ReferencesTop9.4 Suggestions for future workshops10 An Episode and Epilog

10 An Episode and Epilog

During the session on managing and evaluating mentoring, an episode occurred which led to a detour from the intended topic, but which also resulted in an emotional and, at times, hilarious conversation on several aspects of mentoring. The story continued after the workshop in email exchanges on the Yahoo list server email group ( set up for continuing conversations on workshop issues. The episode and its continuation were not included in the original formal writeups of these proceedings, but several of the participants who provided corrections and suggestions during the revisions recommended including the story, and its ultimate resolution provides a fitting epilog to this document. The story is based on the recording of the session, a few remarks noted by the scribes, and the Yahoo group email exchanges. Details of identity are left out so that the generality of the points made is emphasized.

During a discussion of advice for finding good mentors, a student sought advice on how to better approach potential mentors as she felt that she had failed repeatedly in establishing such contacts. She told of how she had been rebuffed by a particular professor who was the first female faculty member the student had encountered, one who shared the student's ethnic background. The student thought the faculty member would be uniquely valuable to provide sympathetic and understanding counsel. When the student tried to open a conversation with the professor during a conversation involving several others, however, she was put off. The student asked to continue the conversation when the professor had time, but the professor never followed through. The student subsequently sent email pursuing her request, and asked for a meeting. But the professor never replied. The student also described her difficulty making connections with medical doctors to discuss research involving applications of technology to medicine. There also her attempts to establish connections failed repeatedly.

As her story began, the student burst into tears - and later apologized for doing so.

The discussion was ignited in two directions: the subject of finding a mentor and dealing with a rebuff, and the subject of crying in front of others. The two threads of discussion were entangled, and only the first is reflected in the corresponding chapter, Chapter 6. The discussion is summarized here.

10.1 Finding mentors

The bottom line of the discussion on finding mentors was that there are many plausible explanations for the perceived rebuff, that the student was correct to pursue the request for a clear response, and that the student should not take the failure personally and she should persist. The professor might have been preoccupied at the initial meeting. She might have intended to follow through, but was either overwhelmed by other people coming up to her or she simply forgot. The original email sent by the student might not have arrived (more email gets lost than people realize), it might have been blocked by a spam filter, or it might have been overlooked. Again, the professor might have intended to respond but simply was too busy or too forgetful to do so. For all of these reasons the perceived rejection might have been simple oversight, and not a definitive response. The consensus advice was that the student should not give up yet, but should at least discuss the issue in person with the professor with the goal of getting an answer one way or the other as to whether the professor could spend time with her. Professors are not in general going to be willing to commit to a long term mentoring relationship with someone they do not yet know, but many will be willing to explore the possibility. One should not expect that common ethnicity or backgrounds or gender will be alone sufficient to convince a professor to assume a mentoring role, and it is not a personal affront if they are hesitant or unwilling.

Another point that was made was that students should not seek only a single mentor who can fulfill all of the mentoring roles, rather they should seek a circle of advisers who together cover the many aspects of academia and the profession. Virgina Valian [29] has argued that protégés like world leaders benefit from a circle of advisers to cover the many aspects of important issues.

In the specific case of making connections with medical doctors, students should first try to make connections with others on the technical side who have already established such collaborations. It is difficult for a newcomer to get directly and immediately involved with physicians, but the way can be paved by others in the group.

10.2 Crying in public

People cry, although the consensus at the workshop was that men and women do it under quite different circumstances and have very different attitudes towards crying in public. Many workshop participants described situations, from painful to funny, where they had cried, as well as situations where tears arose in others. The audience was asked to raise their hands if they had ever cried in a situation that was embarrassing to them, and nearly all hands went up, accompanied by loud laughter.

Usually crying is a valid and normal response to a variety of stimuli, which include distress, stress, and even anger. Many people feel concerned or embarrassed if they feel they began crying in what they feel is an inappropriate situation, especially if the effect on those around them is apparent. Often those who see the tears, misinterpret the cause and reactions can include irritation, concern, and panic. These reactions can be mitigated, as suggested by a senior workshop participant:

If you are going to cry, it might be better to calmly announce that you are going to cry, and make sure that there are Kleenex available in that eventuality. As a professor/mentor, it is good to keep a box of Kleenex available and to calmly hand a student a box of Kleenex with some announcement like: "I keep this because people often cry in my office, in fact, I cry in my office, etc." Try to take embarrassment out of crying.

In addition to the simple and effective technique of having tissue handy, if a person bursts into tears, give them time to recover and then resume the conversation. If it is you that is about to burst into tears, it is fair to look around the room for a box of Kleenex and ask the person you are with for some if you do not see any, possibly saying something like "Excuse me, but I am about to burst out into tears and I need some Kleenex. It's just something I do, so don't worry about it." It lowers the embarrassment for all involved and it lessens the intensity of the situation.

10.3 Epilog

The events after the workshop and their relation to the discussions are best described in the student's own words.

I wanted to share with you how the panel on finding mentors has influenced me after the conference. For those of you who do not remember me, I am the one who suddenly started to cry when talking about the female Hispanic professor I had met whom I wanted to be a mentor, but seemed to be avoiding me.

I ran into her again this year and following the advise of one of you, I simply went to her and said hello, and I was about to tell her how great it was to have a female, Hispanic professor in the sciences at the conference (this year, by the way, we had three!!!) when she invited me to a conversation she was having with another female Hispanic professor, a female, African-American professor and a female, African-American graduate student. It was about how Latino and African-American spouses, partners, friends, and families react to women who are studying to get a PhD in the sciences, are motivated to achieve greater things and to influence the lives people rather than just make a lot of money. It was incredible!!! So many of the things I wanted to talk to her about came out in this discussion. We were even talking about going to see Oprah together by the end of it!!! Anyway, I think if it hadn't been for the BIRS conference, I would have avoided her. If she had invited me to sit, I might have not sat with her, or if I had, I wouldn't have participated the way I did, having taken her reaction to me the previous year so personally.

So thank you!!!

Although she is still not someone I would call a mentor, another professor in that group offered to take me on as a mentee - surprisingly it was not one of the Hispanic ones - but in the end that is not what matters.

November 15, 2007

ReferencesTop9.4 Suggestions for future workshops10 An Episode and Epilog