Do You Have a Bad Mentor?

May 19, 2008

Last month I wrote about the nuances of being a good protégé, and how critical it is for anyone on the tenure track to have an astute and trustworthy guide. Now I want to explore the reasons why a good adviser is hard to find.

In every assistant professor there seems to lurk a Karate Kid seeking a Mr. Miyagi who will train his acolyte to be a skilled warrior in the art of research, teaching, and service and impart pithy life lessons along the way.

Such singular folks exist, and you may find one. But it's far more likely that you will find several mentors who, while not well-versed in all aspects of academic life, will offer good advice in one or another area.

Fair enough. You may end up going to one adviser for tips on how to teach a large lecture class and approaching another for advice on writing up the results of an experiment. But here's the danger: Your various mentors are probably not limiting the scope of their advice to their actual areas of expertise. Put as kindly as possible, many a full professor presumes that attaining that status makes one sagacious in all aspects of promotion and tenure.

Unfortunately, "successful" people, institutions, and companies are not always experts in the reasons for their success.

I recall a perceptive study, "Management Lessons From Mars," conducted by Alan D. MacCormack, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard University, and published in the May 2004 issue of the Harvard Business Review. He found that NASA did not conduct post-mortems of successful missions and thus did not learn much from them because, as he put it:

"the space agency "fell prey to 'superstitious learning' -- the assumption that there is more to be gleaned from failed missions than from successful ones. In the challenging climate of space exploration, however, the difference between what makes one mission succeed and another fail can be subtle. There is no reason to believe that success indicates a flawless process while failure is the result of egregious bad practice."

Likewise, it is unclear how much any of us recognize why we have succeeded in any task.

Part of the reason may simply be perspective: Someone who got tenure 30 years ago may not appreciate what it takes to get tenure today. The young tenure tracker may not know, or catch on quickly enough, that the same mentor who is a wizard of statistical methodology is offering awful advice about handling disruptions in the classroom. Or perhaps the issue is transference: A scholar may excel at conceptualizing new theory, for example, but may not be good at teaching others to do likewise.

A know-it-little gray eminence can cause damage even before your career begins. Some years -- and a few universities ago -- I interviewed a doctoral student at a conference for a position in my program. I was surprised that the candidate focused on salary, insisting that he deserved the "top rate." I mildly informed him that I had no power to negotiate or even discuss compensation beyond restating the range published in our job ad.

I asked him whether it would not perhaps be better to be offered a job before engaging in hardball-salary negotiations. He shook off my suggestion; his adviser had told him (and I paraphrase) "to push hard on salary and they'll think you are worth hiring." I don't recall if I gasped audibly. We did not ask the fellow to an on-campus interview.

Worse is when actual malice is the motivation for bad advice. A friend once told me that several older professors in his area befriended him -- or so he thought -- when he first started a new job. They gave him lots of tips about promotion and tenure, all of which proved disastrous. He now believes they were trying to sink his career because he was a threat to their teaching and research turf.

I cite such cases not to instill paranoia but rather to show that good advice is valuable indeed, and you have to be wary as you shop around for it. In the words of Ronald Reagan, one should "trust but verify." Consult more than one person before you take any actions that could affect the future of your career. Dig up various writings on the subject, either here in The Chronicle (and in its online Forums) or in the growing body of research on the academic profession.

One sign that your mentors are actually qualified: They recognize and readily disclose their own strengths and limitations. "Professor Adams" helps you design a syllabus for your new course in a subject area that she has taught in for years. You appreciate the assistance, noting how she pointed out problems and issues that you would never have thought of. You follow up and ask her advice on grading term papers and she says, "You know, I've always struggled with that. You might ask Professor Jefferson. He is a master of the essay question." You have just found at least one honest mentor.

Complicating your search for good mentors is the prestige factor. Having a well-known scholar as your adviser can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, a star adviser can open doors for you to postgraduate employment or to publishers interested in your manuscript.

But among the downsides to soliciting a famous adviser is that many other junior scholars probably have the same intention. How much actual attention will you get if you are the 12th graduate student the star scholar has taken on, or one of a large number of tenure-seeking colleagues?

Then comes the problem of being known as a protégé: Do you feel comfortable being introduced as "Professor Gupta's student," even well into middle age and post-tenure? Will you establish your own voice -- a key consideration for promotion and tenure? Sometimes it's harder for young trees to grow in the shadows of mighty redwoods.

Which brings us to the issue of publications.

Different fields have different attitudes about the number of authors on papers or even their rank order. In my own field, solo authorship is always better than co-authorship and, in the case of multiple authorship, being first author is honored above being fourth. However, in the sciences, co-authorship is expected since so much research is done by teams.

How you are listed as author of your publications is a big issue, depending on the field, when you go up for tenure. Good mentors will be, to some extent, generous: They will acknowledge that advising you on a paper is not the same as writing it and will not insist on affixing their name to everything you do under their guidance.

A final consideration for choosing a mentor is political. Any general theory of promotion and tenure should state, as a rule, that assistant professors must avoid faculty squabbles. Few to no benefits accrue from spending time in a fight among the tenured class.

But sometimes when you select an adviser, you are also picking a fight, even without intention. Take this scenario: A young scholar interviews for a tenure-track job and, having done his homework, tells the hiring committee that he looks forward to working with Professor Hatfield. Well, he is hired, and from day one he does not understand why Professor McCoy treats him coolly. It turns out that Hatfield and McCoy have been feuding for years, and now the young assistant professor is marked as a partisan.

Good senior advisers will appreciate that junior faculty members should stay out of the way when the elephants snort and rumble. Even if they are embroiled in a fight, the best advisers won't drag you into it and will go out of their way to shelter you from it.

So the perfect mentor is uncommon. But academe is overflowing with many honorable and wise men and women who give up their time and energy to help up-and-coming colleagues. Sorting out the good mentors from the hapless or malicious is a matter of some nuance as well as necessity. Not getting any advice about succeeding as a professor is unfortunate; getting bad advice can be worse.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas. For an archive of his previous columns, click here.