Tuesday, April 30, 2013

When mentors are the biggest flakes of all (with a bonus Early Thirsty)

So yesterday I read this little gem from the Crampicle about how all academic failure is basically your own damn fault, especially if you fail to seek a Decent Number of Quality Mentors. It's not the mentors' fault if they suck--it's your fault for not finding enough of them.

The same day, I got an email from a grad school mentor informing me that zhe has managed to overextend hirself for the foreseeable future and will be unable to write the rec letter zhe promised me not even a month ago. A rec letter that, as I tried to explain to hir, has basically already been written (by hir own hand), and would simply need to be readdressed to a new committee.

Add to this epic failure of time management the fact that I emailed my adviser about the same rec issue more than a month ago and have yet to hear back from hir. Strike two.

The only long-term mentor I've been able to count on has, in fact, been carrying on a torrid affair with a former grad student (creating the department's most scandalous open secret), so my professional trust has been severely curtailed by personal disgust.
Times like these make me wish CM weren't pseudonymous, so I could request a recommendation from Cal. Or Leslie. Or Stella. Or Strelly, as long he promises not to blow up my school in return for the favor. Really, I'm open to mentoring from whoever won't magically turn into a flake as soon as I ask for a goddamn letter. And, seriously, the CM gang collectively does more for my professional morale than any of the actual or would-be mentors I've ever met.

But, alas, my friends, I know this solution amounts to an impossible dream (as does my idea to reach a cattle prod across the ocean and buzz some sense into these supposed role models). And so, in my effort to combat the negativity of these mentor-flakes, I humbly submit this Early Thirsty:

Q: Have you ever been contacted (more or less) out of the blue for a letter of recommendation, or some other mentor-like duty? What would persuade you to accept such a request from someone you might have met only once, or know of but don't really know well?


  1. Yes. An undergrad I had in two classes asked me for a rec to, of all things, pharmacy school. The two weird bits are that (a) although he was in two of my classes, they were both sizable general ed affairs in which he never really said anything, and (b) my field has nothing to do with chemistry, biology, or anything of the sort. I triple-checked that he really wanted the letter, explained that I didn't think I'd be able to say much beyond some generic praise (he did make good grades), and went ahead and wrote the thing. I have no idea what happened with that.

  2. When it's someone I really could not write a good letter for, I know the person is just shopping/fishing around. I never worry about saying, "Maybe you can find someone better suited to do a good job on this. It's not me."

    In a couple of cases where that happened, the person just sort of disappeared. That's okay with me.

  3. I've certainly done the same thing for my undergrads, Darla. But the postgrad mentorship/recommendation game seems to be guided by a wholly different logic. I'm irritated by the sudden radio silence / sudden withdrawal of support from people who until now seemed 100% behind me, and who have written letters of support in the past.

    I recognize the need to expand my circle of mentors--OK, fine, the Crampicle has something like a point--but it's not clear how to obtain a solid, suitably invested mentor outside one's own school after the PhD hurdle has been cleared. If my committee is basically abandoning me, where do I turn?

    Sigh. I'm going to have to send some emails, and I guess there's no other way for them to sound but desperate.

    What a system.

  4. Anyone you've gotten to know a little from the conference circuit? I've acted as an occasional referee for a couple of people in similar positions, when I knew something of their background, had met them at conferences, maybe had research chats, read their papers - whilst of course I can't write a recommendation with as much personal knowledge as your committee, increasingly in my (UK-centric) experience the fact of having a known referee is more important than the details of what they say - on the job-hunt, concerns about equality and liability mean that the content of references is mostly just checked for serious problems, and in the grant hunting area references which emphasise how exciting the research is and that the person is capable of doing it are what matters, not necessarily the detailed knowledge...

    1. I've met some big names in a very superficial way, and attended some major conferences, but my name has only been in print for a matter of weeks, not even months. It sounds like you're in the sciences, where my partner also works, and he does seem to have more like a real "circuit" as you call it, with enough regular and sustained contact with people to build networks over the years in relatively tight-knit subfields.

      The humanities require a lot more individual investment, it seems, and I feel very presumptuous about asking others to invest much of anything in what I've done, and to vouch for what I might go on to do. Especially after those who have already made that investment, and given it the seal of approval, suddenly say they have no more time to confirm their support.

      Perhaps I can muster the cojones to email some of these big guns I've encountered in passing and say LET ME INTRODUCE YOU TO MY FABULOUS WORK, and see if there are any takers/converts. Is it really that simple?

    2. Edna, don't think about it as "no mentor" vs. "Nobel Prize winning mentor." There's a lot of people who are a little more established than you are but could still benefit themselves from a professional relationship with you. Offer to help them organize a symposium or serve on a professional organization's committee with them. Yes, it's more work for you but it's a way to demonstrate your value to others. I have been both the mentor and mentee in this way and it has benefited me in both circumstances.

  5. The person I mentored was a grad student at another school. He wanted experience organizing conference symposia, which I've done a couple of times. I knew it would be more work with his help than if I did it alone but there could be long term benefits, such as getting to know his more famous former research advisor, establishing a relationship that could lead to research collaborations and getting his help organizing meetings in the future. I did it in order to build a relationship that could benefit me in the future. That's what it's all about.

