The good, bad, and ugly: OK, let’s just talk about the bad and ugly regarding mentor relationships
By Isabella Lanza, PhD
In the past month I’ve been seeking out a new mentor to help me adjust to junior faculty life. In my first year as an assistant professor, I relied heavily on what I learned in the past from great mentors, but towards the end of the academic year I felt I needed to gain mentorship from someone closer to my experience at my new institution. As I thought about how the mentoring process has affected my life, I first counted the number of mentors I’ve had had since college. I was somewhat surprised that I’ve had 15-20 mentors in close to 20 years. Of these 15-20 mentors, I still have contact with about half of them (I’m pretty lousy about keeping in touch with people in general). Surprisingly, whether or not I consider them a great, good, ok, or terrible mentor doesn’t correlate with whom I’ve kept in contact with, and I’m not sure what that signifies.
Anyway, thinking about all these mentors forced me to relive some highs and lows throughout my academic career and while it would be worthwhile to speak on the amazing mentorship I’ve received along the way, the real lessons to be learned are in identifying the types of mentors to be cautious of or just totally avoid. Although there are an abundant number of things that could make your mentor relationship less than ideal, generally these issues can be categorized under mentor ‘types’ that are easy to spot. Here is a list of types of mentors to keep an eye out for, and some recommendations on how to handle these ‘bad’ mentors:
‘I’m all talk’ Mentor
Some mentor relationships start off so well. Promises of advice, support, and other assistance sounds blissful to your ears, especially when you are a novice that needs a lot of help maneuvering the field. But this relief is short-lived because the ‘I’m all talk’ mentor is all about lip service. He/she doesn’t have real intentions to put in the time and effort to mentor you, but you have no idea this is the case until you’re in the middle of a dilemma and he/she could not be less caring. I don’t think this neglect is intentional (or I hope not!), but that doesn’t really help when you have no one to rely on in a time of crisis. The bottom line is this mentor does not have time for you. This mentor has likely overextended him/herself to such a degree that it’s difficult for him/her to keep track of you and the expectations set for the relationship. This is very common in academia when people are signing up left and right on grants, publications, and projects that require a mentor or senior person without the actual intention to mentor or advise. It’s a name only type of relationship, and in many cases it’s critical to a student or junior faculty’s progression, which is why this non-mentorship continues to exist. My recommendation is if you demand some real mentorship, specify a mentoring plan upfront and create an accountability plan with your mentor. If he/she is hesitant then it’s up to you to decide if you really need this mentor.
‘The Sourpuss’ Mentor
I think we’ve all come across someone who is continually bitter, disgruntled, and peeved about anything and everything. But can you imagine this person being a mentor? Although he/she may actually like you, his/her negative perspective on life may influence your own perception of the field and your career path. No one wants to be known as the sourpuss, and mentees may think if they model their lives after this type of mentor they will inevitably become just as disgruntled and negative. It’s also draining to deal with a moody mentor who is unhappy. You may start to feel like you need to dampen down your happiness level when talking to him/her (commiserate), or may even start to reverse roles by taking steps to cheer the sourpuss up. Definitely do not try to take this mentor under your wing in hopes you will have him/her feeling rainbows, puppies, and lollipops. It’s not going to work. Just leave the bad mood alone and try to gain as much good mentorship as you can while limiting face-to-face interactions. This mentor is also prone to gossiping about colleagues or other students, so limiting your physical interactions with this type of mentor may help you escape the black hole of drama and pettiness that we’ve all seen in academia.
‘Re: Out of Office Reply’ Mentor
Oh, the dreaded MIA (missing in action) mentor. Never around – either through physical or technological means – this mentor has very little time for you. If you have less than two interactions with a mentor a year (and desire more), you should re-evaluate whether this mentor relationship needs to survive. It’s completely understandable if he/she has a big name and can help you network into a great school or job, but don’t totally rely on his/her advice or support for major decisions. This mentor really doesn’t know you well enough to know what’s best for your situation. Take the advice this mentor gives you with a grain of salt by comparing it to other mentors who know you better.
‘All up in your business’ Mentor
This mentor is nosy…very nosy. He/she wants to know everything about you – what you did over the weekend, whom you are dating, whether you want to have kids, whether you smoke marijuana, if you’ve ever shoplifted, what your favorite color was in first grade, your feelings on Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders – you get my drift. Now it’s possible that a mentor is nosy because he/she is just a good-natured inquisitive person. But to be on the safe side, just assume the ‘all up in your business’ mentor is not the one you want to divulge your deepest, darkest secrets. It’s possible he/she is a conniving person that will use your personal qualities or experiences against you or to control you. In general, you always need to be thoughtful about the personal information you impart to others in professional settings. Think, “Could this be used against me one day?” But be especially on alert when you have a nosy mentor. Keep your boundaries up at all times too. Once when I was much younger and was prone to sleeping until 11am on the weekends (don’t judge), I had a mentor call me at 8am on a Sunday morning. Red flags set off because a phone call was not the norm even back in my day (yes, we had email) and there was no emergency to attend to on a weekend morning. I clearly sensed that this mentor was trying to catch me in something he/she judged inappropriate. My thought is that if you display a professional boundary most people will gladly abide to it and even the nosiest mentor will stop hassling you (eventually – so be persistent). However, some may be very difficult to resist and ties may need to be cut off.
