25 February 2013

Mentoring Venn

Last Friday, I attended a very interesting workshop with Marcos Pizarro from San Jose State University. One of the things he presented was a diagram of what a good mentoring relationship looks like.

This is a situation where you can get good things happening. The student knows what it is that she has to learn, and the professor knows how to articulate those professional skills to the student.

On the other hand...

This is the danger zone. And this situation is common.

The student is completely ignorant of the need to do something, or an opportunity that exists. The student doesn’t even know to ask the question.

For instance, I remember back as an undergraduate student, one of my professors took me into her office, and asked me, “Would you like an enserk?”

“Great! Um... what’s an enserk?”

It turned out not to be enserk, but NSERC, the acronym for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (sort of the Canadian equivalent to the NSF). This was the first time I’d ever heard of this agency. I later learned there were three science agencies: enserk, murk, and shirk, or to use the acronyms, NSERC, MRC (Medical Research Council), and SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council).

The professor was asking me if I would be interested in an NSERC supported summer job, which I ultimately did land. But I was solidly in the land of the “unknown unknowns” in the diagram above.

What about on the mentor’s side? This one is trickier. This is usually cases where the professor genuinely knows stuff that the student actually needs. The problem is that she doesn’t think to provide the information to the student because she has gained so many skills that have become reflexive, and is so steeped in and socialized to the academic culture that she forgets what it is like not to know something.

For instance, I recently had someone ask me, “How do you read a scientific paper? What do you look for to figure out if it’s any good?” That was tough to try to articulate, because as you become a scientists, there are so many individual little pieces that you learn to look for. I was momentarily at a loss in trying to describe my process for tackling a paper. How deeply you need to read it? What are the signposts you look for? I never developed an explicit checklist for it.

At some point, you don’t easily remember what it was like not knowing the stuff you know.

Sketchnote from session:

If you’d like me to explain anything in the sketchnote, please let me know in the comments!

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