Mentors Matter

A factor that had the biggest impact on making my journey as a woman in a male-dominated field easier was the luck of having good mentors and role models. I have been fortunate in finding women who I could relate to and who believed in me, which helped me get through tough times and helped my career progress so far.

There is an important difference between a mentor and a role model. A mentor is someone who knows you personally, advocates for you and supports you in a professional capacity. A mentor can be your supervisor, but may even be someone completely outside your narrow field of study. Whereas a role model is someone you may not know personally, but you can relate to in terms of their journey and their values. They often represent something you would like to replicate in your own life or career. Finding mentors and role models can be quite challenging, but the search pays off in many different ways.

Although many postgraduate programmes and universities run mentorship programmes, I have found my mentors informally like most South African students. As an undergrad, I would often ask questions in class and speak to my lecturers and tutors afterwards. This helped me form a relationship with the academics and postgrad students, which made it easier to seek out advice from them when I needed it. If I am struggling with something, I know there are several people who want me to succeed and would be willing to help me – whether it is directing me to resources on writing a good application letter, listening to me vent about a difficult course, or helping me find an internship.

A good mentor will help you progress as a scientist. By sharing their knowledge and experience, they can improve your skills and help you grow as a researcher and as a person. You should also be willing to take their criticism – which should always be constructive – and approach them with respect and eagerness! 

I would like to emphasise that although there are advantages to having a mentor who shares part of your identities, such as your gender, race or religion, for example, a good mentor does not have to be someone who resembles you. As I was working on this post, I attended the UCT Vice Chancellor’s Postgraduate Brunch. During her talk, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng also mentioned the importance of having a mentor. She shared her definition of a good mentor, as someone who is “‘highly achieved and generous with their knowledge”. To me, these are some of the most important characteristics of a good mentor as well – someone who cares about your progress and can help you grow as an academic. 

In rWhatsApp Image 2019-08-22 at 10.07.25ole models, however, it is more important to have people who you can identify with. When I started studying astrophysics, I didn’t know of any other Muslim women in my field. Like many sciences, astronomers also wanted to stay as far away from anything political as they could, which felt isolating as someone who cares about social justice. It was comforting to me when I stumbled across a blog post about Naziyah Mahmood – a Muslim aerospace engineer who advocates for women in STEM, and seeing Professor Chanda Prescond-Weinstein openly discuss politics, share advice on surviving academia as a woman of colour and – most importantly – happily talk about her work on axions on twitter has been incredibly valuable to my experience as a scientist. 

Up until recently, most portrayals of scientists have focused on white men in lab coats, but fortunately, there has been a shift in popular culture to diversify this image. With movies like Hidden Figures and even seeing women as scientists in the cartoons my 3-year-old niece watches, it’s reassuring to know that, in the future, girls will easily be able to see themselves as scientists.

I hope that this post will inspire you to seek out new mentors and look out for role models. Who inspires you to be a better scientist?

Relationships……with our supervisors of course!!

After reading Kimberleigh Tommy’s post last month titled: “We need a break, it’s both of us (but more you than me)”, it left me thinking about the importance of relationships as a postgraduate student. When I say relationships, I obviously mean the relationships we have within our “professional” space. While choosing a project that you like or love is the most important aspect when starting a Master’s or Doctoral degree, one must also take into consideration who their supervisor will be. Unlike with jobs where you really have no control of who your boss will be, with a postgraduate degree, you have the option of choosing who you will report to for the next two or three years of your life. I personally think it is important to have a good relationship with your supervisor, especially since this will be the person who will be guiding and mentoring you throughout your postgraduate degree. 

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I read an article about the different types of PhD – supervisor relationships written by Susanna Chamberlain from Griffith University, it gives a broad idea of the different types of relationships students have with their supervisors. It worries me that my relationship with my supervisor does not fall under the ten relationships discussed in the article. I would say that my relationship with my supervisor is different from what other fellow postgrads have with their supervisors. Sometimes he disappears for some time and never responds to my emails, this stresses me out so much because that is exactly when I need something from him. Other days I see him twenty times in one day and I want nothing from him. We are always playing a hide and seek game, with him always doing most of the hiding. Luckily for us, we always manage to get things done eventually, which is where I believe I got my procrastination tendencies from.  

I always find it interesting that my supervisor has different relationships with his students. Whenever we get together and discuss life with him as a supervisor, we all have different stories to share but one thing we have in common is how difficult it is to get him to respond to our emails. I think he treats us differently in response to how we act towards him, which I personally think is great because we are all unique with different personalities and different ways of doing things. 

During the first few months of my MSc, I had extremely high expectations of how my relationship with my supervisor would be based on how other people described their relationships with their supervisors. They would have weekly meetings with their supervisors to discuss the progress made and what to do next; when this didn’t happen between me and my supervisor, I would panic thinking I’m doing something wrong. I would see him every day during tea time and he would have a small chat with me about how I am doing and other random things. It took me almost half the year to finally be comfortable with the fact that he is the type of supervisor that is relaxed. He is the “decaf” kind of supervisor as defined by another SAYAS blog post. Once I finally accepted what kind of a supervisor he is, I panicked less when we didn’t see each other for three months and I didn’t know what my research topic was about anymore because I got stuck in the “black hole” of reading papers. I would find myself again after having a quick meeting with him and it turned out that those endless papers I read were quite useful.

There were however times when I would panic all over again when I needed to submit an abstract or discuss my presentation for a conference and I couldn’t find him to discuss the abstract before the deadline. I got no comments from him about my dissertation and I panicked every day for 13 weeks during my examination. At the time I was extremely frustrated and I was convinced I would change universities and supervisors for my PhD. Little did I know that him giving me space and time to learn was his way of mentoring me to be a great researcher. I passed my MSc with distinction and this is all thanks to him. Since he wasn’t there to critique me on my writing, I pushed myself so hard to give it my best and my best is what I gave it.

Looking back now, and still working with the same supervisor, I see that my supervisor was a teacher; a mentor who supported and facilitated the emotional processes. His way of supervising is completely different from the rest of my colleagues’ supervisors. If you know that you are the kind of person who needs constant monitoring and guidance in everything that you do, then you should get yourself a supervisor that does that otherwise, you will finish your degree exhausted emotionally and physically. All supervisors have a lesson to offer. Even the most “difficult” ones are a lesson for life.  My supervisor and I still have random talks about politics and history, how I should get married one day and how bad the economy is. I love that we can balance academics and personal life. I chose to continue my PhD with him because “better the devil you know” right? Choose your supervisor wisely and you will have an enjoyable and fulfilling postgraduate career.