The problem with mentoring for female PhD students

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in | Posted on 4:00 PM

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Can someone be said to be a mentor if they essentially just sign the paperwork? I don't think they can. According to LinkedIn, 49% of the women in my generation (Gen Y) don't have a professional mentor; because LinkedIn is a site for professional connections, I'll assume a large amount of those women are white collar professionals, probably with a college education. While 49% is a considerable improvement on previous generations, that's still a hell of a number, and one which is certainly borne out in my experience.

There is something of a constant for me around the issue of mentorship: a lack of mentors and a lack of female mentors. This happens for a few reasons: first, the women around me are interested in subsections of the field that I am not.

The majority of the women in my department are interested in social justice; I spent the last five years writing a dissertation about those issues, and have discovered that I lack a career-long passion for it. My interest is migrating considerably toward technology and mathematics, as I have discovered that solving problems and dealing with technology is a visceral pleasure.

Second, there aren't that many women who can sit my dissertation: my department has six women actively teaching, only three of which aren't assistant professors or lecturers, versus the twelve men currently teaching in the department, of which six are full professors. I've had a few people in this department seem interested in working with me, but they are far-and-away male. I suppose, in itself, that having anyone to mentor me is something to be grateful for. Since moving over to the sciences, albeit the social sciences, the faculty is considerably more male.

Third, the subfield I'm interested in is much, much more 'hard-science' than most of the field; it adapts physics, networks and computer science for sociological analysis. There are only a handful of researchers whose work falls within this purview, and they are mostly male and scattered all over the world. The 'map' of the field, circa 2010, has one female name.

Fourth, of course, is the considerable pressure to perform put on women in the hard sciences because of gender stereotyping. I don't run into this as much as my friends in engineering and physics, but it is definitely there when I talk to people, manifesting outside department discussions as disparaging comments about sociology not being a 'real' science, or comments about women 'lacking the head for real science.' Inside the department, it manifests as conversations about not really needing all that boring math, between women.

We are encouraged, even this early, to start trying to line up our committee. I've been told only two professors in the department, both white men, are able to teach or interested in teaching the theory I'll need for that specialty. I really, really wish one was female; women face different hurdles than men.

Mentors are incredibly important to the careers of prospective scientists; in the case of my interests, especially important. If nothing more than by the tiny number of people (the map lists < 50), I have to break into an elite, international cadre. I will be teaching myself the math necessary to model what I want to model; while I am taking math courses and will take courses with these two professors, I need a background of matrix math and of calculus and differential equations, in addition to the regular statistics literacy required to do research.

I fully recognize that I need to prepare myself for the field, but I am worried about the issue of mentorship. I have two choices (that I know about), and both men appear to me, on talking to them, to be distant and rather uninterested in friendly conversations or courtesies outside a sort of general politeness. I am worried that this means, like my last department (my final chair aside), that a mentor will be someone who signs paperwork, someone who does not have time for questions and is explicitly interested in his or her career advancement, not my interests.

This worries me. I don't expect my advisor to stand in for my therapist, but there are any number of things in the process of preparing for a career which do not include signing paperwork; among them are advocacy for students' work, connections/introductions and helping students prepare to be professionals.

I am hoping not to spend another five years, miserable and putting up with unprofessional behavior. I want to apply that energy to entering that tiny field.

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