Mentoring that makes a difference

In Chapter 9 of When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, Harold Kushner proposed three ‘non-negotiable’ elements of life, experiences that enable us to say that we have lived our life and not wasted it. His third suggestion, which may not come as a big surprise to many people, is “knowing that you have made a difference”.

Kushner continues to cite examples of work and activities which have the potential of allowing us to make a difference. Interestingly, one of the examples he gives is being someone’s mentor. This immediately reminds me of Icy’s blogpost titled Nurturing Young Scholars (; Nov 28). In this post, Icy writes about her mission in supervising doctoral students, and the satisfaction she derives from the process. Icy writes:

I know it sounds very high-sounding, but you can probably imagine the strong sense of satisfaction for a teacher to see her students grow academically and professionally, especially when the mentoring is personal and one-on-one.

But more importantly, supervising research students involves taking them on an academic journey, mentoring them, supporting them, and helping them gain expertise in the academic community. It is a mammoth but very worthwhile task

It is also a task I take seriously. I hope I can make a difference as a thesis advisor. For that to happen, I know I have to play the role of a co-learner, learning together with my students. I will try my best.

Kushner was writing generally about mentoring. He quotes from Daniel Levinson:

Being a mentor with young adults is one of the most significant relationships available to a man in middle adulthood. The distinctive satisfaction of the mentor lies in furthering the development of young men and women, facilitating their efforts to form and live out their dreams … More than altruism is involved: the mentor is doing something for himself. He is making a productive use of his own knowledge and skill in middle age. He is learning in ways not otherwise possible. He is maintaining his connection with the forces of youthful energy in the world and in himself. He needs the recipient of mentoring as much as the recipient needs him.

Icy’s own refection testifies to the psychological motive and needs that underlie conscientious mentoring, as she pledges to make a difference in her doctoral students’ scholarly development.

Of course, teaching also provides an opportunity to make a difference. But teaching is one to many, while doctoral supervision is one to one. In teaching, you are lucky to be able to follow the same group of students for two years, but doctoral supervision is a much longer process. Furthermore, doctoral supervision is more personal: the supervisor taking an intense interest in the student’s work, and guiding her towards the successful completion of the thesis. And also because it is a longer process, the student is likely to meet with academic hurdles and emotional and motivational ups and downs. This provides the supervisor with opportunities of sharing her life experiences with the student, and of caring for her personally. In sum, doctoral supervision can be the most nurturing kind of mentoring.

Citing Levinson, Kushner also talks about the benefits to the mentee:

A young man starting out in his career will benefit greatly if he has a mentor, an older patron, not old enough to be a father figure, but perhaps a half-generation older, someone who knows the ropes and will teach him how things are done, someone with enough prestige and influence to take a personal interest in his career. The young man or woman who finds such a mentor has a better chance of being successful.

Hence, I’d like to let Pauline, a former student, know that she is indeed very lucky that her thesis supervisor is Icy, someone who mentors from the heart. I’d like to tell her, somewhat reluctantly, that with increasing pressure in the academia, there are some supervisors who take on doctoral students simply to beef up their own CV and appraisal records; they may not really be interested in their supervisees’ work and they do not care about their students as aspiring scholars and younger fellow human beings.

For Icy, she takes on doctoral students because she wants to make a difference in her students’ lives. This will definitely help her to proudly declare one day: “I have lived and my life mattered.”


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