A Story of Mentorship (and How to Choose a Good Mentor)

When I decided to get my doctorate, one of my first experiences back to school was with a music history professor who gave the qualifying entrance exam for that subject. His personality seemed somewhat dry. His speech was formal. He wore a bow tie. He peered at us through glasses.

My jovial personality was not received with the usual warm energy, perhaps because I made it to the exam just before it was to start. Whatever the reason, I do remember this: I felt totally intimidated.

There were two music history professors at the school, and this was the professor who taught the course I would be required to take first. He seemed eerily serious, unyielding, and quite…academic.

As I would have suspected, the course was not easy. It contained a daunting amount of material and equally daunting expectations. You were not only expected to be in class, but you had better prepare any assignments adequately, as your chances of getting through the rather small class without being called upon were slim.

Looking like a fool in front of your fellow grad level classmates was never desirable. My colleagues were obviously equally intimidated, as they also were almost always prepared. It was an unofficial rule that the work was non-negotiable.

Of course, an interesting thing happens when you’re in a group of people and everyone has diligently studied the information at hand: a thoughtful, momentous discussion takes place. Not only is everyone paying attention, but everyone is involved, agreeing and challenging, questioning and answering. The more prepared people were, the more engaging the class was.

As our interactions and time with this professor grew, it was obvious that this was going to be the class from which we all learned the most. And indeed, that’s what happened; I retained more from the classes I took with this professor than with any other.

Note I said ‘classes’ – plural. Yes, the course was tough. Yes, it took more time than other courses because he was so insistent on the level of work and participation being high. But to me it was worth it. I decided I would rather have the extra work and learn exponentially more than I would if I had taken courses with another professor.

All his courses were tough. And thorough. And challenging, yet enjoyable.

When it came time for me to choose a committee for my dissertation, I wanted this guy on it. He taught me more about research than anyone I’d ever known, and I wanted my work to be good. He taught me that all good writing is collaborative, something I thoroughly believe and live by still.

When I met with him and told him that I wanted him to head my committee, he said he would do so under one condition: the research document had to be the highest level of paper. This meant that a lecture-recital, the typically preferred final presentation for DMA candidates, was not an option.

As I considered this, I realized that accepting his offer would mean a lot more work for me. It would have been much easier to say no thank you and to take the lecture-recital option, as the expectation out of the research portion for that was about half of what I’d be looking at.

I thought back to why I had decided to continue taking courses with this professor. Those choices had always meant more work as well, and I was also enriched by those classes more than any others. This document would be a hallmark of my educational commitments. And so, I accepted his offer.

It took me five years to complete the paper. Like most doctoral students, once my coursework was completed I began full-time work. I thought I would finish straight away, but part of that time I was burned out, part of that time I procrastinated (because I was still burned out), and ultimately it came down to being threatened by the allowable time frame for completion.

Back and forth we went in virtual meetings: chapter by chapter, discussing ideas, fixing my silly grammar, and making action plans. My professor was as dedicated as I was, and he was candid, honest, and encouraging. He was an integral part of the paper’s success and my success as a doctoral student.

I competed my doctoral degree in 2012. Five years later, we are still in communication. We set up Skype meetings from time to time to share our work and life stories. We exchange ideas. I find great joy in our mutual respect, and there’s nothing better than connecting with someone smarter than I am.

Mentors are a vital part of any learning process. But when it comes to working with someone for an extended period, it’s important to choose carefully. Looking back on my experiences, here are the factors I consider to be important when choosing a mentor:

1. Get to know your potential mentor before deciding if it’s a good match or not. We are usually attracted to people that are in some way like us, and my first impression was that this professor and I were nothing alike. Turns out he’s one of the coolest people I know. (And I was completely ignorant back then to the fact that bowties are cool.) Seek to understand someone before you decide if it’s a good match. After spending 15 weeks in class together, I knew I wanted to learn as much as I could from him.

2. Mentors should challenge you. It doesn’t matter how wonderful a person your mentor is if s/he doesn’t push you into exploration, which is usually uncomfortable. We tend to want to avoid discomfort, but that also means we don’t grow. If you want to grow, which is the whole point of having a mentor, you need to be challenged.

3. Mentors should build you up. Yes, you should be challenged, but you shouldn’t feel beaten up by a mentor. To me that’s an abuse of the mentorship position. You should never be purposely put down, insulted, or belittled. That’s just bad behavior. Don’t trust your time and talent to just anyone.

4. Mentors should be honest. It doesn’t do you any good to have a mentor who tells you something is good when it’s not. Mentors should be straight with you. And while it might be tough to hear those things sometimes, when it comes from a place of truly being interested in your well-being, it’s appreciated. It’s very possible to be honest without being harsh, and mentors should strive for this.

5. Mentors should have an open-door communication policy. If you don’t feel like you can express your concerns, your fears, and your insecurities to your mentor about your work, something’s not right. If you don’t feel like you can ask questions, something’s definitely not right. Learning a skill should be a two-way street, and if your mentor isn’t open to communication, it makes it difficult if those things are keeping you from being able to improve. Conversely, don’t assume that you can’t communicate these things if you’ve never tried.

6. Know what you want. Just because someone is a mentor doesn’t mean s/he is a mind reader. You need to be specific with your goals and what you wish to accomplish. The two-way street applies here, too: you can’t expect your mentor to just tell you what to do and then be unsatisfied if you’re not really involved in the process. Mentors can guide you and provide great insight and information, and it’s up to you to know if you’re getting what you need and to implement what you get.

If you have mentors who helped to develop your thoughts and skills (and thus, who you have become), tell them. I’d guess they don’t hear it often enough. This article is dedicated to Dr. Christopher Wilkinson, a great mentor who I’ve also come to know over the years as a great colleague and friend. My guess is after he reads this post, he’ll correct part of it… 😉

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