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Women in Science – Challenges in being a (overly) supportive mentor

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We are not sure this is a topic specific to women in science fields, nor to women alone, but it has been a challenge that we have discussed frequently over these first five years in our roles as faculty. We feel that women, in particular, are nurturers in their relationships with others, including advisees.  The challenge in this arises when we encounter those students who time and time again miss deadlines for thesis work or research assistance work. We sit down with them and talk about these short-comings and they verbally recognize their responsibilities and assure us they will do better…but they continue to struggle. Notice that we use ‘struggle’, not ‘fall short’, because instead of drawing the line to cut them off, we continue to prompt, coax, incentivize, push, and eventually threaten to withdraw our supportiveness. We ask ourselves: have we provided enough incentives, have we stated firm deadlines, have we listened well enough to understand the problem(s), have we met with them enough, or have we crossed a line into monitoring instead of mentoring? At many points in this process, we struggle to decide if/when to set an ultimate deadline that would mean an end to funding and mentorship. Then, once they have voluntarily left, or actually graduated, we sit back to reflect on how to avoid that situation from happening again and the seemingly inevitable question arises in the back of our minds. Are these challenging students of our own making; are we being overly supportive in trying to mentor them?  And if we have fallen into an overly supportive role, how did this happen?

We often find ourselves in ‘cheerleader’ mode.  We have struggled with our own confidence levels, (we take that for granted being women in science-based graduate fields) and we want to be able to help students become confident in their own abilities. It’s natural to see another’s situation through the lens of our own experience. “I’ve always been self-conscious and overly self-critical, this must be what this student is experiencing as well!” But, what happens when a cheerleader advisor meets a student that is not self-critical? That student may feel bad after a failure, but then they hear the encouragement from us and think everything is okay. The student demonstrates no long-term change in behavior and no apparent self-awareness.

Most cases of mentoring are not so dysfunctional as the extreme case described above, but the miscommunication described happens frequently in more minor forms. We’ve found a few things that can help mitigate being overly supportive:

  • Discuss long-term deadlines with the advisee from the start.  Working backwards from the proposed defense date, set deadlines for thesis checkpoints. Research checkpoints may be appropriate as well, especially if the student is funded by a research assistantship. Make it clear that missing any of the big deadlines means delaying graduation by at least a semester, as the time line will have to be adjusted.
  • Get the committee involved.  Being a hard-ass is much easier when you have a few other faculty members to back you up. Some colleagues may even agree to be the “bad guy” if you really have trouble drawing a line in the sand.
  • Remember that you’re helping the student.  No student should be sent off into the workforce or onto further graduate work unless he or she can meet deadlines and be self-motivated. We are not helping prepare them for the real world by giving them infinite chances.

Being a supportive advisor is a great thing, and we’ve often discussed that we don’t want to make major changes to our advising style. In most cases, supportive works well. Can we be overly supportive? Yes. Can we mitigate that behavior? We hope so.

Gretchen Mullendore – Atmospheric Sciences Department

Rebecca J. Romsdahl – Earth System Science & Policy Department

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Written by School of Graduate Studies

August 31, 2011 at 7:27 am

Posted in Women in Science

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  1. […] & Immunology, is this week’s Women in Science post Introducing UND’s Women in Science Group Women in Science – Challenges in being a (overly) supportive mentor LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

  2. […] Gretchen Mullendore and Rebecca Romsdahl discuss the challenges in being an (overly) supportive mentor. […]


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