Mentor, Friend -- or Both?

Professors debate whether mentors of graduate students and young instructors must go beyond supervising to "caring" to be effective, and where the lines are.
October 28, 2008

TAMPA -- The session on mentoring minority doctoral students was proceeding swimmingly enough, as the panelists offered useful tips about how the traditional methods for guiding graduate students work (and don't) for students of color, earning the kind of head-nodding agreement that is typical at gatherings of like-minded people. That all changed when one of the presenters, Javier Cuevas of the University of South Florida, said that he had changed his mind in recent years about one key question.

"I used to think that you didn't have to have a close relationship with the student to be a mentor," Cuevas, an associate professor of molecular pharmacology and physiology at South Florida's College of Medicine, said at the session at the Compact for Faculty Diversity's Institute on Teaching and Mentoring here. "But I've come to believe that there's a huge difference between an adviser, who may only be concerned about the student's performance on a particular project, and someone who has truly taken on the role of mentor. To me, friendship is an essential component of being a true mentor."

The notion that a faculty mentor must -- or at least should -- be a friend to a graduate student or junior professor to be effective provoked intense debate among the several dozen academics in the room. "I agree that an emotional connection, a level of caring, is an essential component of being a mentor," said Alvin Fox, a professor of microbiology at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine and director of the medical school's Sloan Minority Ph.D. Program. "But friendship is not the correct term. I think it says something beyond that."

The discussion that unfolded over the next hour suggested that the scholars were divided more by rhetoric, perhaps, than by greatly diverging perceptions of what makes a mentor effective -- and where the boundaries are between caring and friendship.

The philosophical question, "friend or no," emerged from what was otherwise mostly a nuts and bolts discussion about effective mentorships, in which Arizona State University's Carlos Castillo-Chavez discussed efforts there and elsewhere to encourage minority students to become mathematical scientists, and Gilbert John described Oklahoma State University's outreach to Native American graduate students.

When it was Cuevas's turn, he quickly made it clear that he was most interested in talking about what qualified as good mentoring, regardless of who was being mentored. "Whether one is African American, Hispanic, or Caucasian, good mentoring will help a student get through the program," he said.

His definition of "good mentoring," Cuevas said, required a faculty member working with a doctoral student or junior faculty member on two separate but complementary levels: first, professional and career development ("What does it take to be a pharmacy professor, a math professor? Giving them an understanding of the culture") and second, psychological and emotional support, especially for those who don't have a background in higher education and may be unprepared (or underprepared) to adjust to the lifestyle of a professor.

"Some mentors can't provide both of those components, and so a person might need one mentor for one aspect of their career, and a different mentor for the other," Cuevas said. But for those to whom he is a mentor, he said, "I think that providing that psychological and emotional support is a key component." The difference between a true mentor and an adviser who is a mere "supervisor" is that the latter "may not mind if you take 10 years to get through the program," Cuevas said. A mentor who cares about a student, he said, is "going to do what I can do in the rest of my life to make sure that the student moves through his or her career successfully."

Fox, the South Carolina professor, said he agreed that "emotional involvement" was important for a mentor, because "if you've got no soul, no heart, all you are is a supervisor." But "friendship," he said in an interview after the session, involves a "liking" that he said was not necessarily part of the mentor-mentee relationship.

Another professor in the audience, who asked not to be identified, went further. "My concern about this 'friend' thing," he said, is that some graduate students "come in with psychological problems that you have nothing to do with," and the more an instructor got involved in their personal lives, the more entangling it could be. "I found it helpful to keep as much distance between this and you as you possibly can," he said.

"Those personal issues are outside of what we're supposed to be doing," Cuevas agreed. He clarified that his definition of "friendship" did not entail the sort of personal entanglements the others seemed to envision. "Of course there have to be certain boundaries; you can't have a relationship where there are no barriers, because if there aren't, that person may not look at you as a person who can provide guidance," he said.

Asked afterward to explain what the boundaries are, Cuevas said that he has "dinner parties at my house," but he makes it a point to ensure that the graduate students he works with "don't know what's happening in my personal life." A reporter asked whether "friendship" leads to involvement in a student's personal issues. Cuevas paused and thought. "There's a single parent in my lab who is struggling to get out of the lab on time," he said. "I tend to think it's okay for me to maybe offer some solutions, like finding closer day care, so in that way I do become involved in the personal life."

But Cuevas would not, he said, try to advise one of the students he works with about how to handle a destructive personal relationship, because he has no expertise in that role. "My answer there has to be, 'I can't help you,' and then direct them to the right person."

He added: "I do think you can be friends as a mentor. But you can be friends with somebody without being that person you hang out and have a beer with."


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