Sunday, February 16, 2014

Losing a mentor - A Sunday Thirsty

A reader sent me this link about the passing of Stuart Hall, a leader of the cultural studies discipline.  You can read it if you want but this post isn't about the link.

It's about the passing of your research advisor, probably your first research mentor.  Has anybody experienced that? 

Often, feelings for our research mentors and advisors change from awe to hatred as we muddle our way through grad school.  In my case, my advisor never knew how often I plotted his demise.  We still chat occasionally.  I would be sad to learn that he died (especially if it was because I forgot to remove one of the lethal traps I had set in his office).

To restate my Sunday Thirsty question:

How did you deal with the loss of your advisor?

You might be waiting for the punchline but there is none. I'm serious because this is a serious topic.

OK, if you have something funny to say, hold off for a bit.  I'll have an opportunity for you on Tuesday but I want these comments to stay on topic out of respect for those who share how they struggled with this.  Thanks.


  1. There was one professor's whose death was a shock to me along with the rest of my discipline. She wasn't my advisor or even on my committee but I got to know her while I was doing my master's degree. She was a leading researcher in the field and I learned her name very quickly while reading papers (if she wasn't the author, she was at least cited) for my undergraduate classes.

    The first time I met her, I ended up on an elevator with her. She was very friendly and welcoming but I'm pretty sure I sounded like a blithering idiot when I realized who she was. At one point money was really tight and I was having trouble finding additional work, once she heard about it she called me up and offered me an RA position. She didn't actually NEED an RA and she had to make up work for me to do but she had money spare and wanted to help. I was very grateful for it.

    She died about a month before our main conference and they set up a special event in her honor. Various people talked about the impact she had in their lives and career. The room was way too small for the amount of people that showed up and hardly a dry eye.

  2. An older colleague's mentor died about four years ago, and she was so upset, she took the week off and was visibly distraught for a while afterwards. I had had a bad run of faculty who could/should have been mentors to me (undergraduate advisor, MA thesis supervisor, dissertation supervisor, department chairs at jobs) all turn out to be stunningly indifferent when I was no longer the golden boy and actually needed their help. I think as a result when this colleague's mentor died I basically thought she was either faking her grief for time off or was just a bit unhinged.

    Then over the course of the next several years, that older colleague became a mentor, a real mentor, with me through ups and downs, my biggest cheerleader, my most careful reader and my most trusted confidante. I am so fortunate in her having found and raised me, and I often think back now about when her mentor died, and I understand now why she felt that way.

    At my new job just the other day, an older colleague came into my office and said that the university had assigned her to be my mentor, and I just thought, that's not how these things happen. You can't just get assigned to a role like that.

  3. From a reader:

    I started doing undergraduate research the Summer after my Sophomore year in University. My Organic Chemistry Professor was the spark that got my brain to “click” and he saw the potential in me that even I did not know I possessed. I call it my “Paper Chase” moment, where I was thinking at the same speed as my soon-to-be Advisor. I started doing research and T.A. duties in June. And then, that Winter break, he passed away. I was at home during the break when I got word of Wes passing away. It hit me hard. Since I attended a SLAC, the Department Faculty and Undergrads were more like a family. Those of us who were in his last class in the Fall were given the opportunity to clean his office and to have any books in it. That was 34 years ago. I still have the books that Wes let me use for the short time that I did research for him. These books are most definitely out of date, but they remind me of a time in my life when Wes presented a new world to me. I thank Wes for that.

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  5. This is longer than I intended. Sorry!

    My PhD advisor and mentor died shortly after I took my qualifying exams. He had been my advisor during my MA and into the first year of my PhD, so I knew him well. He was young when he died. It was a really rough year. My dad had died suddenly just a few months before my advisor and my mother was terminally ill. In my advisor's case, I saw it coming. He had kicked cancer and then it came back again. After he died, somehow I just kept going. I don't remember much from those months of complicated grief in the wake of the deaths of two important men in my life. Friends tell me I seemed pretty normal. I must have a pretty good autopilot mode. I kept teaching and going to classes and preparing to go to the field; to finish out the plans that we had started. Doing my field research and finishing my degree became my way of honoring his memory. Once I secured funding and set off for a field site on the other side of the world, I realized the extent to which he had shaped my perspective and changed my life in the short time that I had known him. I also realized how much harder building a network is without someone to talk to who knows the environment and a few people. I arrived after three days of travel with only one cell phone number of a contact of my late advisor, so I called it up and I went from there. I sure learned a lot. I finished up a difficult 17 months of field research and came home. A few months later, my mom died. I'm not so old that you would expect so many people to die in my life. I was barely 29 at the time. I was just about ready to call it day and walk away from my PhD program. I wanted to go do something more mind numbing.

