What is the value of a mentor?

Mentors fill important roles as as coaches, counselors, and sponsors.

Amidst the flurry of posts on the recent sexual-harassment-in-science-blogging scandal,1 I found this post on slate.com which made some interesting statements about the value (or lack thereof) of mentors:

And the mentor-mentee relationship is one of the most fraught of adulthood. We glibly advise people starting out in business to find a mentor, to identify a successful, established, generous person in your field and somehow get her to help you become her.
This is terrible advice. It perpetuates old-boy networks, wastes time that early career people could spend actually doing their work, and tells them they are only as good as their contacts and charm. Young people, don’t look for a mentor. Listen to and learn from people who have more experience, but don’t hitch your wagon to their star. Just do your job well.

Okay then. I guess I can shut this site down and go home. I’ll just tell my students that from now on they’ll have to figure it out for themselves.2 I may give them a word of advice now and then, but other than that they’re on their own. I’m sure the most meritorious ones of them will find their way. After all, I did.3

No I won’t. I think there are at least three distinct ways in which a mentor can be valuable. Of those three, the last is probably the most important one. It also provides a relatively clear litmus test on whether a person is truly mentoring or instead potentially abusing his/her power for personal objectives. I agree with this post that the different mentorship functions could (and maybe even should) be filled by different people. And I’d argue that good mentors will encourage you to build a network of people that can all provide additional mentorship to you.

1. The mentor as coach

The first important role a mentor can play is that of a coach, just like in sports. Most people need a coach to perform at their highest level. A coach recognizes your strengths and weaknesses, she calls you out when you’re lazy, and she knows how far she can push you. You are still the one who has to put in all the work, but she makes sure that you do. She also makes sure you do the right kind of work, you don’t waste your time with stuff that isn’t needed and you don’t skimp on things that really need to be done. Even Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympian of all time, has a coach that prepares him for competitions. I don’t think anybody would ever say “Michael Phelps is just as good as his coach. If his coach hadn’t helped him, Phelps wouldn’t have won a single medal.” And yet, the second sentence is probably true. Phelps wouldn’t have succeeded without a good coach. At the highest level of human performance, nobody does.

2. The mentor as counselor

Second, a mentor can be a counselor, a trusted source of advice when you need help in a professional situation or, depending on your relationship with your mentor, in a situation that tends more towards the personal side. For example, maybe you’re unsure about your professional future. Or you don’t know how to best interact with a difficult colleague. Or you’re wondering whether you should take your dream job or rather follow your partner to a different part of the country. In all those situations, a mentor who knows you well may be able to provide important insight. A person who knows the field but not you may also be helpful, but not necessarily to the same extent. The latter person may not be aware of specific issues you might encounter because of your personal strengths and weaknesses.

3. The mentor as sponsor

Third, and most importantly, a mentor can and should be a sponsor, a person who speaks up on your behalf and who puts you in contact with the right people and in front of the right opportunities. For as long as hiring is done by humans and not by computers, who you know and what they say about you will be an important determinant of your professional success. You may not like this, you may not think it fair, none of this matters. Reality is what it is. The right contacts help.

I said the third point would provide a litmus test to the mentor’s intentions. A mentor who truly wants to help her mentees will sponsor them incessantly. She will put them in contact with other important figures in the field, she will send them to conferences or professional meetings, she will give them opportunities to shine. Through all these actions, she reduces her mentee’s dependency on her, since all these other contacts can serve as further mentors as well.

So the litmus test is this: Does your mentor/adviser/manager/person in power connect you with other important people? Does she encourage you to showcase your work? Does she hand you opportunities and put you in charge of things? Does she nominate you for awards or other honors? Or, instead, does she keep you out of the spotlight? Does she discourage you from talking to other people? Does she create anxiety and paranoia? (“Be careful who you talk to about your research. They might steal your ideas.”) Does she keep you slaving away by promising big payoffs some day in the future? (“Once you get that Science paper, which you absolutely deserve, you’ll get a faculty job in no time. But now get back to the lab so you can finish that last experiment we need.”) Does she throw up unnecessary stumbling blocks? (“Yes, you have enough work for a regular paper, and I understand you would like to graduate soon, but a Science paper would be so much better for you. Just do another bit of work.”) Does she send mixed messages, such as helping you get papers but then not allowing you to present the work outside the lab?

If you can answer the first set of questions with “yes” then you’re working with somebody who wants you to succeed on your own terms and who also knows that nobody succeeds in a vacuum and without any help. If you can answer the second set of questions with “yes” then you have to doubt your mentor’s motives. The second sets of behaviors create dependency, they put you in a position where you need your mentor’s continued favor to keep doing what you’re doing. If you find yourself in that situation, you should start developing an exit strategy. Some of the advice in this post may be helpful.

But I only succeeded because I charmed my mentor

When people have been mentored well, they sometimes start worrying that they didn’t succeed out of their own ability, that they were just handed success because their mentor liked them (impostor syndrome). In this context, it’s important to realize that a mentor who is a sponsor constantly relies on the mentee to perform on his own: At a professional meeting, or in a one-on-one conversation with an important colleague, the mentee has to follow through. Just like Phelps and Phelps alone is swimming for gold, the mentee and the mentee alone is giving the talk, making conversation, doing the work. I don’t believe for a minute that one can take a mediocre student or employee and, through skillful mentoring, make them be successful beyond their own abilities. That’s just not how things work. If Michael Phelps’ coach took me under his wings because I charmed him with my beautiful smile and my bright green eyes I’d probably become a better swimmer but I’d certainly never win olympic gold. If you find yourself thinking “X helped me, therefore I didn’t do this on my own, therefore I don’t deserve this success” you’re likely experiencing a cognitive distortion, specifically all-or-nothing thinking/false dilemma. X helped you, and you did your part, and therefore you succeeded. You absolutely did deserve it. Chances are, if X hadn’t recognized your ability to succeed, she wouldn’t have helped you in the first place.

  1. If you missed it, this post gives a good summary.↩︎

  2. The majority of my students are female and several are non-white, whereas I’m very much non-female and white. Most likely I’m not a good role model for them anyway.↩︎

  3. In graduate school I didn’t receive much in the form of mentoring from my adviser. I learned mostly from reviewers and journal editors. Reviewers commented on the papers I submitted and told me where my research fell short. Editors taught me important things about how science works, such as that one writes a response to reviewers upon resubmission of an article or that axis labels need to be larger than 2mm on the final printed page.↩︎

Claus O. Wilke
Professor of Integrative Biology
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