On the Virtues of (Feminist) Mentorship in Academia

While I was sitting out on my friend’s back porch the other day, I knew I had struck gold. The two of us were deep in conversation about my recent campus visit when I started to realize that I was being adopted as a mentee. While I gave a play-by-play account of the meetings, presentations, and dinners with potential colleagues, she listened attentively,  offered praise, and rolled her eyes at all the right moments. This person is not just a friend, but a new colleague who has, on her own account, put time and effort into my professional development over the past year.

In a way, this person and I arrived at the department at the same time. In August 2017, I transitioned from graduate student to temporary faculty member and she arrived as a tenure-track Assistant Professor in French. As a newcomer, she granted me the collegial respect that – I imagine – is harder for former professors and committee members to accord. 

deux femmes
Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

As a short-term Lecturer, the department did not arrange any type of mentorship for me. I assume this is due to the transience of my position and the expectation that my thesis advisor would continue to work closely with me. The latter proved true, in part. When I have questions about interviews, campus visits, and publishing, I text or email my advisor, who is happy to respond with careful counsel. However, knowing that she has two other advisees and a rigorous research agenda of her own, I understand that she might not want me begging her to give feedback on my writing or to offer me life & job advice at every turn. 

And so, early in this grad student-to-faculty member transition, my introversion had me turning inward and online. But – blessed be the extroverts – there was one person who I couldn’t keep out of my office. I quickly accepted this as a stroke of good fortune, because this colleague was kind, funny, and smart. She was also someone who I respected because of the sincere, candid way in which she interacted with everyone in the department, regardless of their rank. What’s more, this person had fascinating research and her lack of a filter exposed me to behavioral issues and professional ladders in academia which my freshly-minted-PhD self had not yet fully experienced. 

The fact that this person’s office was just across the hall from mine started to seem like a divine intervention. Stopping by for a chat every once in a while turned into conversations about the random nature of getting invited for interviews and campus visits, the potentials and pitfalls for PhDs outside of the academy, sexism in academia, and the endless struggle for work/life balance. I appreciated the honest, experienced advice from someone who had worked a range of positions and spent half a decade on the job market. We started to go for coffee, have dinner with each others’ families, and engage in long conversations about teaching, writing, research, and life priorities. As a new faculty member, I realized that these conversations were deeply necessary as I was contemplating how to prepare for my future career.

Perhaps this person and I struck it off because we are both women, about 8 years apart in age, who research gender-related issues in literature and love teaching. Mentors are not always “identity allies” but, at this point in my life, this is often the case for me. My last mentor/friend (who also happens to be female) was my next-door neighbor, who turned out to be a Visiting Assistant Professor of German. I guess I know how to be in the right place at the right time. I’m not sure if these relationships come to fruition by subconscious choice, because I feel more comfortable around women, or because women (particularly those of the feminist persuasion) tend to look out for each other in  this profession. 

portrait de deux femmes

That day on my mentor-friend’s porch, I asked to whom I should be sending my articles for review, and her quick, giving reply was: “me.” She then shared her own experience of finding her 2 closest mentors. Both are female academics who were living in New York City at the same time that she was. Her advisor had suggested one; the other she met at a conference. Those mentors, evidently, were what motivated her to pursue a relationship with me.

This is not a formal mentorship. There are no scheduled meetings. Just conversations and advice via text, email, and in the faculty break room. (Of course, there are other avenues for finding a mentor as a postdoc or junior faculty member.) For instance, when I recently got a rejection after a campus visit, her immediate consolatory texts brought me back to earth. She reminded me of my abilities and shared that it can come down to almost nothing when the committee makes their decision. It’s often a question of fit, and there’s nothing the candidate can do about it. And this is what I needed to hear to stay motivated and move on.

I’m realizing that these are just some of the benefits I have reaped from this relationship. This person:

  • helps me navigate rejection
  • gives valuable feedback on my articles
  • prepares me for all stages of the academic interview
  • talks with me about being a woman in the academy
  • guides me through the subtleties of how to ask for what I want & approach difficult conversations
  • helps me forge other connections
  • but also (!) exchanges photos of baking projects and lets me borrow her clothes for interviews

If, like me, you are on your own when it comes to finding a mentor as a postdoc or junior faculty person, know that it may take months to a year to find the right match (as The Professor Is In forewarns). To get the process going, here is some advice that I have run across or found to be successful in finding a mentor:

  • seek out an experienced colleague who has good humor and with whom you enjoy talking
  • network at conferences with people who ask engaging questions during your talk or who have similar research profiles
  • find someone in your department, or in your general field at your university, who might: be close in age to you, have recently navigated the job market, and/or have a similar research profile. Invite them for coffee. It could start out as an informational interview (tailored specifically to that person and the context) before evolving into a mentor relationship as you test the waters.
  • of course, if formal mechanisms are in place to match you with a mentor, consider taking advantage of those

As other smart women have recognized, finding and creating community is important. Especially in a place that tends to feel isolating. My recent mentorships have made me realize that it is worth the effort, and perhaps necessitates a little more intentionality on my part, to seek out and maintain relationships with experienced, empathetic, and trustworthy people in my profession. 

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