Martyr, Saint, or Mentor?

A faculty member worries that helping students in a poor-stepchild Ph.D. program will hurt his career

Brian Taylor

July 29, 2013

Question (from "Martin"): My department has two doctoral programs. The "Alpha" is more competitive and has much more money than the "Beta." The Alpha has a director, a staff, and an e-mail discussion list with fellowship, job, and professional opportunities. The Beta doesn't have any of that, not even the e-mail list.

As director of graduate studies,I tried to improve mentoring, professionalization, and financial support for students in both programs. But for whatever reason, it is clear that the department is not interested in building support for the Beta "have not" program. There is reflexive resistance to even the smallest improvements, such as opening the Alpha e-mail list to all graduate students in the department. According to one senior professor, the Beta students "might use it to register complaints."

Doing anything about the imbalance between the two programs is seen as an attack on the Alpha program, which also grabs resources that are supposed to be shared. But dealing with that, too, is treated as risky and divisive, and can be handled only in volatile closed-door meetings.

So I've bailed out of the DGS position, where I was taking a soul-wrenching battering and squandering a decade of high departmental regard. I continue to do what I can for all graduate students, including arguing for a full-time director for the Beta program. Right now, though, only the Alpha students routinely get information about jobs and publishing. The Betas get that information only if they're lucky.

Here's my question. I know that in normal interactions, it is rude and intrusive to offer advice without being asked for it. But the mentoring of Beta students means giving advice that they haven't asked for and don't seem to know they should ask for. I tell students in my seminars that they need to present papers and send out articles. I let them know I'll help them identify conferences and journals and prepare articles, application letters, and CVs. I send them career-advice articles.

Am I crossing a line by offering unsolicited advice? Will I be detected by my colleagues and demonized in some way for trying to do what the department seems to not want done? Will my behavior be construed as implicitly critical? Is it permissible to be a self-appointed mentor?

Answer: Were Ms. Mentor an embroidering sort, she would sew Martin a sampler with a motto that is never out of place in our barbaric times: No good deed goes unpunished.

Martin is a person of generosity and integrity. He's trying to treat all students, Alpha and Beta, equally and tell them what fledglings need to know.

But is he thanked? Do his colleagues rise up and croon, "O, Martin, you have brought wisdom and fairness and delivered us all from ignorance. Here's an advising award, here's some glory, here are some symphonies of praise for all you've done to make this department a better place"?

Er, no.

Instead he gets to play the role of the football, kicked from end to end.

Ms. Mentor once had a nightmare about an Academic Meanie Olympics, a death match with such events as Junior and Senior Snarking, Whose Grant Is Bigger, and the Pedantry Slam. Only known belligerents were allowed to play. Spectators could argue about the degree of difficulty of each task, and committees could be appointed. Anyone who survived would get a tacky certificate.

But why do programs rage against one another? Why do academic departments engage in great civil wars?

Certainly it's about money and prestige. Some of the combatants probably had rough childhoods or had to settle for being salutatorian. Or sometimes it's intellectual: Team Theory versus Team Practice.

English departments, for instance, often have simmering feuds between creative writers (who have the most majors) and literature scholars (who have the most professors). "Literature people" sometimes act as if creative writers don't exist. "The writers" retaliate with comic novels: Literature Prof Befuddled by Nymphet.

In political science, it's the theorists (what is political power?) versus the practical workers (pollsters). There's prestige in Machiavelli; there's money in Gallup.

Some fields have little or no practice (philosophy). The richest and most powerful have no theory (there is no Theory of Football).

Meanwhile, would-be mediators, like Martin, may wind up being eviscerated in "academese"—a lingo consisting of odd insults ("unsubstantial," "trendy," "not collegial"). Disapproval is conveyed through the passive voice: "can be seen"; "is treated." No one can be blamed, because no one is named.

When Martin names what he sees, he becomes an enemy—or, rather, he's seen (passive voice) as an enemy. Ms. Mentor wonders what kind of pummeling he endured as director of graduate studies. Was he shunned, talked about behind his back, not told about meetings where important decisions were made? Was he ignored or not invited to social gatherings? Did he lunch alone?

Ms. Mentor does not encourage martyrdom. If job stress is destroying his health, Martin must withdraw and regroup, which he seems to be doing. He's tough and brave, and teaching means sharing the wealth. (Will anyone actually out him for his secret mentoring by tweeting, "martin told me abt fellowships omg"?)

Even academicians, who are supposed to believe in the lofty life of the mind, sometimes worry too much about being liked. The truth is that "they" won't all love you—or rather, you won't be loved by all—no matter what you do.

Your job is not to cater to the whims and insecurities of your troubled colleagues. You can listen politely, but remind yourself that even in kindergarten, there were some kids who wouldn't share their toys. They grew up to be individualists who hated working in small groups ("Don't maroon me with morons"). Whatever the conflict, they come to slay.

Ms. Mentor finds it passing strange that your colleagues seem to fear that Beta students will find out about conferences and journals. It is not secret knowledge ("If we tell you, we'll have to kill you"). What is being hoarded, and why?

Ms. Mentor would go ahead and mentor the needy, just as we should feed the poor and clothe the naked. Think about "What's the worst that can happen if I do the right thing?" If the answer is, "Moral midgets will hate me," you needn't shudder or hide.

Think about your tombstone. Will it say, "He lifted the spirits and possibilities of all those around him" or "He was crushed by the few, the bad, the greedy, and the selfish?"

The choice is yours.

Question As the new academic year looms, I'm full of joyful anticipation and deep anxiety. That's been true since I started kindergarten, decades ago. Will I ever be suave and self-confident at the start of a semester?

Answer: No.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor is still receiving nominations of noteworthy academic novels for summer reading lists. She notes that adjuncts and recovering academics particularly love to read, write, and create, um, totally fictional pictures of academic life.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes anecdotes, rants, and queries. Rueful recollections ("Regrets, I've had a few") are soul-cleansing and useful to newbies. "If I'd known then what I know now" can be a service to humanity.

Ms. Mentor regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle's forums. All communications are confidential, anonymity is guaranteed, and details are scrambled. No one will know you've written to Ms. Mentor. They'll think it's that hissing whiner in the next office.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is