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The Academics' Forum: On Exciting “Firsts” in Academia

Dorothy R. Carter, University of Georgia

A few months ago, Allison Gabriel, a true SUPERSTAR academic, texted me to ask if I would be willing to take over The Academic’s Forum. For the past several years, I’ve absolutely loved hearing Allie’s perspectives on various aspects of academic life through this column, and I respect her immensely, so I said yes immediately. Then… she explained that I could think about this column as “writing a diary about going through the tenure track process, except everyone in the field is able to read it.” Gulp. Reality set in. I’ve never kept a diary, and I am not a very public person. I post on social media approximately once a year and very rarely share anything personal in that sort of forum. In fact, I’m pretty obsessive about editing my writing. In terms of social media, this often results in me beginning to write a public post, overthinking it, and deleting it. Upon reflection, however, I realized that academia has been a series of “firsts” for me (e.g., first time out of the country, first time public speaking, first time teaching, first time publishing, etc.). Each of these “firsts” have seemed daunting initially but have pushed me out of my comfort zones in ways that have been exciting, fun, and led to new opportunities that I could not have dreamt about prior to entering this field. Therefore, I am thrilled that this “public diary” will be yet another way academia is challenging me to broaden my horizons. I recognize I have big shoes to fill. The previous authors of this column—Allie, Satoris Culbertson, and Sylvia Roch being the most recent—have imparted troves of wisdom through their articles. I will do my best to try to live up to their awesomeness!

When I was reflecting on my “firsts” in academia, I realized one very special “first” that is particularly meaningful to me right now is that my first PhD student, Cindy Maupin, just signed a contract to become an assistant professor at Binghamton University School of Management starting Fall 2019! (Yay Cindy!) So, in honor of exciting firsts, the topic of this initial installment of my academic’s forum series will be about the lessons I learned while mentoring my first graduate student during my first few years as an assistant professor at the University of Georgia. Luckily, I had the incredible good fortune of having the amazing Leslie DeChurch as my PhD advisor during graduate school, and therefore, I began my career with a great example of mentoring. However, I have certainly had struggles as I attempt to be an effective mentor while also navigating all of the other challenges of the tenure track (e.g., publishing, grant writing, work–life balance) To gain more insight about this topic, I interviewed Cindy about both the benefits as well as the challenges of our mentor–mentee situation. Here are four key takeaways from our conversation.

1. Find the Right Balance of Professorship and Friendship

This is a tricky one and is likely to be wildly different, not only from advisor to advisor or from student to student but to each unique student–advisor dyad. What is particularly challenging with your first graduate student is that you will likely be close in age, and you will definitely not have a big separation of years “under your belt” in the field. In talking to Cindy, she noted that being close in age and stage was helpful in that we could relate well to one another and that there was a strong feeling of us being a collegial pair that could empathize with one another. However, our friendship also had complications. For example, she noted to me that in meetings it was often difficult to know whether my advice was being given “as a friend” or “as an advisor.” In all honesty, I struggled with navigating these dual identities as well; it was sometimes hard to know when I should be an advisor and when I should be a friend. It might be easy to think that being the “professor” all the time is the right path, but that can be alienating and intimidating to students, making them feel like they could never rise to your standard. Of course, you don’t want to go too far to the other end either, because emphasizing the friendship relationship too much can make it difficult to tell your mentees the hard truths and objective feedback they need to develop professionally. In talking with some senior colleagues, I have found that the navigation of dual identities continues to be a struggle for many well into their careers and changes from student to student. So, my biggest piece of advice based on my own experience is to be aware that this issue exists and to think about it often and take it seriously.

2. Don’t Expect to Have All the Answers

This one may seem obvious, but if you end up mentoring your own first student you may be surprised at how important it is to understand. Obviously, none of us have all the answers to everything. Therefore, one important piece of advice is that you should never approach mentoring in such a way that you try to "have all the answers." Be honest. Your students need to know that not only do you not have all the answers but that no one does, including them. In my conversations with Cindy about this topic, she noted that what she found most helpful was that, rather than trying to seem like I have all the answers all the time, I was honest when I didn’t know something and often supplemented my own knowledge with that of experts who do have the answers. This takes work. It means you need to not only introduce your students to knowledgeable people but that you need to help them forge their own relationship with these experts independent of you, their advisor. In fact, one thing Cindy mentioned is that she has benefited immensely from the connections she’s forged outside of myself and our lab. She is currently finishing up a year as a research fellow at the Army Research Institute working with great researchers like Jay Goodwin, Greg Ruark, and Andy Slaughter. Obviously, there are times when you need to be the “other” mentor for students who you can help guide through certain parts of their careers. My own advisor set a great example for this. I benefited richly from a wide variety of academics and practitioners as I charted my career path, and a wide variety of students benefited from her in turn. I have tried to model this in my mentorship of students who are not “mine,” like Young-Jae Kim (Brian Hoffman’s mentee at UGA), Alexandra Harris, (Nathan Carter’s mentee at UGA), and Gouri Mohan (a graduate student at IESE Business School in Spain who came to work with me at UGA as a visiting scholar for 6 months).

3. Mentoring Can Be One of the Most Rewarding Aspects of Your Career

The excitement of publications, funded grants, and accolades are all obvious rewards in your early career. But what may not be most obvious is that mentoring is a true gift not only to the mentee but to the mentor. I have been so excited to watch Cindy progress and to know that I played some part in her development as a scholar and person. The capstone that occurred most recently was her earning a position at Binghamton. I swelled with pride on receiving the news, and in some ways it was even more exciting than getting my OWN job! A colleague once told me that Scott Highhouse once said to them “You are only doing as well as your students.” I think this is a truly admirable way to view mentorship, and a yardstick I plan to use throughout my career. I am so excited for Cindy and all that the future holds for her (see #4). I’m also so extremely excited for the unique journeys my other current graduate students, Hayley Trainer, Jake Pendergraft, and Justin Jones, are taking together. All of them will undoubtedly have exciting and promising careers ahead of them.

4. Mentoring Does Not End After Graduation

Unlike my other points, this is one I have not yet experienced, but it is something I am certainly committed to and excited for. In talking with my senior colleagues it has become clear to me that mentoring does not end after graduation (or after a student takes their first job). In fact, in some ways the mentoring you will provide postgraduation can be just as important and impactful, despite being quite less frequent. Your academic and practitioner students will need help navigating the professional and political world of the workplace after graduation. They will continue to need advice for difficult situations. Academics will need to understand the tenure and promotion process at a much more granular level than they did before. Your practitioner students will need advice for dealing with difficult clients and maybe even bosses. As Cindy begins her journey I am - based on the advice of senior colleagues—committing myself to being there for her as she enters an entirely new chapter in her professional life. But in speaking to these senior colleagues it is clear that this is yet another balancing act. These new academics and professionals need your help, yes, but they also need to become even more independent of you, publishing without you and dealing with things on their own. However, your advice should always be available as they chart their new path. So, be sure to check back next year as I plan to write a bit about the postgraduation mentoring process in a future column!

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