Thursday, May 21, 2009

Peer Mentoring

It's pretty well established that success as an academic scientist depends very much on good mentoring. Whether this comes informally (e.g. old boy's network) or formally (e.g. MentorNet) is irrelevant: the key is getting sound advice and the social and scientific connections that will help you succeed.

A few weeks ago, the topic of mentoring came up in conversation, and MentorNet was mentioned. One person interjected, "MentorNet is useless. They don't have nearly enough women scientists available as mentors."

Part of this is probably that there simply aren't that many women in science, especially at the higher levels. The higher up I get in my field, the fewer women I see above me. Also, senior women in science already get asked to do a lot of mentoring and outreach precisely because there are so few of them. It almost seems unfair to ask them to do more.

One might argue that men can be mentors just as well as women, but quite frankly, there are some things that women go through that men simply can't relate to. This is part of the motivation behind Dr. Isis' Letters to Our Daughter's Project, which she started because:

It's not a secret that the largest attrition among female scientists happens in the transition between trainee and faculty. I also think that, for better or worse, there are things that are unique to being a female scientist that affect the ability/willingness of women to pursue careers in science. I know from my time at ScienceBlogs that there is a large group of women who are eager for the perspectives of successful women scientists as they consider their own careers in science.

Mentoring from senior scientists is undeniably valuable. But personally, I've been starting to rely a lot more on what I think of as Peer Mentoring, but might also be called B!+ch Sessions. I often feel like I get more out of discussions with fellow postdocs who are facing the same situations I am, rather than relying on the advice of more senior people who were postdocs during a different era. Part of it is, as I said before, that there are fewer women ahead of me the higher up I go. This might simply be the fact that I myself am aging. Many of my cohorts from graduate school have transitioned to professorships or otherwise permanent positions. The people I might turn to for mentoring are getting closer in age to me anyway, so why not simply brainstorm with my peers.

Lately, I've been reading Every Other Thursday by Ellen Daniell, which is about her support group for women scientists. The women in her group met together regularly, and helped each other through their careers. I'm amused at this editorial review on Amazon:

But the book's real failing is that instead of addressing Group members' journeys through science as women, it focuses on the same career roadblocks, personal disasters and need for self-empowerment that one finds in any self-help book ("I am entitled to be myself. I'm entitled to be successful"). Rather than hard-nosed help for aspiring young women scientists, this book, while it includes interesting passages on the machinations of university politics, essentially offers material that should best have remained within the Group.

Just because self-empowerment is addressed in any number of self-help books doesn't mean it's any less relevant to women scientists. I get the feeling that this author has never faced debilitating Imposter Syndrome before.

While I think the idea of support groups for women in science is great, it only works if you live in a region with high PhD density. Daniell worked at Berkeley, where there are more universities per square foot than perhaps anywhere else in the country. What if you live in a big rectangular state and work in a department with only one woman? I don't have a good answer for that.

Well, at least there's always blogging...


Mrs. CH said...

Great post! Perhaps an online message board or community should be started so that we can chat about these things - make it into more a conversation than reading/responding to posts.

Astronomum said...

I think blogs are great for peer mentoring.

I'd really like to encourage more senior women to join Mentornet! I had a great relationship with a Mentornet mentor, but it was frustrating that a computer scientist in Australia was the closest match they could find for me... The whole experience was maybe a dozen supportive emails (so not a lot of time on either end), but really meant a lot to me.

Ms.PhD said...

Two points.

1. MentorNet was no use to me. Not only was it impossible to find a woman mentor, but to find any mentor at all I had to basically remove all my preferences and take whomever I could get.

The person I got basically proceeded to tell me that my advisor needed to help me more. Yeah, thanks, I already knew that. That's your advice??? Totally useless. I told MentorNet and a few other people, but they have never managed to match me with anyone else since (coincidence?).

2. I loved Every Other Thursday and found it really inspiring and tried to start my own Group, but eventually gave it up because it wasn't working. I think as a handbook it's lacking emphasis on what we were missing- how badly you need a professional therapist/facilitator to work with you at the beginning.

For example, she talks about how it was hard to get it going in the early days, but she doesn't really talk much about how they managed to keep it going despite personality conflicts and attendance problems.

Similarly, while they had their own amusing jargon, we found it hard to adopt the formal style and resisted it- but I think this was actually a weakness and we should have done it from the beginning.

Finally, we had some authority issues where one member didn't understand how to relate to the rest as equals. While she had good advice to share, the others found her manner unbearable, and she resisted my attempts to explain the problem.

I ended up finding the Group was more stressful than stress-relieving, so I decided to let it dissolve naturally. Attendance was dismal anyway.

Meanwhile, a women's group locally decided to start some lunchtime chat things, but as usual they have effectively excluded postdocs by setting up the groups with pre-determined limitations, e.g one for students (mostly graduate students), one for faculty seeking tenure, etc. When I pointed this out, they said postdocs should go with the students. Yeah, good for the students, but not what I need. I mentor students on my blog and in my lab- and all their friends, too. Who's mentoring me?