Doing a doctorate is a lot like the process of growing up. You begin from a place where you know a little about your field. You have some questions you’re excited to try to answer and you have some hunches about how they’re going to turn out. An academic advisor’s job is something like a parent’s…to accompany you through the process and steer you away from any gaping holes you’re about to step into while at the same time letting you find your own way.
There are things I’ve learnt from my relationship with my mentor that I’ll keep with me forever.
- Let me vent: Acknowledging feelings
When I first started this journey, I was exhilarated. I was so excited to be able to pursue my academic interests full-time. I was even excited about marking my students exam papers in my first semester as a TA. My advisor just grinned at me and told me that was great. He let me sit in on all the extra classes I wanted to.
When I got an A- on one of my courses, I was devastated. I saw it as a mark of being not good enough. This was to be my profession, shouldn’t I have gotten top marks? I cried for a week. My husband and friends thought I was nuts (because obviously, I am). My advisor just said, “it can feel like it is the end of the world can’t it?” He even read my term paper for the other class and said it was good and talked to me endlessly about this course which was completely unrelated to anything to do with his job as my advisor. He never once said, maybe it was the grading curve, or, she should have given you an A (implying I had been wronged in any way), or, implied that I was overreacting. He simply acknowledged that I care deeply about my work and that I was upset. He encouraged me to publish my paper and prove it was good. To let my shortcomings push me to work toward future success.
- Let me save face: showing grace
Once, when I was taking an advanced course with my supervisor on my chosen topic of research, he suggested I read this particular book. In the heat of in-class discussion, I wanted to prove how committed I was to this topic. I blurted out that I had ordered the book off of Amazon and was just waiting for it to arrive. He gave a slight smirk and continued on with the discussion. That week I went onto Amazon to order the book and learnt it was out of print and was only available pre-owned for 100USD or more. I was mortified. He obviously knew I was lying. He didn’t call me out in front of my peers nor did he ever bring it up again. I also believe he never allowed that incident to change his opinion or regard of me. After I got over my absolute abjection, it was humbling to realize I was so completely accepted, even with my imperfections. I borrowed the book from the library and moved on.
- Let me shine: providing silent support
The second year of my study, I was rejected from an application to a summer school in my field. I was devastated. My mentor invited me to a group meeting in another location where I could present a paper and be considered a junior scholar in my own right. I borrowed cold-weather clothes and stylish luggage from friends, packed my bags and traveled by myself for the first time since I’d become a frazzled working mother. When I met up with my mentor, I was strutting down the cobblestone path wearing a hat, boots, a sweater, and a scarf, all perfectly matched of course. It was June in Europe. There was that smirk again that I had glimpsed when I had mentioned buying the out-of-print book on Amazon. I realised I was a trifle over-enthusiastic and rather overheated. However, I delivered a well-received paper and had tremendous fun learning from the people there. Borrowed boots notwithstanding.
- Asking for help: showing confidence
Whenever he travelled, he asked me to teach one of his classes. It was a simple act of faith that has done more for my confidence in myself as a scholar and teacher than anything anyone has ever said to me about the quality of my work. He acted like I was doing him the favour when he could have asked half a dozen others in my place.
- Believing in the outcome before it is accomplished: trust
I spent the better part of over a year not writing anything. I was stuck. Paralysed by my need for perfection, every time I looked at the blank page I just found more reasons why I didn’t know anything about my topic even though I had passed my qualifying exams and proposals etc. with flying colours. There was no way I could do this. Every time I read something it confirmed I knew nothing. I obsessed over everything else in my life–my kid’s preschool education, my husband’s food allergies, my diet and lack of exercise. I sat for hours at my desk moving five sentences around a page for months.
I begged my advisor for a deadline. He simply said I already knew everything I needed to know about the topic and how to write it up. He suggested I write about the difference between “A” and “B.” He signed my papers for taking on extra part-time work. He supported my presenting work at conferences. He never pressured me to submit my writing to him. He just gave me tips like i. write in a notebook if a computer isn’t working ii. a PhD is not something you just complete one afternoon iii. it’s not called lowering your standards, it’s called adjusting expectations. He gave me books completely unrelated to my research that might be models of how to construct an approach. He always gave me a wonderful progress report. I cringe whenever I think of the numerous emails I sent him–I’ve discovered something! Page 111 or XX says this! To many of these rambles he, kindly, was too busy to reply (“what are you going on about, crazy person?!”).
Eventually, more than a year later, I found my way on my OWN. When I eventually submitted a tenth of what was needed to complete a PhD thesis, he congratulated me and told me I’d done it–my whole PhD was contained in this submission. All I had to do now was to edit. He said sometimes editing means adding things. He said it was great that I’d taken this long to start writing and that my project was better for it.
He never doubted me, or at least never let on that he was concerned about my ability to complete this work. He gently told me commas had a grammatical purpose but nobody would care if I didn’t really master them. He told me it was good practice to lay my footnotes out properly the first time, and not to use a noun as a verb or get caught using the passive voice too often. He acted as if these things were not going to make-or-break my success. He told me to enjoy myself while writing.
I must have done something good along the way to deserve such an amazing human being in my life.
He showed me what radical acceptance looks like. It’s not about thinking someone is perfect or brilliant. I think if I had decided to quit academia and pursue juggling in the circus he would have supported me and said something like “keeping several objects in the air is actually the hardest workout for the brain there is.”
He was not invested in me becoming something because I didn’t have anything to prove to him. I already just was.
If I’ve learnt anything at all being a doctoral student, I’ve learnt this. And for that, I’ll be forever grateful.