On Mentors

About midway through my first semester of graduate school, I met with my cluster advisor to discuss my progress. Michigan has a rotation system: new grad students work in at least two labs for a semester each before joining a group. During that time, we don't have a dedicated advisor, so a professor in our cluster acts as our advisor.1

I had done a short (and therefore unofficial) rotation over the summer, but that first semester was surprisingly tough. I was teaching four sections of discussion, taking two classes, and working in a new lab. And I had a 40-minute commute each way. I didn't really feel prepared for any of it. I was completely overwhelmed.

But I attended the lectures for the class I was teaching, and read through the textbook and quiz bank. I rehearsed explanations during my drives to and from work. I spent evenings and weekends working through my homework. I sifted through the literature to understand my project better. That overwhelming feeling lessened.

I could handle the teaching, and I enjoyed it more as I went. My role as a student improved, too. One of my courses covered very familiar territory, and that gave me some confidence. In the other class, I realized that even if I wasn't leading the group, I was no further behind than the rest. I was prepared, after all. My research was the sore point.

My project seemed to change under my feet, and I though I knew I needed help, I didn't know what that help looked like or how to ask for it. I was incredibly afraid of revealing how little it seemed I knew. Already I felt pressured – by friends, classmates, colleagues and faculty – to keep throwing more hours at it. If I wasn't present for as many hours as everyone else, and I didn't know whatever it was I was supposed to know already, how could I possibly be a serious scientist?

In October, I got sick. I wasn't visibly ill, but I spent the month in various degrees of pain and discomfort, unable to find a way to explain to my advisor or colleagues what was wrong. After the first week, with no signs of improvemet, I went to the university health clinic and got a prescription. And then I reacted poorly to the prescription and spent two nights feeling like my kidneys were trying to tear themselves out. No sleep, and no improvement. I still didn't mention it to anyone at work.

It was shortly after that that I met with my cluster advisor about my progress. He asked how things were going, and I think I said "fine." Teaching was going well; my classes were okay, though I was still having trouble keeping up in the one. How was my project going?

I don't know at what point I started to cry, but it was somewhere around the time the words "overwhelmed" and "don't know what I'm doing" came out of my mouth. "There is just so much to juggle." So much for being a "serious scientist." I was confirming all my fears, and showing him I wasn't cut out for this.

He stared at me a little, then carefully handed me a box of tissues, like I might break into little sharp pieces on his office floor if he made a sudden move. He was obviously uncomfortable with a 23-year old woman weeping at him.

I took a tissue, mopped my face, and tried to pull all my exposed pieces back together, breath by breath. He attempted to be supportive and asked "Why doesn't your husband help you?"

I laughed right in his face. What kind of foolish question was that? First, why would he assume that my husband wasn't already helping me? Second, why did he think I wouldn't have thought of that solution myself? And third, why did he jump to 'fix' me at all? It all rankled.

I told him he obviously did not know my husband. "My husband helps get me up in the morning. He makes my breakfast, he usually packs my lunch, he makes dinner most nights, he does the laundry and the dishes, and he buys our groceries. You think he should help me more? How else do you think he can help?" My husband had also moved several states away from home, friends and family so that I could go to graduate school. And he'd done so without a job in a state with an unemployment problem. Among our friends, we joked that I was the one with a wife.

My cluster advisor just said "oh!" as his eyebrows shot up. It had clearly never occurred to him that a man would do these things for a woman, and that support at home did not alleviate the sense of overwhelming stress on campus.

I don't remember what he said after that. I have the feeling we were both embarrassed by my tears and wanted to get away from each other. The next semester, I rotated into a different lab with a completely different focus, and there I have stayed, much to my surprise and happiness.

That first semester was tough. When I look back at it, it's all stormy grey and blue. I wish I could reach back to first-semester Me and give her a hand and lend her an ear. I needed someone on the other side of that hurdle to tell me that I'd make it over, and reassure me that falling down a few times wasn't going to be the end of the world. I needed someone I could admit my ignorance to, who could help me sort out what I didn't know from what wasn't known. I had two advisors, but I needed a mentor. And I didn't know how to find one.

I have found mentors since, though I don't know that I could tell you how I did it. I've found people who tell me which way is up when I feel my head spinning. They teach me, and support me, and give me the confidence to teach myself. They take me seriously. They let me take risks. They cheer my successes and brush off the dust when I trip. They don't try to fix me. They never treat me like I'm broken. They are not afraid of my tears.

And I am deeply grateful to them.

I hope I can do for others as they have done so well for me.

[Edit: I want to be clear that my temporary advisor and I have gotten along well since that day I sobbed in his office. I just wouln't count him as one of my mentors.]

1: The clusters are roughly equivalent to the major divisions in chemistry: organic, inorganic, analytical, physical, materials and biological (called "chemical biology" here).