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Academic Mentor as Life Coach
November 7, 2011 - 6:51am

Mentoring graduate students constitutes a significant part of many academics' scholarly activities. On the surface, the mentor's role is straightforward: assist the student’s selection of courses so that she is adequately prepared for comprehensive exams or field papers; guide the student’s selection of a doable and marketable dissertation project; and work assiduously to place the student in the highest ranking university for which she is prepared.

But what about the graduate student who persists in pursuing less marketable research? Or - God forbid – one who seeks a job outside of academe?  What about the student whose education and training easily exceed the requirements of her most desired position?

Take it from someone who’s "lost" a fair number of graduate student mentees, advising these students is tricky. What's best for the student may well be psychologically painful for her, in addition to being hard on your own career. My very first graduate student quit graduate school entirely to play visionary for a social-media start-up. One of my best left with a Masters degree and became angst-ridden over "dropping out" of the Ph.D. program to work for the state of Kentucky’s trade representative.

Clearly, I err on the side of the student’s career inclinations. Not so in the case of my own academic advisor.

Early in my tenure as a graduate student in political science, I asked the professor who would become the chair of my thesis committee what I should select for my third field of study. A peace and environmental activist at heart, I was really interested in international law and community development; my would-be mentor looked down at me over his glasses and said, "Hmm…" His advice? Well, international law is ineffective. "Do economics." (That’s kind of related to community development, right?)

And so I did.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, nearly 3,000 miles way, another young scholar with research interests and a political disposition very similar to mine was advised by his mentor, an international law professor, to do what he loved. Although both of us earned tenure at Research I universities and currently "run with" the same crowd of scholar-activists, I took a bit more time to arrive – effectively abandoning the disciplinary center to locate myself meaningfully on its margins.

What do I make of this? Achieving true satisfaction as a scholar requires a certain consistency between thought and deed, words and action. While many, many scholars are perfectly well suited to a life as secular priests in their chosen academic temple, others crave connection with some non-academic “other” – community, spirit, the land, earth, or cosmos. Unless such a scholar is willing to ignore this innermost ambition, she will be compelled to find her niche – on campus, or off.

Recently, a graduate student stopped by my office and asked if it was okay to adopt a point of view outside of the mainstream in our department’s written comprehensive exams. "Of course," I said. A student may respond to the selected prompt with any logical argument that she is able to defend on the basis of sound theoretical reasoning and accurate factual statements. I could have left it at that, but I didn’t. This particular student has taken two of my courses and collaborated on my transnational social movements research. He aspires to work that is worthwhile, outside the confines of contributing to knowledge in our little corner of the scholarly universe.

"What are you worried about?" I asked.

"My research interests are just so unrelated to much of my coursework," he began.

The gist of our conversation concerned whether or not earning a Ph.D. in political science is commensurate with improving the quality of real peoples’ lives, particularly those less fortunate than even an impoverished American graduate student.

"Sure," I told him. I explained that he’d probably find a tenure track position perfectly suited to his skills, abilities, and interests. Then again, he might not. And that’s okay. Accepting a non-academic position doesn’t mean you’ve wasted your time in graduate school. On the contrary, it enables you to bring greater depth of knowledge and more credibility to your work. Period.

Indeed, I’ve learned that supporting students as they navigate the process of identifying their right and perfect places in the academic world and outside of it is among my most important, and certainly my most regular, contribution to our world.  It is unfortunate that far too many of us work in institutions that routinely devalue academically sub-optimal graduate student placements.

Juliann Emmons Allison is Associate Professor of Political Science at University of California, Riverside. Her research and teaching interests include environmental politics, gender and politics, international relations, and political economy.


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