Please help me be a better mentor.
June 7, 2019 11:15 AM   Subscribe

As a teacher/mentor, I am emotionally exhausted. Please give me your tips and advice.

I'm a professor and research mentor in a university lab setting.

A fair amount of my job entails emotional work. This ranges from steady encouragement to affirmation to panic attacks to daily crying to dealing with suicidal students. It ranges from my job as a role model in classes, to feeling like I need to engage every.single.student., to my research mentees to whom I am explicitly a major resource, and the job of mentoring is both intellectual and personal. I have a box of tissues on my desk, and it gets used.

I have enough support; I know who to call for mandated reporting and for suicide cases. I know and encourage students have their own support and resources. I have developed a set of strategies and tactics for how to handle situations (although part of the stress is that every case is its own new set ...). I close my door when I need to.

The thing I need help with is: it is exhausting. I have trouble unplugging, I guess. But -- leading a 3-hr classroom lab session leaves me ... almost catatonic for the rest of the day. I get drop-ins to my office almost every day, where the distraction level for me is huge and crippling. It is so, so hard to thread the line between being a therapist and needing to re-direct and lead a mentee through the next steps in a research problem but hold their hand at every step of the way because it's scary and anxiety-making for them.

I'm just exhausted. My own relationships have been neglected because I have so little left that I can't handle the thought of calling someone just to chat. I feel ... out of words and out of spoons, so frequently. What tricks and tips and exercises and CBT do you have that can help me unplug and recover?
posted by Dashy to Human Relations (8 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Oh I feel you! Teaching exhausts me too.

Some ideas for lightening the load though:
- Don't have drop in office hours. Close the door, don't work on campus, and get your undergrad and grad students to understand that you are totally there for them but at particular times.
- With grad students, if they're having issues, have an ongoing Google doc where they can write down their challenges and you can read them before your scheduled weekly meeting and compose an answer in text and/or to follow up in person. Also instruct them that if they resolve it themselves, to take it off the Google doc.
- Encourage your grad students to mentor each other.
- If students are coming to you for emotional support but they're not your students (this is especially true if you are a POC or woman in a field where you're in the minority), think about ways that you can do bigger picture changes at your U for such students to find other forms of support.
- Are you pretenure? If so, you need to dial back on the teaching and mentoring effort and focus on your own publications. Don't take on any new grad students if you can
- Are your chair/colleagues aware of the additional service you are providing? It might be worth bringing up informally.

posted by k8t at 11:32 AM on June 7 [2 favorites]

Fence off time for yourself. Even if it's just one weekend a month where everyone knows "Prof. Dashy is birdwatching in the Adirondacks -- no calls, no emails, no nothing." Just knowing that time is coming helps long before the actual weekend happens. Add little "bursts" of you-time where you can: walk the long way to your car without being on your phone. Tell your students that Thursday nights are off-limits because you watch The Good Place twice.

Learn the difference between "urgent" and "important". Pass this knowledge to your mentees as well, because it will greatly help them over their entire lives to know how to categorize things and when to bring them up.
posted by Etrigan at 11:38 AM on June 7 [4 favorites]

You feel emotionally exhausted by mentoring and teaching. Do you feel similarly exhausted by the other aspects of your job? Emails, committee meetings, dealing with colleagues, pressure to publish, etc.? Does it all feel like a relentless string of exhausting duties outside of your control to change?

I ask because if so, then you're describing burnout. And that's a larger problem than just being exhausted by teaching and interacting with students (both of which I find exhausting even though I am not burned out).
posted by cyclopticgaze at 11:43 AM on June 7 [3 favorites]

Whew, I can identify greatly with this question! The only strategy I have found to reliably help is making scheduling changes. Figure out if there is an arrangement that suits you best in terms of class times (e.g. for me, I will never again teach a M, W, F class and will teach 3 hour once a week classes when possible).

I have actually found office hours add to my feelings of fatigue/drain, so I have meetings with undergrads as needed but insist that they email to set them up as opposed to just knocking on the office door. I make a pretty big deal about this at the beginning of a course and have found my students to be respectful of this, and in turn when they email to set something up I respond promptly.

With students you're supervising, set a weekly or bi-weekly meeting (or whatever is appropriate in the context) and ask that they come prepared with any questions and issues. Take the time during the meeting to also check in on how they're feeling and coping. This can reduce crises and last minute panics that end up negatively impacting you as well, and is also just an important part of supervision imho.

The emotional load of playing a therapist/friend/academic advisor role is tricky. As much as possible I try to listen with empathy and get them to clarify what they need from me or what I can do for them. Often, just making it clear that they can have an assignment extension and setting the terms of that goes a long way towards resolving distress. Sometimes I refer them on to someone else (usually student counselling). Occasionally they are seeking broader advice (e.g. about a career path, a personal issue, their academic record) and depending on the context, I try to provide some for them. But again, just being kind and empathetic and saying "what can I do to help you with this?" goes a long way and often helps them out without being TOO emotionally draining.
posted by DTMFA at 1:12 PM on June 7 [1 favorite]

