The Persistence of the Mentor/Protégé Power Dynamic
By Marianne Evola
As the end of the year approached, I was struggling to find a topic for this month's column for the Scholarly Messenger. After writing the column for a few years, I sometimes struggle to find new ideas to address. I don't mind revisiting topics on occasion because my audience is ever changing. New students begin their journey to a new career and graduating students move on. As such, the issue of mentoring was again brought to my attention as the holidays arrived and I began to get greetings from various students that I have mentored over the years. Some students shared photos of their growing families, some send me a brief note on Facebook or a holiday card, and all provided interesting information on how their careers have progressed or changed. In fact, it was not only former students that contacted me, but I also heard from former mentors. The holiday contact got me thinking about the persistence and evolution of the mentor/protégé relationship. Specifically, I started thinking a bit about how the power dynamic in mentoring relationships evolves over time. I began to wonder if a mentor every really becomes a former mentor, or does the mentor/protégé dynamic persist? And, if it the mentoring dynamic persists, what are our ongoing responsibilities to that relationship?
Interestingly, as I think about the people that I identify as my mentors, I've never lost the reverence that I held for them from when they directly supervised my work. I'm not sure if everyone maintains that type of respect for their former mentors, or whether I was very lucky to have selected excellent mentors. However, I have witnessed scholars senior to me demonstrate similar reverence to their former mentors. In fact, one of the more revealing examples of reverence that I experienced was when I was at a conference with my graduate mentor. During a social event at the conference, she encountered a scientist with higher status than herself and expressed longstanding admiration for his work and surprisingly communicated that she was intimidated by him. Admittedly, this was not one of her mentors, but at the time it was surprising to me that even with her high status position she could be intimidated by anyone in our field. The memory has stuck with me since then because it demonstrates that we can hold colleagues in high esteem throughout our careers, regardless of our status, and this creates a natural power dynamic. At the other end of the spectrum, I have experienced former students demonstrating persistent reverence to me. All of this suggests to me that although the mentor/protégé dynamic may evolve, it really does not vanish. I'm also unsure as to whether it is appropriate for me to refer to any mentor or student as a former mentor or former student. However, I will continue to do so for clarity.
So, it may be easy to understand the persistent reverence that students hold for their mentors, but do mentors similarly maintain a feeling of responsibility for their former students? Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I remember one of my first "teaching" mentors assert that his responsibility as my teacher remained even though I had not been in a classroom with him since I was an undergrad. Although our relationship was evolving toward colleagues, in his opinion, the power dynamic that exists in a mentor/protégé relationship persisted. As such, when a small group of my fellow graduate students were going to help him move to a new house, he did not consider it appropriate for me to assist and would not let me participate. He thought it would be an ethical violation of his mentor status in our relationship. At the time, I thought his concern was a bit unwarranted. However, after years of working with students and realizing that I have often been surprised that former students contact me long after they graduate to ask for advice, I've come to understand his concern. Much like him, I believe that the power dynamic of the mentor/protégé relationship persists long after either party could predict future needs for communication and guidance. As such, it is the responsibility of mentors to ensure that the power dynamic is not inadvertently abused.
That being said, as I asserted above, the relationship does evolve. Although I take my responsibility for my former students seriously, long after they graduate, I gradually think of them more as colleagues than students. How could I not, they have grown in status both professionally and personally. In fact, their professional success actually helps me to mentor new students. One of the interesting professional attributes that describe the group of students that I have mentored is they have pursued markedly different professions. So, of course, they have a variety of experiences and skills that I lack. Hence, when I encounter a student that has career/education goals or difficulties, I often call on one of my former students to provide them with guidance. However, as I think about it, although this practice does reflect my respect for their professional development, this is not much different than how we interacted in the research environment. I always expected senior members of the team to provide guidance and supervision to new members. This makes me wonder if my continued use of their skills is a demonstration of my awareness of their increased status or whether it is my expectation that they continue to contribute to the research team. Either way, most of my former students enthusiastically assist new students. From my experience both as a mentor and protégé, this type of winding vine of teaching and mentoring is a natural part of being a member of an academic family tree. From the first time you are mentored, there is an expectation that you will mentor as well as seek mentoring.
I often say that mentors greatly differ, but the truth of the matter is that every mentor-student relationship differs and a single mentor may serve the professional and personal growth of their various students in markedly different ways because every student has different professional needs. Just before the holidays I had dinner with a student that I have mentored for a few years. Recently, her education and career have evolved beyond any professional guidance, although I do sometimes provide professional connections. Mostly, when we meet, we talk about politics. However, I will continue to watch her professional progress at her request, as well as the request of her mother and grandfather. Because this mentoring relationship required interaction with the student's family, especially her very proud and protective grandfather. I've mentored other students that never mention their families and some that have never engaged me in a conversation outside of research methods. I've had students breakdown crying in the lab after unfortunate break-ups with boyfriends. I learned that they sought out the lab a stable environment during an unstable time in their life and light work helped them deal with their personal pressures. I've had groups of students over to my house to watch movies, discuss books/articles and even to celebrate holidays. Some students seek out these opportunities, others do not. Arguably, the students often guide the personality of the mentoring relationship.
So, when you sign-on to be a mentor, do you sign-on to a lifelong commitment? Well, I would not say that it is anything as formal as that, nor as onerous. When you assist someone in their professional growth, you become somewhat vested in their success. It's not in a financial or narcissistic manner. Rather it is personally and professionally rewarding to watch your students succeed. So, you continue to watch their career grow and you keep in touch and the relationship evolves. Just as it is difficult to define the construct of being a mentor, it is similarly difficult to define when mentoring starts and stops. Perhaps other mentors set stronger boundaries, but from the perspective that I described above, that really isn't the point. Student success becomes as important to us as our own success.
So, although I struggled to find an interesting topic for the January Scholarly Messenger, holiday greetings from colleagues from various branches of my academic family tree provided me with an interesting topic to address. And although, I have raised more questions than answers in this article, it has made me consciously realize that the ethics associated with the power dynamic of a mentor/student relationship persist long after students leave the research environment, long after they graduate and perhaps persist as the mentoring relationship gradually evolves toward a collegial relationship. As such, the power hierarchy should always be ethically considered as the professional relationship evolves.
Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.