When I tell people I’m a Ph.D. student, the inevitable question is, “What do you plan to do with your degree?” I’m always a little astonished at this, because hey, tenure track academics. What else, right? I am so sure, so fixated on one path for me, that I forget that not everyone does the same.
And so, on Mother’s Day I find myself not wondering what I will do with my degree, but what kind of academic I will be. Seems like a strange subject for Mother’s Day, right? Not really. I have been lucky enough to be gifted not only with my incredible biological mother, but also with amazing, supportive women who have served as mentors along the way. I cannot overstate the importance and impact of a good mentor. Sadly, I lost both my professional mother and my original academic mother to untimely deaths in recent years, and for the most part, I have found myself utterly lost without them. I still don’t know what to do with myself when something amazingly good or bad happens to me. I want to pick up the phone to share the news with them or get their advice, and then I remember that I can’t. I have only their words of kindness and wisdom — and their innate trust in me and my abilities — to take with me and carry me forward. I’m out of the nest and on my own now.
The good news is that I have been lucky enough to have lightning strike a third time in the wonderful friend, adviser, and new academic mother I found almost immediately upon starting my Ph.D.. She’s very different from me, and we don’t always see eye-to-eye, but man, does she believe in me. She is my champion and protector, and she challenges me to do good work. She sees my success as a point of pride for her rather than a threat. Sees me as a legacy she is grooming with no plans to claim credit. It helps her to have her in my corner cheering me on and paving the way. The woman has my back, if nothing else. But there is something else. There’s the advocating and muscling behind the scenes on my behalf. There is the money to attend conferences. There are the chats over lunch. There are the extensive editorial notes on my work, telling it like it is when I can still fix and improve what I have written. The emails telling me that she’s proud of me. The phone calls to say hi, to check on me, to tell me a funny story, to let me know of another student’s award for his dissertation only to be followed by, “That will also be you, my girl. You’re next.” I can’t beat that, and I don’t intend to try. I know when I’m lucky, and I’m loyal to her. I don’t sneeze at people who pick up a sword and stand between me and disaster.
I am acutely aware that I am fortunate to have her. More importantly, I know that I am fortunate to have had every mentor I have had, and they are not easy to find. Most people never get one, and I’ve had three. And the result? The commitment it inspires in me to be a mentor myself. To shape myself to be the kind of academic, the kind of professor who reaches down and pulls students up. Who gathers talent and grooms it. Who values young minds and, even better, is valued by them in return. I have to say that I think deciding the kind of professor you are going to be is just as important as deciding the kind of research you are going to do. A good teacher specializes in more than just her subject area. She specializes in her students. Students are what last and live on long after you are gone. Their success and happiness are the ultimate measure of a teacher’s worth.
I went to a party for a new Ph.D. graduate last night. While there, I noticed something when the conversation turned one faculty member in particular: nobody had anything good to say about her. Despite her seniority and tenure, everyone agreed that, as a teacher and an adviser, she was someone to be avoided at worst, tolerated silently as a means to an end at best. Knowing and working with her was something you gritted your teeth and suffered through like some horrible rite of passage, constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. You can always tell she is the topic of discussion in any group of students by the rolling eyes and hushed tones as though speaking her name will incur the wrath of some black curse on all present. Like a cancer you might catch. She has a reputation for being petty, spiteful, jealous, vengeful, and wickedly capricious, particularly when it comes to other, up-and-coming female academics. She puts down the research topics and theories of others — “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” is the sentence most likely to slip from her lips like a broken record. Because she does not know how to be loyal to her students, she assumes them all disloyal to her, and so no one trusts her, much less likes her. Everyone deems her dried up — unhappy and dissatisfied in her life. Here is this woman in middle age as her career wanes, and not a single student could speak well of her or her research, much less sing her praises as a teacher, mentor, or, worse yet, a person. I feel sorry for her. I don’t think this is what who she wants to be, or even set out to be, but, the fact of the matter is, this is who she is and how she is regarded. She chose this. She made it come to pass. She is a road map for loneliness. She is a cautionary tale.
This experience frames a stark contrast to my late, great academic mother from my master’s degree program. She gathered students around her and her husband and made us a family. Regardless of age, all of her chosen were known as her “kids,” and we wore it as a badge of honor. She took care of us, and we took care of each other and her. We felt safe, secure, and supported both personally and professionally. We knew she would go out on any limb for us, and we would all do the same for her and our brothers and sisters. We still do. We worked our asses off to produce our best in research and in the classroom as a result. Our reputations were her reputation, and we took that link seriously and treated it preciously. We felt enormous pride to have a relationship with such a good heart and a brilliant mind, and her company was warm, loving, and coveted. Students lined up to take her classes and work with her. Anyone on her team broke their necks to go above and beyond on her projects. Her sense of humor was refreshing and second to none. Being her student meant being her friend, and she took the time to know us inside out. She drove us home at the end of the day, took us to dinner, had us over to her house for parties. Knew our concerns, our interests, our competing priorities, our pitfalls, our interests, and our long-term goals. There wasn’t a mean or petty bone in her body. Utterly secure in her own mind and competency, she worked overtime to smooth the way for us and see we got what we needed to succeed. She treated us as equals, as colleagues, and we all flourished under her tutelage as ardent allies and cheerleaders for each other. She was well-regarded by students, by the college, by the university and in her field. You could tell when others were discussing her, because the group would glow and laugh and smile and bond while doing it. She inspired brilliance and love and brought out the best in us all. When she passed, we were all crushed. We leaned on each other in our grief and still do. The friendships she gifted us have only grown stronger and more committed in the wake of her life. She used to say that she viewed her relationship with her students as just a beginning. We see the time we spent with her in this world the same way. As hard is it is that we cannot pick up the phone and call her, she’s still very much with us every day, giving us strength in all we do. We still work hard to do right by her reputation and make her proud. I drop her name every chance I get because I am honored to know her. While she may not have been my actual mom, she will always have had a role in birthing and mothering the woman and academic I am. She is my hero.
And so, when choosing my path as a budding academic and future professor, I am giving a great deal of thought to what kind of mentor I want to be and how I want to lead. Long story short, I want to be a mother. I want to be generous and take the high road. I want to do right by the mentors who molded me and continue their work so that they might live and teach through me. I want to throw my lot in with other brilliant, growing minds. To bask in their glow and be inspired by their ideas and theories. To lead by example. To be a mentor people — particularly young women — trust and want to have. To remain open and supple and happy and funny. To be a port in the storm. To support without ego. To hand over diplomas and put hoods over heads with a loving smile. To attend their graduation parties and be welcome. To be spoken of with love and gratitude when I am not there. To have the honor of seeing students flourish and become my colleagues, too. Not only because I see the ravages of unhappiness in the the professor who burns her bridges, but because I see the satisfying path of love in the legacy of a woman who gave of herself. And really, what are research and teaching but putting a piece of yourself out there to join with others and become something bigger and better than yourself? Sort of like parenting in a way, right? Funny, that.