For the first 2 years of my Ph.D. program, my primary adviser was always available when I needed help, promptly responding to emails and meeting with me when questions arose. But that abruptly changed when he went on sabbatical and left the country. My emails were rarely answered, and our scheduled meetings were often canceled. […]
Leaving work late the other night, I crossed paths with a tearful postdoc colleague. The encounter left a scar in me. I was tired after what was for me a long day. But for her, it was after yet another mandatory four-hour meeting that ended at 10 pm. As she shared her story with me, I could see on her face how she was calculating and anticipating the different consequences of each decision she could make: “What will happen if I tell my boss I can’t make it to regular late night meetings? What will my husband say? How will my kids feel?”
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a mentor is a trusted counsellor or guide, a tutor or coach. But the word is something of a misnomer. It originates in The Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem of the return of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, to his beloved island after the Trojan War. Mentor was Odysseus’ friend, entrusted with the care of Odysseus’ household and young son Telemachus when the king set off for Troy. Considering that under Mentor’s guardianship a host of suitors took residence in the palace, squandering the absent king’s fortune and trying to persuade his wife to marry one of them, Mentor did a less than stellar job taking care of his friend’s affairs. But Odysseus was favoured by Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who after ten long years of her protégé’s failed efforts to find his way home, decided to step in. Taking the guise of Mentor, Athena appeared to Telemachus to guide him in standing up against the suitors and in the search for his father — thus putting the name of Odysseus’ ineffectual friend in the modern lexicon.
Michelangelo approached the craft of sculpting with the humble conviction that a unique and beautiful piece of art already existed within the stone, and his job was only to release it. The best mentors approach their art in the same way: helping mentees become who they want to be, not who the mentor thinks they should be. But it can be a challenge for mentors to use the Michelangelo approach when they’re mentoring someone of the opposite gender, especially when men are mentoring women. One reason for it may be that when it comes to key interpersonal skills such as listening, men sometimes struggle with the sort of active listening required to help a mentee gradually unearth her unique ideal self. To use the Michelangelo method, male mentors should beef up their listening skills, check their assumptions at the door, and practice humility.
Barres was a great scientist, yes, but also a scientist who made it possible for others to be great. He went out of his way to mentor young scientists. He actively stepped out of the way of his trainees so they could blaze their own trails without having to compete with him. And he spent the final days of his life writing and updating dozens of letters of recommendations for his trainees.