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Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.
This post is part of a (somewhat loose) series about being disabled at university, with a focus on graduate school: problems we encounter, how we deal with them, and what you can do that will make things easier for fellow graduate students with disabilities.
Fellow GradHackers have plenty to say about mentoring as a graduate student, both about making sure we benefit from our relationships with our mentors and about being mentors ourselves. Building networks is a huge (and hard) part of graduate school, and mentoring deepens our communities.
Being an Autistic graduate student makes good mentoring even harder (socialization is hard!) and even more important. After all, I'm navigating a system that wasn't exactly designed for people like me. In practice, this means I have multiple support networks with varying levels of overlap and with varying types of relationships. They help me ensure I’m making progress on my research, working towards my other degree requirements, and not getting too burned out from the stresses specific to being a disabled person in academia.
My major professor is obviously one mentor. The senior grad students in my lab are some others. They teach me how things work in the lab, and how things work in the department. Since I recently started my fourth semester in the lab, at this point I am also serving as a mentor for undergraduates. I expect managing undergraduate students will be an educational experience!
Since my major professor is in biomedical engineering and affiliated with the interdisciplinary neuroscience program I'm in, I have yet another, overlapping mentoring network related to my program. For this reason, I speak to my program director regularly. I don’t see her as often as I see my major professor, but I have similar reasons to talk to her: I need to stay on track with my degree requirements. Neuroscience and biomedical engineering have some differing requirements, after all.
Finally, there's my disability-specific network. This is where mentoring relationships start to look less like informal but (loosely) hierarchical relationships and more like an Ewok village. I don't limit my requests for guidance to those who rank "higher" than me in their respective field. My friend who gets extra time because she doesn't need it is absolutely one of my mentors, and she's still working on an undergraduate degree. She's also been an activist almost as long as I've been alive. People I go to for advice may not even be in the same fields or hierarchies I am. Dani Alexis is a developmental editor and a freelance writer. She's also ten years my senior but calls me an "elder." The people I'm looking to for advice may also be looking to me!
As a graduate student, I need guidance for a number of different reasons. The people best equipped to keep me on track in the neuroscience program aren’t necessarily the same ones who can teach me how to do autism research while being myself autistic. The people who who understand biomedical engineering research might not be able to advise me on how and when to disclose a disability on the job market.
What issues do you need the support of a mentor for? Who is best equipped to help you with those?
[Image by Flickr user Brian Ujiie and used under Creative Commons licensing.]