• July 24, 2014

One-Sentence Mentoring

Careers Illustration for Midcareer Mentoring

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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close Careers Illustration for Midcareer Mentoring

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

Inspired by one-sentence book reviews, tweets, and text messages, I decided to attempt an academic form of this parsimonious genre by providing bite-size morsels of advice on selected career topics. The appeal of this approach to mentoring is that it forces one to prioritize: If I could tell you only one thing about each topic, what is that one most important thing?

The obvious hazard, of course, is that some topics deserve much more than a one-sentence sound bite, but I decided to do it anyway. Although I limited myself to one sentence per topic, some sentences contain more than one bit of advice, so I stretched the concept slightly.

One thing I noticed after I started this exercise was that my advice tended to be of the negative sort. When forced to select one piece of advice for a topic, I tended to gravitate toward "Don't do X" rather than "Be sure to do Y." That probably means I think it is most essential to avoid doing stupid things, and in this context, stupid things are ones I personally find annoying.

So as you read, keep in mind one of the perils of mentoring advice: It is extremely subjective. No advice—whether brief or detailed—applies to all people and situations.

To applicants writing cover letters for academic jobs: In one page, explain why you are a strong candidate in terms of your expertise and interests, without implying that we are idiots if we don't hire you.

To applicants writing research statements for academic jobs: Start with your most recent and most exciting work and ideas, rather than describing your research experiences in chronological order, from childhood to present.

To applicants submitting CV's for academic jobs: Put the information most relevant to our position early in the CV and don't try to bulk up a meager publication record by listing manuscripts "in preparation."

To applicants writing research statements for graduate-school applications: Don't write about a memorable childhood experience that you (mistakenly) think is relevant to your qualifications for graduate study.

To applicants choosing reference-letter writers for graduate-school applications: In addition to selecting the obvious professors (advisers), pick people who are not related to you and who can write substantive comments relevant to your goal of being admitted to a doctoral program.

To applicants choosing reference-letter writers for tenure-track jobs: In addition to selecting the obvious professors (advisers), pick people who can write something substantive about you—even if they are not as famous as others who could toss off a brief paragraph—and who have credibility as letter writers in this context.

To people writing letters for applicants to graduate programs: Write about things that are relevant to an applicant for graduate study, not a list of every type of interaction you have ever had with the candidate, from hiring that student as a babysitter to discovering a mutual love of zombie movies.

To people writing letters for applicants for tenure-track positions: Give an honest and substantive explanation for why the candidate is—or is not—qualified for the position for which he or she is applying.

To people writing letters for a faculty member's tenure bid: If someone's career depends, in part, on your evaluation, it would be nice if you wrote a thorough letter that is more about the candidate than about you.

To people writing letters for female candidates for any of these things: Do not compare her only to other women in similar positions ("She is among the top female students ever to graduate from our department.").

To candidates interviewing for tenure-track faculty positions: Just be yourself, but not too much.

To prospective graduate students writing to faculty or program administrators: Do not send form letters ("Dear Professor"), don't ask vague questions that you should be able to answer before you write ("What is your research about?"), and don't ask us to do tasks for you ("Please send me your three most recent papers."), especially if those tasks are obnoxious ("My adviser told me to write to you, so please write back soon and tell me why I might be interested in working with you, given my expertise").

To prospective graduate students visiting a department for an interview or recruitment event: Don't skip a meeting with a professor (or anyone) because you would rather check out the campus fitness center.

To graduate students who think their advisers are strange, unavailable, erratic, and clueless (excluding egregious behavior and ethical violations): Maybe they are some or all of those things and maybe they aren't, but it would be good if you could find a way to work with them anyway, perhaps by developing strategies for better communication.

To graduate advisers who think their students are strange, unavailable, erratic, and clueless (excluding egregious behavior and ethical violations): Maybe they are some or all of those things and maybe they aren't, but it would be good if you could find a way to work with them anyway, perhaps by developing strategies for better communication.

To writers who are upset at the rejection of their manuscripts by journals: Unless your work has been conclusively shown to be fatally flawed, move on as soon as possible and submit a revised version to another journal.

To writers who are upset at how their work is cited—or not cited—in journal articles or books (excluding egregious examples and ethical violations): Let it go, perhaps after sending a passive-aggressive e-mail to the offending author(s).

To people who wonder if a woman got a job, a grant, or an award because "they" had to hire or reward a woman: Don't.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for our Catalyst column. Her blog is science-professor.blogspot.com.

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