Scientists mentoring trainees often work very hard to help their trainees grasp what they need to know not only to build new knowledge, but also to succeed in the context of a career landscape where score is kept and scarce resources are distributed on the basis of scorekeeping. Many focus their protégés’ attention on the project of understanding the current landscape, noticing where score is being kept, working the system to their best advantage.
But is teaching protégés how to succeed as a scientist in the current structural social arrangements enough?
It might be enough if you’re committed to the idea that the system as it is right now is perfectly optimized for scientific knowledge-building, and for scientific knowledge-builders (and if you view all the science PhDs who can’t find permanent jobs in the research careers they’d like to have as acceptable losses). But I’d suggest that mentors can do better by their protégés.
For one thing, even if current conditions were optimal, they might well change due to influences from outside the community of knowledge-builders, as when the levels of funding change at the level of universities or of funding agencies. Expecting that the landscape will be stable over the course of a career is risky.
For another thing, it seems risky to take as given that this is the best of all possible worlds, or of all possible bundles of practices around research, communication of results, funding of research, and working conditions for scientists. Research on scientists suggests that they themselves recognize the ways in which the current system and its scorekeeping provides perverse incentives that may undercut the project of building reliable knowledge about the world. As well, the competition for scarce resources can result in a “science red in tooth and claw” dynamic that, at best, leads to the rational calculation that knowledge-builders ought to work more hours and partake of fewer off-the-clock “distractions” (like family, or even nice weather) in order not to fall behind.
Just because the scientific career landscape manifests in the particular way it does right now doesn’t mean that it must always be this way. As the body of reliable knowledge about the world is perpetually under construction, we should be able to recognize the systems and social arrangements in which scientists work as subject to modification, not carved into granite.
Restricting your focus as a mentor to imparting strategies for success given how things are may also convey to your protégés that this is the way things will always be — or that this is the way things should always be. I hope we can do better than that.
It can be a challenge to mentor with an eye to a set of conditions that don’t currently exist. Doing so involves imagining other ways of doing things. Doing it as more than a thought experiment also involves coordinating efforts with others — not just with trainees, but with established members of the professional community who have a bit more weight to throw around — to see what changes can be made and how, given the conditions you’re starting from. It may also require facing pushback from colleagues who are fine with the status quo (since it has worked well for them).
Indeed, mentoring with an eye to creating better conditions for knowledge-building and for knowledge-builders may mean agitating for changes that will primarily benefit future generations of your professional community, not your own.
But mentoring someone, welcoming them into your professional community and equipping them to be a full member of it, is not primarily about you. It is something that you do for the benefit of your protégé, and for the benefit of the professional community they are joining. Equipping your protégé for how things are is a good first step. Even better is encouraging them to imagine, to bring about, and to thrive in conditions that are better for your shared pursuit.