    Fortunately, the faculty at my graduate institution (in my department and in other departments) wouldn't just let that happen. They were not always very vocal and they certainly didn't nag, but they were there supporting me the whole way through. My second advisor, who was young and female (like me) and a fantastic role model, set some real expectations, and I took off running again. I was adjuncting two classes at the time and living in a town two hours away from my doctoral program. I would teach and write. Nothing else. I wrote for about 10 hours a day, seven days a week, for five months. I had tunnel vision. It was great to focus on just one thing. I finished writing, defended, and landed a full time position as an assistant professor at a nearby university.

    To me, it's a wonder I made it through it at all. My committee members told me they never doubted that I would and didn't realize that I was so close to walking away. I do take some credit for hanging on, but had it not been for the guidance of my second advisor, whose own expertise honestly didn't overlap that much with my own, I'm not sure I would have stuck with it. I think she let me do my own thing because she didn't want to override all that my late mentor had taught me, but she chimed in just when I need her. I'm grateful. Unfortunately, I didn't develop a close personal relationship with her. The quiet support of the other faculty and of the graduate school also helped me hang on.

    I definitely didn't have the typical graduate experience. Some things seemed to fall in to place (the research, the writing once I got going, the job after graduation), but others seemed to go wrong at every turn (the three people to whom I'd like to turn for advice died within just a few years of each other).

    I am thankful for the many things that I learned in graduate school and that the right people were there with me to help me keep going. I am saddened that I can't have my late mentor as a colleague; that he never saw me see our plans through to completion; that we don't get to share our tales from the field. I'm saddened that he doesn't know just how much he changed the course of my entire life in the few years that I knew him. I think of this often now that I'm on the other side, teaching my own students.

  6. My mentor died unexpectedly in 2012, and I felt unmoored, adrift for pretty much all of 2013. It continues to be a really tangible grief when I realize that I can't just drop by his office (or even draft an email) to discuss some wonderful or puzzling thing I just read or thought about. I spent a decade under his tutelage (and shadow...), and was a mature person with my own reputation and career, but still. In many ways, this mentor or apprentice system in academia is a throwback to the bad old days, but it also represents a fine, noble tradition -- the meeting of minds, the conjoining of intellects in pursuit of capital-t-Truth. One of the little, invaluable perks of academics. The transmission of enlightenment, one mind at a time. Of course, when we mentor others, we participate in this process, and the loss we feel when our elders pass on to the Great Library in the Sky or whatever, is just part of the natural order of things: "Father dies, son dies, grandson dies."

  7. My thesis advisor(s) are still with us, but two of my best undergrad profs died, and their deaths hit me hard.

    The first was the English prof responsible for helping stay at my SLAC which shares its name with Hiram. The school was (and still is) very expensive, and though I had some scholarship money, it wasn't enough when my parents got divorced. I went to my prof's office to explain that I would be leaving after the quarter was done, and probably going to the Big State U because it was all I could afford. The man went, on his own, to the head of the financial aid office and explained my situation. He arranged a meeting wherein I was informed that I would have grants to cover whatever tuition and fees that were not covered by the federal student loan program and my existing scholarships and work-study. I am getting teary-eyed just typing this. He turned to me during the meeting and said "We can't afford to lose a student like you." I went to work for him on work-study the next semester. He was a great bear of a man with a hearty laugh, and when my mom called me years later to tell me that his obituary had made the big daily newspaper, I sat on my kitchen floor and cried. He was a wonderful, humane presence in my life for those four years, and he no doubt did the same for countless other students.