‘When you have a chance…’ Mentor
How’s your schedule looking? Trying to enjoy the weekend out with friends or family? Like to get 7-8 hours sleep? Thinking tonight is the night you’ll go for that 5 mile run? Not with this mentor. He/she will always, and I mean always, seek you out to give you new tasks that are likely to take 500% more time and effort than he/she imagines. This mentor is usually a senior person that has absolutely no clue how long tedious or menial tasks take because he/she hasn’t done them in 20+ years. However, this mentor might also be a junior person that just has no life, and by default, you should have no life too. And if you’re wondering, “Wait. This sounds like just a boss, not necessarily a mentor”, yup, this is the situation in which a mentor thinks a mentee is a synonym for a minion. The only way to deal with this situation is to learn the art of being assertive. Read a book and watch you tube videos on negotiation/assertiveness training, ask other peers what are appropriate expectations in your field, and don’t hesitate to ask another mentor what they recommend. Almost everyone will have a mentor like this at least once, so you are bound to get a lot of helpful feedback if you ask.
The best mentors will tear you down BUT they will help build you up. The worst mentors will tear you down, beat you with a stick, and leave you for dead. This is a bully disguised as a mentor. Be careful – just because a mentor criticizes you doesn’t mean he/she is a ‘bully’ mentor. Critical feedback is a common and a necessary part of a mentor relationship. However, the “bully” mentor doesn’t give critical feedback. Instead, this mentor systematically victimizes his/her mentee, knowing the mentee is helpless due to being in a subordinate position. This mentor is extremely critical about a mentee’s abilities, skills, performance, behaviors, and even personal traits and qualities. He/she also does absolutely nothing to help the mentee improve weaknesses. If you feel continually beaten up by your mentor and feel powerless to change the situation, ask yourself exactly why you are maintaining this mentor relationship? Is there an alternative option, like seeking out a replacement mentor? Be cautious about how you leave this relationship too because your mentor may feel the need to badmouth you to others in an attempt to make him/herself look good and make you look like a incompetent mess. I’ve seen this happen to good friends and it’s a very unfair situation to experience and honestly the source for some people leaving academia, especially during graduate school.
‘Let’s be friends’ Mentor
Oh boy. This type of mentor can be very emotionally draining. Fun one minute, and aggravating the next – it’s a full on rollercoaster when a mentor wants to be friends with you, or more specifically, party with you. This seems to be particularly problematic for graduate students and their graduate advisors. You’re at a conference and your advisor wants to go to the bar with you, which sounds like it could be fun until someone ends up tipsy or drunk and says or does something that damages the professional relationship. My recommendation is know your boundaries and comfort level. Are you ok drinking with your mentor? Do you drink in general? Do you have the tendency to get drunk and embarrass yourself? Is your mentor known to be inappropriate when drinking or partying? Are you losing respect for your mentor because of the way he/she acts in a ‘party’ situation? Will your mentor use your behavior when going out against you later on? It’s ok to hang out (IMO) with a mentor, but beware; these are not your college frat-party friends. Even if they act like this, DO NOT act like him/her. It’s like the walk of shame. The next day is going to be awkward and filled with regrets.
‘Let’s be more than friends’ Mentor
I’m not even going to go into this one (that much). If you feel like your mentor is trying to make the moves on you, run, and run fast. It’s imperative you get out of this relationship quickly because the longer you’re in it the more likely you will get blackmailed or be in a no-win situation. A lot of mentees may tell themselves they are just imagining things or maybe misinterpreting their mentor’s behavior. Follow your intuition on this one. You’ll thank yourself when you’re a less naïve grownup.
One thing I want to make clear is that if your mentor fits into one of these ‘bad’ mentor types, it does not necessarily mean he/she is a bad mentor. No mentor is perfect, and it’s common to find flaws in even a stellar one. You can definitely work around some of these issues if you put in the effort. For instance, I’ve found it’s easy to have a ‘Let’s be friends’ mentor if you set firm boundaries early. You also might find that the ‘Re: Out of Office’ type of mentor can be useful when you need a recognizable person to put in a good word for you. However, some types, like the ‘Let’s be more then friends’ or ‘Bully’ mentors need to be eliminated immediately. As someone who has experienced all of the above types of mentors (ok, except the bully mentor – I’ve lucked out on that one), I definitely think you can work well with some, but need to run away from others.
Also, remember you are not perfect either (what?!), so it’s always wise to keep active, engaged communication with a mentor to make sure both of you are meeting expectations. Actually as a colleague pointed out to me recently, it’s important to have clear, concrete expectations and goals between you and your mentor in order to have the most fulfilling relationship on both ends. This is done best at the beginning of the relationship, so be thoughtful in what you want out of a mentor before you seek one out.
If you have any questions or comments that you want to keep discreet and not post on this site, please feel free to email me at Isabella.Lanza@csulb.edu. Good luck with all your mentor relationships!