Postdoc Mentoring

I have a friend. She’s asked for advice about postdoc problems. Not sure my advice is relevant to anyone else, but an aspect of the difference between her two postdocs is instructive. I’ve changed some details in the descriptions because she’s afraid that her postdocs read this blog. I could re-assure that its highly unlikely.

My friend is too nice. She’s mentor as mother sometimes. I am not physically or disciplinarially close to her, so my data and information is through conversation. She cares too fracking much. She tries to help too much. Yes, it is possible.

One of her postdocs knew everything the day she was born. She wanted her own project, her own way, her own students to supervise. My friend said, d’oh’kay. Postdoc ended up doing something stupid things, involving higher-ups in the dept, and got burned. Other postdoc is from another world, another culture, and struggled to get as far as she has in the face of her vastly conservative, uneducated family. This postdoc’s ignorance in politics is astounding for a human being. She also did something stupid, involving higher-ups in the dept, and got burned.

The difference between the two postdocs is that the first one did not believe that the forest held nasty ugly beasties who would eat her up, and thought that she could charm the piss out of anything she met. The second postdoc did not know she was walking into a forest. This variation is the way of the world. You can educate by example, by seminar, but you cannot hold kids hands all the time to make sure they do not touch the stovetop or stick a q-tip in their ear or trip and fall when they run outside.

The issues do not reflect back on my friend (which is not what she would worry about anyway). Both postdocs have sustained significant damage, that in this day and age will likely impact on their careers. My friend is not quite distraught, but certainly concerned and busy trying to figure out what she did wrong. My advice: she did nothing wrong. You cannot protect your kids from everything, and there are somethings that in fact, it is useful for them to find out on their own.

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7 thoughts on “Postdoc Mentoring

  1. From the little I can get from your vague description of what happened and what the problem appears to be (I still don’t get why she is ‘too nice’), I take that ‘independent’ in her case meant ‘unguided’. ‘Independent’ as a PD still means you are in calling distance when striving through the forrest. Otherwise you wouldn’t need a mentor to begin with. I don’t see how else it can happen, that PDs go to the ‘higher-ups’ without discussing it with their mentor beforehand, and do stupid things.

    • I don’t know all the details, either. She is too nice because she wants to teach them everything and protect them from the forest. We all don’t have enough time, and she chooses to put more time into teaching them, when I think the marginal return on her time would be better spent writing papers & grants.

      My sense of the two postdocs – they didn’t know they were doing something wrong (in the conversations they were having). The first one didn’t think she needed to tell the mentor what she was doing, or why, or ask for advice before doing something, which in the end was stupid. The second didn’t understand that this was something she should not have done.

      Finally, my friend is agonizing over what she *should* have said to the postdocs. I maintain that you cannot warn your children and your trainees about every horrible, evil and dangerous animal in the forest. The old story about pushing beans up your nose applies here (Alcott, L.M., 1869).

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