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Aug. 26, 2020
PhD students can benefit from non-academic mentors’ outside perspectives
A mentor is a professional who acclimates a protégé into a profession. In the Bottegas of Renaissance Florence, upstart Leonardo Da Vinci pulverized Tuscan stone and collected eggs to make tempera for mentor Andrea del Verrocchio, who might allow Da Vinci to assist Michelangelo with his paintings.
Although this model was adopted by the research laboratories of the Enlightenment through to postmodernism, it is now faltering.
With less than 20 per cent of PhD students being able to transition into academia, the PhD is no longer a foremost career entree into the professoriate. Most PhD students no longer work alongside people whose career paths they will follow. In light of this, universities must do more to support non-academic mentorships for PhD students.
Some of my research focuses on the value of students procuring non-academic mentors through informational interviews. By embedding informational interviewing into curriculum, I have studied how students can learn to explore non-academic careers, connect with working professionals, seek advice and cultivate professional, mentor-protégé relationships. Through this process, students learn the tacit knowledge they often are missing, showing substantial improvements in their career confidence and well-being.
Because linear career progression is ending, forcing people to change jobs frequently, students should be taught skills to adapt to uncertain labour markets. Hence, it is important to teach students how to investigate, reflect on and test potential careers.
The concept of a “future professional self” helps expand a student’s aspirations. Career reflection fosters innovative thinking about prospects, helping to build strategies and expectations that make ambitions real. Once students know what they want to do, they are more inspired to work towards reaching their goals.
My daughter, Kate, also recently shared with me her experience as a non-academic mentor in Dalhousie University’s clinical psychology PhD program. She has also shaped my perspectives on how non-academic mentors offer PhD students the opportunity to develop meaningful perspectives and connections.
PhD students who perceive a narrowing scope of opportunities as they advance may become disillusioned with their thesis work, thus limiting their productivity and increasing their completion time.
PhD students are among the highest-achieving individuals in our society, which can be both a blessing and a curse. A focus on achievement is generally a necessary academic quality, as culture establishes researchers (and trainees by default) as “entrepreneurs” responsible for their own survival. A survival-of-the-fittest mentality has arisen in academia with the tremendous surplus of talent in the professor pool.
While competition helps to drive the university research agenda forward, we have found when we talk with current and recent PhD students and professors that this competition undermines the well-being of graduate students and faculty alike.
For many, the PhD becomes a bad deal because they do not see (and are not shown) a way out of a horrible situation — or they fear the sunk cost. PhD students often struggle to know how to navigate these situations, as the philosophy that guides their approach is often “work harder, and you will succeed.”
Strain on professor-protégé relationship
Yet, since the bare facts of the job market mean that even if PhD students demonstrate an outstanding work ethic, many will have to leave academia in search of other careers. This places tremendous stress upon the mentor-protégé relationship between PhD students and professors.
Because our universities have not systematically embedded entrepreneurship and career planning into doctoral studies, it’s not surprising if most professors believe they cannot acclimate their trainees into a profession outside of academia, like industry or government. Worse yet, some professors believe it’s not their responsibility.
A professor’s very survival may be dependent on the productivity of their PhD students. Many professors buffer their own careers by securing students’ research help with their own publications, while de-emphasizing pursuits that can better prepare students for their own futures such as entrepreneurship, teaching, outreach or internships.
Perfect storm for frustration, health issues
The above factors generate a perfect storm for the development and/or exacerbation of mental health problems among graduate students. Students with a propensity for achievement find themselves in a culture that narrowly defines success, a career landscape that makes it nearly impossible to achieve this success and a profound lack of support given the challenges of navigating new opportunities after graduate school.
Combined with concerns of not knowing how to transition to the non-academic workforce, supervisor criticism and/or neglect may contribute to “locus of control” problems wherein students do not feel they have control over the events that influence their lives. Research shows that such perceptions of loss of control in students can contribute to the onset of mental health issues.
The primary consequence of this mentorship approach is that it undermines students’ self-confidence, leaving many to question their self worth, as though the inability to secure work as a professor is a personal failure. Non-academic mentors may be a means of mitigating the effects of this problem.
Empathy, healthy perspectives
In addition to providing mentorship around envisioning and navigating the transition, non-academic mentors are uniquely positioned to offset the potentially damaging effects of academic mentorship on students’ self-confidence. This may be especially true of non-academic mentors who themselves completed a PhD and transitioned into successful careers beyond academia.
Non-academic mentors, especially those familiar with university culture, can provide empathy, validation and healthy perspectives. Such experiences can protect students by showing them that self-worth is not contingent on achievement, self-care is not a sign of laziness and new experiences add value to one’s life.
They can also offer alternative points of view: that success is broadly defined, academic expectations are unrealistic and failure is necessary for development. These can act as a balm for times when students’ confidence or self-worth is otherwise challenged or bruised by academia.
Kate Rancourt co-authored this article.