getting the fellowship with the set of letters I did have.) The only reason why it put me off asking is my own unwillingness to put someone in a potentially awkward situation. I always try to make it easy to say no, but I know it still puts the onus on them to do so, which is no fun for them.

Flavia said...


Thanks for this perspective! It's been much my own assumption, and I'm pleased to have it confirmed. Should I ever be anyone whose feedback or mentoring a younger scholar might value, I hope to be as generous.


You're absolutely right that I'm conflating two or three rather different kinds of favors, and that the kind of person who would be a valuable reader of one's work, the kind of person who would write a great job letter, and the kind of person who would write a great fellowship/grant letter, are not necessarily the same. In some cases, the bigger the name, the better, and it's obviously harder for junior scholars to come by friendships/mentorships with senior scholars unless they're their grad school faculty or colleagues at a first job.

But at least in my field, many of the big name folk participate in smaller societies and conferences, too, and those are can be great and sometimes surprisingly easy ways to develop professional relationships--even with those you regard as major stars. (When there are 40 of you sleeping in the dorms at some tiny college in the woods & taking all your meals together, you bond quickly.)

I meant, simply, that an easier way to start developing mentors, with a greater likelihood of success, is to seek out scholars whose work is outstanding but who are, for one reason or another, more "niche" in their specializations (or who share a niche interest with you). If you're writing a dissertation with a chapter on, let's say, Thomas Wyatt, you can probably meet every living Wyatt expert pretty quickly--and precisely because there isn't a ton of new work on Wyatt, even the biggest names in Wyatt Studies are more likely to be enthused by your work, interested in reading it, and eager to rope you into the Wyatt Society. Your work on Shakespeare, even if it's very smart indeed, is unlikely to produce the same effect on the biggest names in Shakespeare.

So, trying to get Stephen Greenblatt as a mentor is a losing game. But the grand poo-bah of Wyatt Studies might very well want to strike up a scholarly friendship. Added bonus: it's more likely to be a truly mutually beneficial friendship.

(N.B.: This is just a fer instance. As far as I know, no Wyatt Society exists & I don't have a clue who the big names in that field are. I'm a seventeenth-centuryist, yo.)

Doctor Cleveland said...

I don't believe Flavia just dissed Surrey Studies like that.

Why has it always gotta be about Wyatt? Huh? Why can't both sides just get along.

Doctor Cleveland said...

On a more serious note, you can still find mentors if you work on super-duper-canonical authors like, um, Shakespeare. The trick is that you need to look for scholars who share one of your niche *interests* in Shakespeare/Milton/Chaucer/etc. studies.

No matter how canonical the author you study, you almost certainly use certain methodologies or examine certain subtopics that only a relatively small subset of scholars in your large field study. It's the scholars in that subset (or in your two or three distinct subsets) that you seek out for mentoring.

There may be a lot of Shakespeareans. But there aren't that many Shakespeareans doing Shakespeare performance history. There may be a lot of Miltonists, but there aren't a lot of people doing Milton and the law. Looking for more senior people who share your particular interests is the way to go.

Those people are both more likely to be interested in your work, and more likely to be helpful to you, because they know what you're talking about.