  6. I've encountered somewhat the same problem (more in seeking referees than mentors, but there's obviously some overlap between the roles). In my case, I'm pretty sure "I don't know much about your current work" and/or "it's time to make professional connections beyond your grad program" were polite ways of members of my grad department saying "we're focused on getting jobs for our current crop of Ph.D.s; it's been too long since you graduated for us to really put our weight behind you." That's fair enough, but it's definitely another one of the Catch-22s of the current sluggish market (and of the various sorts of stopgap positions we end up taking, which aren't tremendously oriented toward making new connections).

    I've had a bit of luck cultivating one referee of the sort Ben describes (somebody I met at a conference, who's a bit ahead of me in terms of pursuing her research/publication agenda, and has written letters for a couple of fellowships for me). I was able to do her a favor (she'd taken a bus to the conference site, I was driving back in the direction she needed to go, and to give her a lift), and we struck up a friendly professional acquaintance that has continued. But that's one. I need to keep working on this; it's probably the second most important thing (after lack of publications) that keeps me from going on the market.

  7. Not an answer to your question (and sort of implicit in my answer above), but I'd guess that your grad school mentor's "time management" problem is, in fact, a conflict of interest(s) problem: zhe has already highly recommended someone else for the position in question, and is unwilling to recommend you as well. Maybe others will disagree, but that's my guess.

    It seems to me that it should be possible to write honest letters for two candidates, and let the hiring committee sort it out (and I'm sure that plenty of advisers end up doing just that), but some people may be reluctant (perhaps especially if every letter they send out declares the person being recommended to be the best student they'd had in 10 years, or similar superlatives).

  8. Another big issue for you is that you are abroad. Any contacts you make in your new country of residence might or might not be known over here.

  9. @Cassandra: Your points are 100% valid for a job search (and I've had that happen to me in the past) but in this case it's a completely internal thing. No big move in the works. This is why it's especially frustrating.

    @Noirazul: My problem is actually, oddly, the reverse--the contacts I make in my adopted country are useless to me for internal reviews. They specifically want overseas scholars to weigh in on our professional stature. How exactly the higher-ups expect us to gain and maintain these foreign contacts when they balk at paying for transcontinental professional travel is another issue...

    @Ben: Excellent advice, but for organizational experience it's been a struggle to overcome the obstacle of distance. And my subfield has proven reluctant to embrace virtual gatherings between or beyond physical meet-ups, and I have to be selective about which of those I attend (see the issue of travel reimbursement above...). But I will brainstorm some ideas and see what I can do.

  10. That piece in the Crampicle is really weak, the product of the kind of shallow thinker who dispenses condescending "advice" in the form of long bullet lists. Typical of the "scholars" who become adminiflakes: Oklahoma must be happy to be rid of him, and now Wyoming knows what they're in for.

    I had a real mentor when I was starting out, as a master's student: an incredibly smart leading researcher, who by lifelong choice avoided behaving like one, keeping his freedom and his sharp sarcasm intact. He was also my closest personal friend at the time; he passed away at a young age, and I miss him. Later with my PhD adviser (who has a completely different personality) I had a distant, at times contentious interaction. I wrote my thesis completely on my own, and learned a lot by being in the very rich environment surrounding him, but nothing directly from him.

    With this history, the concepts "PhD adviser" and "mentor" are completely separate in my mind. "Mentor" is an informal, personal relationship that develops organically and serendipitously, or not at all. My PhD adviser has been completely uninvolved in my career over the years (though I probably got some mileage just from association with the name); I have asked him for LORs a couple of times (and written one for him), but I'm sure they say little more than "I recommend him", since we've had zero scientific contact since I finished.

    I'm wondering if you (OP) are having a similar problem to my own: "out of sight, out of mind". If you're overseas, or at an undesirable place (as I am), you're that much easier to ignore, in professional-social terms. The only thing we can do is painstakingly build, over the years, a small group of colleagues who are also friends (maybe collaborators), and who would step up in case of need, as we would for them. As Ben points out, it is more important they be reliable than stars (though it helps if they're a bit better known than ourselves). Obviously this can't be done overnight. I've been in the situation (recently) of needing a LOR "right now", and having to ask people who know my work, but have no personal connection with me. I don't take it personally if they decline (or don't respond), and I don't expect them to write winning letters.

    I much prefer the system where you give people a list of names, and they ask for references if they want to (from your list or otherwise). In my experience, tenure/promotion and academic hiring in Europe work that way. Much better to avoid the personal involvement, exchange of favors and debt inherent in having to ask people to write LORs for you.

    1. All this writing and I didn't answer the question: I'd be happy to write a LOR for someone I don't know personally, but it would have to be based entirely on the work: I'd look at the person's best papers, and write the best letter possible. As for "mentoring" in general: I doubt I can be a good mentor, except in the rare cases where I like the person (meaning, I see something of myself in them.)