March 2010

Mentoring is a primary responsibility

This situation is not unique to graduate schools. How many of your grade school teachers rewarded the students who had the right answer, and how many rewarded the students who asked the right questions? We foster this in our own children by asking them to work hard and be attentive and doing nothing to encourage their curiosity. In my own case, each night over dinner,  I would ask my daughter to tell me three things that she had learned that day. Now, I ask her to tell me three good questions she asked that day. That subtle shift resulted from expecting her to be a passive learner to being an active one. What do you— as a teacher, mentor or parent— do to reward the curiosity of those in your charge? How do you help your students learn and understand the processes of science? Which is more important for a graduate student— finishing a simple problem or understanding a complex one? What is more important for success— “finishing” one’s education or being a life-long learner? In one form or another, we are all mentors, and mentoring well is our responsibility.

What you can do

So, what is my mentoring advice to you? I suggest you make a five-year plan: Identify what you want your life to be like in five years, and start working toward that goal. If you want to teach, identify the skills, knowledge, abilities and experiences necessary to reach that goal. For example, if you want to teach at elementary or secondary school, learn about your state’s teacher certification requirements, determine what gaps exist in your education and experiences and create a road map to get from where you are now to where you want to be. For the most part, excellent teachers, scientists, parents and [fill in the vocational worker of your choice] are made, not born. Identify what you want to excel at and work toward it. The path won’t necessarily be easy, and you are likely to make mistakes along the way, but, never forget that anything worth achieving is worth working for, and what you learn on the journey ultimately will inform your understanding and future decisions.

Many colleges and universities have career development centers that can help by providing career counseling, aptitude analysis and other resources. One of the exercises you can undertake is identifying the lifestyle you would like, and working backward from there. Speaking for myself, although I find my career very satisfying I never have forgotten the sage advice given to me by a senior postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health. She said, “You will probably never hear someone utter with their last breath, ‘I should have spent more time in the office.’” Similarly, I realized long ago that no one can ever be paid enough to do a job they don’t enjoy. For that reason, I have worked to build my career around my life— I have made my career one in which I can serve my passions. In my case, I take more personal satisfaction in helping mentees identify their goals and then work toward those goals than I ever did preparing a manuscript. And, in my evaluations of my peers, I emphasize successful mentoring and leadership in my justification for their reappointment, tenure and promotion.

Phillip Ortiz (Philip.Ortiz@esc.edu) is an associate professor at the State University of New York, Empire State College.

 

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