Who professes the professor?
When people hear about a professor, they often imagine someone who is very knowledgeable and has most (if not all) of the answers. Yet, professors are human beings; they cannot know everything and they need a support system around them too. The support system includes a mentoring network that helps a professor continue to grow and learn.
We hear about mentorship and often have varying views on it because of our own past experiences with it—good and bad. As I learned in the faculty boot camp a couple of weeks ago, professors can often have an illusion that they need to find the perfect mentor who would be able to answer all the questions: technical, political, professional, and emotional. Finding such a mentor is impossible and even unhealthy because if new faculty depend on a single person for all their information, they can receive biased views and become too dependent on a single source.
Instead, it is important to have a network of mentors, each meeting a different need. Instead of looking for a single perfect person, we need to first plot out what our needs are and then find people who can meet those needs. For example, some of the categories that new faculty might need help with are as follows: professional development, emotional support, role models, intellectual community, accountability, access to opportunities, sponsorship, and substantive feedback. These categories are general enough to apply to other professions as well and so anybody could use them to build their network of mentors.
Within academia, the functions of each category are listed below.
1. Professional development (includes on-campus and off-campus resources): people who help navigate the tenure-track process. As graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, we become experts on conducting research, but we are not trained for a faculty position, which involves—in addition to doing research (as I have explained elsewhere)—managing people, managing accounts, fundraising, training people, teaching, recruiting, networking, organizing meetings, mentoring students, providing service to the university, and numerous other responsibilities. It is helpful to get trained in managing all of these aspects of the job. Faculty success program is one such resource. Many universities also offer professional development workshops that are valuable, for example, my institute has monthly breakfast workshops for new tenure-track faculty called Faculty Advancement, Success and Tenure (FAST).
2. Emotional support: the job of a professor can be taxing. Rejections of papers and grants are commonplace; everyone needs a mechanism to stay in balance. I practice meditation (you too can learn it yourself here), which keeps me in a productive state without being a workaholic (I manage to sleep for eight hours a day and avoid working on weekends). Friends and family that one can confide in are also valuable here. We also need people to celebrate with when we do get those successes—acceptance of a paper, funding of a grant proposal, or invention of a new device.
3. Role models: are people that we look up to and can learn from. Interacting with our role models can help us understand how they achieved what they did. We can have multiple role models since nobody is perfect and we probably want to learn from the best aspects of different people.
4. Intellectual community: these would be readers/reviewers, i.e. people that would read or review your paper or your proposal at different stages. Some of them will help in brainstorming ideas and others will help proofread the final draft for submission and some will be somewhere in between.
5. Accountability (for what really matters): as I mentioned in the previous post, tenure-track faculty are evaluated by their research productivity; yet, very few measures of accountability exist for our research-related activities. On the other hand, activities such as teaching and service have built-in accountability, because you have to be at a certain place and at a certain time with deliverables. Thus, it is important to have people that will hold you accountable for your research and writing tasks.
6 Access to opportunities: I have learned first-hand that people who have been at my institution for a long time know things that are not published anywhere. These people are important to connect with because they can connect you to opportunities as they come up. You just have to ensure that they are aware of your work. A good place to start meeting these people is at seminars where invited guests are presenting. Experienced faculty often show up to these seminars.
7 Sponsorship: For tenure-track faculty, a lot of discussions about performance happen in meetings where the new faculty are not present. Thus, we need champions who will present our case on our behalf. We need to ensure that we provide these champions with the tools they need they will need by keeping them up-to-date about our work and progress.
8 Substantive feedback: Finally, it is important to receive feedback on your work to ensure that you are on the correct path. My institution has a formal network of mentors from my department who are great for fulfilling this responsibility. It is also useful to have professional editors, who can edit your work and again, the university has the resources available in this respect too.
Although my mentor network still has some holes, thinking about it in the above framework has helped me to identify these holes and take concrete actions to fill them. You can also lay out a similar map for yourself and build a stronger network. I provide a sketch of such a network below for you to fill in (adapted from the faculty success program).