    The other professor was a visiting prof whose wife was the daughter of a prof on campus. He was finishing his PhD at Big State U and teaching journalism courses. He had a strong interest in our corporatized media (from Kenya, he was one of the men responsible for helping Kenya get a free, democratic press going) and I learned a tremendous amount from him, about integrity and life in general outside our cozy little SLAC. We stayed in touch via email over the years, after he went back to Kenya. We always talked about me coming to teach in Nairobi. But it wasn't to be. I hadn't heard from him after our last exchange (during the 2008 election cycle). When I ran a google search, the autocomplete said ... "is dead" and when I clicked the link, it was an obituary page. I was gutted.

    I suppose all of this is the reason I work so hard to help those who need it, and are willing to accept it and work with me. I want to be the kind of teacher that years later, my students will say "She changed my life." So far, to judge by the number who come back from their sojourns in the Big Leagues, I am doing OK by the legacy left by my profs.

    Thanks for providing us a forum to talk about this.

  8. Just found this. My PhD advisor is still with us and I am in touch with him, though less so as the years go by; but he was good to me and I learned a lot from him.

    But it is my undergraduate mentor that had the biggest impact. I was a lousy undergraduate student, kept skipping classes, never did the work, was a snowflake in every possible way - looking back, I was also deeply depressed - but he had a habit of pulling me aside when he saw me in the hall and scheduling an appointment to go over what i'd missed. He only had to do this 2 or 3 times before I was so embarrassed that I started showing up in class. It turned out I was good at the subject. My marks didn't improve much in other classes, but a couple of years later he wrote a reference that got me into grad school with no money, on probation. It's because of him that I'm doing what I do now.

    It turned out that it was being an undergrad that I hated; being a graduate student was fine. I did well. And he stayed in touch, and we corresponded for years. Whenever I was back home (I went to undergrad in my home town) I always met him for coffee. He gave me invaluable advice on how to conduct research, how to navigate the academic and political requirements of grad school, how to apply for jobs; and he always took a sincere interest in the work I was doing, although it wasn't in his area. We were only in touch every few months, I guess, but I always knew I could phone or email. Occasionally he would send me something he was working on, for advice. Over the years I introduced him to Mr. Medicine Hat, and then the junior Hats as they made their appearance. We were colleagues and friends.

    Five years ago one of my students, who was now doing a PhD at my alma mater, emailed me to tell me had had died. I had no idea he was sick. He didn't tell anyone outside his own family, not even his colleagues in his own department. He wasn't old. He had just retired.

    I cried for three days. I still have his picture over my desk.

    Whenever I teach anything in his specialty I'm still channelling everything I learned from him. I learned from him how to be a good mentor. I am not nearly as good as he was. I hope I am as helpful to some of my students, any of my students, as he was to me.

  9. My PhD advisor died about a year and a half ago after a short, but brutal, illness. I was far enough along that I was long done with classes and had spent years working on the detector for our collaboration's experiment, but didn't yet have a dissertation topic. And yes, I have a new advisor now, one who is even in the same field, so in theory it should be a seamless transition, but it's so hard. My advisor was an expert in our subfield, and my new advisor is not, frankly.

    I feel like I owe so much to him -- not only technical knowledge of detector-building, but good ways to approach problem solving, how to be an ethical colleague, a little bit of how the wider academic world works (or doesn't?). I don't know. I mourn for him -- he was a good and honest person with a kind soul. I mourn for the collegial relationship that will never be, the connections, the career advice, the opportunity to collaborate on future projects. The world feels small. There are profs at other universities that have reached out to offer to read and give feedback on sections of my thesis, and once I was warned that someone was jockeying to present work that I'd worked on at conferences. I doubt he would have have the balls to do that if my advisor was still alive. There are people looking out for me, but it's not the same as knowing your advisor has your back and the experience and knowledge to help you through.

    How have I dealt with this? Not so well. I haven't quit, and I think it's within reach to finish my PhD, but it's hard to be suddenly without that type of mentorship. If you've ever read Jules Verne's "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" he writes such a typical mentor-mentee relationship with the overly cautious doubting student who gradually learns to follow his advisor's instincts and curiosity which makes all the difference in the world. You have to really push yourself out of your comfort zone to make discoveries, to work "on the frontiers of science", and the death of an advisor makes it so much harder. It feels too soon.

    Thanks for posing the question. It helps to hear from others who have made it through. Sorry for the lit review.