For academic issues: don't let your grad students come to you with problems. Get them to come to you with problems and a couple of possible solutions, or non-solutions they already thought of but that wouldn't work (and have them tell you why). That way they may come up with their own solution before you have to be engaged or, at the very least, they won't be expecting you to spoon feed them the answers.
posted by kate4914 at 1:38 PM on June 7 [2 favorites]

First of all: lots of sympathy. I tell my undergrads that if I'm here and the door is open, they're welcome to stick their head in and ask if I have a minute. When I really need to work, I retreat downstairs to the labs reserved for my other department (I'm also a doc student). One of my friends gave me a hard time about this... until an undergrad followed me in to that lab to ask an advising question. Whee. :p

I have the box of tissues, and it gets used, but I also aggressively refer out to the campus counseling services (which it sounds like you're doing some, but I do it for everyone). I'm not a professional, and it drains me (as you've seen) to try to fill that role. I actually had to utilize one of our counseling centers last year, and it was amazing how helpful they were... almost like they're trained for that work, right? :) [Which seems obvious in hindsight but was relevatory at the time.]

You can be a good supervisor and mentor without having to do the therapy work. They have got to go see the pros (that they're paying for!) for the heavy lifting. (Or even the moderate lifting. Everyone can benefit from therapy.)

You're doing good work. Thank you for being a good mentor; we need more of you.
posted by joycehealy at 1:45 PM on June 7 [5 favorites]

I've been a professor for 20 years. I was you. I'm not in a lab setting (humanities is different) so please take with a grain of salt if you don't feel this applies. But I do have close friends who manage students in the lab, and I had similar issues with students for years. So here is what I have learned.
You cannot do this. Mentoring is teaching them how to be professionals. You are not their therapist or best friend or parent. You are not trained to be a counselor, so you can't really do them any good anyway if you try to help them manage, and you are not paid to be. This is way beyond your call of duty.
You have to perform the boundary.
Imagine those students going to a stiff, arrogant white male professor in your department. Are they crying to him and telling him how anxious they are? No. They aren't even trying it with him.
Develop the air of the boundary. Tell students they can get psychological services for free and that they are in fact paying for it with their blood money tuition and slave labor as grad students. Give them the number for the mental health facility. Tell them they need to learn how to take care of themselves in this business and that it is a skill, and not to neglect care of the self.
But that means you, too.
Being a mentor means being a professional mentor. You can help them with work things, model intellectual work and being a scientist, and help them make professional connections. You can't hold their hand through their emotional turmoil.
Good luck.
posted by nantucket at 7:07 PM on June 7 [14 favorites]

I am a mere postdoc, so take my thoughts as you will.

You sounds like an amazing mentor, but I agree with the above that you're doing far more emotional labor than can be reasonably expected of you. Especially if you're still pre-tenure. I don't have a great sense of what's normal for undergrad teaching but what you describe sounds like an unusually high emotional load. Do your colleagues in your department report a similar level of undergraduate emotional-support-seeking?

Your graduate students are extremely lucky to have you as a mentor, but this stands out:

It is so, so hard to thread the line between being a therapist and needing to re-direct and lead a mentee through the next steps in a research problem but hold their hand at every step of the way because it's scary and anxiety-making for them.

I will be the first to agree that grad school is psychologically traumatic, but if you're describing a grad student this is not sustainable. And if you're describing a postdoc it's really unsustainable. Your students and trainees need to learn to solve scientific problems themselves. I have seen people who have advanced along the academic ladder without ever learning this skill and it's a disservice to everyone, including the trainee. If you feel like you have to emotionally and/or intellectually hold your students' hands at every step of the way, I suggest adjusting how you think about your role to scale back your own investment. My good mentors pointed me in the right direction, gave me ideas when I was stuck (after I'd already tried and failed to solve my problems), and provided me with a safe cushion when I failed. This last bit is what I'm especially grateful for. Can you renegotiate your relationship with your trainees to make it clear that they need to try and fail on their own, that failure is normal and not indicative of a problem with them as a scientist or a trainee, and that your job is to help get them back on track when they fail, not to make sure they never fail at all?

Also, if you have an opportunity to recruit a postdoc, try to consciously filter for emotional intelligence and not only scientific ability. I spend a fairly large portion of my time doing emotional work with the graduate students and other postdocs in my lab. It is real, exhausting work, but it's satisfying, and I would be very proud to be able to support and relieve some of the emotional burden of a PI with the priorities you clearly have. I don't think this is a unique trait. Your trainees, both pre- and post-doctoral, should be your junior partners, not just sinks of your emotional energy.

Finally I'd note that you should not feel guilty for prioritizing your own mental health and emotional resources. We are all responsible for ourselves first and foremost, and if you need to disengage a little from your students (while still providing those in immediate crisis with appropriate resources, of course) to preserve your own mental health and personal relationships you should do so without feeling guilty at all. And be careful about comparing yourself to others. I notice you posted the obit thread for Allison Doupe. I met her only twice but was struck by how she almost instantly adopted a mentorship role with almost every grad student she met. If you are setting your expectations for yourself based on someone like her, please cut yourself some slack; I know I can only dream of having that level of energy to invest in trainees.

And also, thanks for caring so much.
posted by biogeo at 9:29 PM on June 8 [3 favorites]

« Older Advice on buying a cheap, used, 4WD truck?   |   Logo programming in schools? Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments