Missing Mentors: Why Young Academics Feel Lost in the Ivory Tower, and How Experienced Faculty Can Help – WOC Guest Post

I am delighted to offer another guest post in my series of contributed posts by black women and other women of color.

If you’d like to submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration, email me at gettenure@gmail.com. I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer and can be about your experiences of racism/microaggressions in grad school or the career, about your post-academic musings, hard-won advice for other students/faculty of color coming up, intersectional practices in teaching or research that you have found valuable, and also of course, MAKEUP and clothes, or even tech gear you’ve found that helps in your work. More information can be found here. Today’s post is by a writer who wishes to remain anonymous for now. She is an assistant professor at a small, teaching focused HBCU. I appreciate how this posts builds on last week’s post about the need for community, mentorship, and acceptance.

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Imagine this: You’re the chair of a department at a small, teaching focused HBCU. You are having a casual conversation with one of your junior faculty members. It’s her first week.

She tells you she plans to enroll in a loan forgiveness program because she’s drowning in debt. You’re confused. You know of at least three fellowships she could have applied for and gotten. Why did she need to borrow money?

“Why would you take out loans when you could have gotten a fellowship to pay for your doctorate?” you ask.

It’s a fair question.

Nevertheless, when my chair asked me the very same thing two years ago, I wasn’t sure how to answer.

The truth was, I didn’t even know what a fellowship was until the last year of my graduate program. As a first generation college student, everything I knew about college and graduate school was self-taught. Consequently, I thought the “rules” of paying for graduate school were the same as the rules of paying for undergrad. I applied for a scholarship to cover some of the cost, I received some tuition reimbursement from my job, and after that, I found the rest of the money any way I could. That meant taking out loans.

The availability of fellowships is common knowledge in the academic world, but for me, it felt like insider information. That feeling, the awareness that others were privy to essential information that somehow eluded me, was a common thread throughout my academic journey.

It wasn’t that I didn’t ask questions. I was always asking questions. The problem was that I didn’t know what I didn’t know- so I never knew which questions to ask.

When I became junior faculty, the knowledge gaps became more apparent. I didn’t know how to get funding, how to find the right journals for my work, or a myriad of other things that, despite never having been taught, I was expected to know. I asked anyone I could find. Senior faculty, junior faculty, and even the professors of Reddit all responded the same way. They answered the question, but then, in a snide, flippant, condescending tone, they would say, “You know, you really should know this stuff already. Your advisor/mentor/fairy godmother should have taught you.” That response stung every time.

Eventually, I found a few people who I could talk to. But by then, I was playing a serious game of catch-up.

Senior faculty sometimes don’t realize how much graduate students and junior faculty struggle to find guidance. In my case, as a graduate student, I had been a woman of color in a predominantly white, male, program. It was rough. I wasn’t discriminated against, mind you. My professors taught me exactly what they should’ve.  I know all of the right theories and methodologies for my field. There are things, though, that aren’t taught in class. There are tips and strategies that get passed on from one generation of scholars to the next through office chats, research collaborations, and independent study arrangements. Those things always evaded me.  Over and over I saw relationships develop between my professors and my white male peers, but that sort of connection remained unattainable for me. I never became anyone’s protégé. (Before you ask, I’ll answer. Yes, I approached them. Repeatedly. Nothing ever materialized).

In the absence of the guidance I needed, I searched online. That’s when I stumbled on The Professor Is In blog. Suddenly, the answers I had been looking for we’re right there, peering back at me from my laptop screen. I devoured every post.  Through the blog, Karen taught me how to reformat my job documents, buy the right suit for my interview, and act like a colleague, not a grad student. When Karen’s book came out, you better believe I bought it. I meticulously studied those pages, and I attribute getting my TT job to Karen. The virtual mentorship I received from her, someone I had never met, was greater than anything I had ever gotten from people I had known in real life.

It’s been two years since I started my position and I’ve decided to go for a TT job at another school.  I landed a phone interview and immediately knew I wanted to talk to my “mentor.” I had learned much of what I needed from her book, but now I messaged her to ask her about salary negotiation. It was the one thing I didn’t do the first time around.

She suggested I schedule an interview intervention with Kel Weinhold before even thinking about negotiation. I took her advice, scheduled the intervention, and I’m so glad I did. It was phenomenal. Kel was patient but direct. She went through every question she thought I might encounter- it turns out she accurately predicted each one. I’m sure I would have completely bombed the interview without the intervention. Instead, I received a campus invite.

I appreciate the services offered by TPII, but I’m most grateful that Karen and Kel understood, instinctively, that what I needed was guidance without judgment. Unlike people in my past, Kel never made me feel foolish for lacking knowledge. And she really could have. In that short 50 minute window, I made several blunders:

I never, ever, in the whole 50 minutes, was able to answer one mock interview question coherently. (Thankfully the actual interview went much more smoothly!)

I pronounced pedagogy incorrectly.

We discovered part of my process for collecting data in my dissertation was incorrect (Yep, you read that right. My advisors never even caught it).

My “any questions for us?” question was about travel funding. (Big no no).

And the biggest one… When Kel asked me why HBCUs are important, I unwittingly characterized HBCUs as helpful to first generation and low income students of color, which, in a way, perpetuates stereotypes of HBCUs and minorities. Yes, some HBCUs are primarily comprised of students in that demographic. In fact, my current university serves exactly this type of student. However, that doesn’t mean all of them do. As someone who studied exclusively at PWIs, I hadn’t thought about the distinction.

These are all things that I was able to learn from Kel without feeling small or foolish. She never once said, “Well duh, you should know that,” like so many academics from my past. She corrected me and moved on. That means the world to me and I will never forget it.

One final note:

If you are an academic, especially on the tenure track, you might come from an environment where your students received quality, comprehensive guidance from people who share their racial and economic background. Maybe, where you come from, faculty take extra care to foster students’ holistic development into competent scholars and professionals. That would explain why, when you come across grad students and junior faculty who lack fundamental knowledge about academia and the way it works, you don’t understand.  You might be tempted to belittle them, brush them off, or worse, ignore them all together. I encourage you not to do that.

Instead, answer their question respectfully and without judgment. If you’re really feeling generous, hand them your business card and tell them, like you tell your students, that your door is always open. It will mean more to them than you know.



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