Sunday, February 1, 2009


Started working ("working") at the Prominent Cultural Institution last week, and it's totally fun, and I'm not going to talk about it here. What I am going to talk about is a casual comment my supervisor let slip, as she was talking about her supervisor, the woman who had hired her and whose job she now has--"A great lady. My mentor..."

And she said some other stuff after that which I missed, having got stuck on that casual phrase, "my mentor..."

My husband had a mentor--a man who convinced him to go back to school for a PhD, helped him secure funding for that PhD, talked him up to anyone and everyone, groomed Hubs to replace him and helped him find the job he has now when Hubs decided he didn't want to work at his mentor's workplace. And, actually, this man was Hubs' second mentor.

My new supervisor had a mentor. A woman who hired her, made sure she learned what she needed, communicated her own vision to her, and helped make her a new communicator of that vision. And, not incidentally, helped her get the job she holds now.

I've never had a mentor. I've never had something I would comfortably refer to as a career, either. Coincidence? Probably not. Although I'm not going to be so simplistic as to say I don't have a career because I never had a mentor (if I only had a mentor, cue Wizard-of-Oz music).

But? they're still totally related, and probing the reasons why I have never had this kind of person in my life also gets at why my career, such as it is, has been such a stop-and-go, frustrating affair.

There are the women (and a few men) who would have eagerly been my mentor, had I responded to their overtures/ stayed in school/ pursued them even a little bitty bit. Instead I was busy pursuing professors who weren't interested, and transferring from one college to another. This lack of mentoring = totally my fault.

Then there's the woman who was my boss in the first job I really loved. Great woman, fun, made me laugh. Was not mentor material, for me or anyone else. Had she been, I may have stuck with wildlife biology. Instead, after many frustrating months of trying to make the wildlife biology into a permanent job, I took a housecleaning job and then a job in a genetics lab (narrative overvoice: "That was her first mistake...")

There were the professors in grad school. A few of these have been mentors, of a sort, for my fiction writing (that career is actually going okay, if at a glacial pace that will land me my first novel contract when I am approximately 82 years old). Another woman has been there when I need a reference or have questions about what to do next. However, I'm usually too proud to ask. Also, it's harder to be a mentor for someone who's not following in your exact footsteps. She can't offer me a job; I can't follow her career path unless I get a PhD.

Then there's my latest boss. He did offer me a job, a relatively good one, that's kept us in decent financial repair for the past four years, for which I am grateful. Again, though, his isn't a career path I can follow, unless I get myself a PhD in biochemistry and start doing independent research. And if I did that, he'd start treating me like one of his post-docs. I.e., a dependent competitor: this man is not mentor material, either.

And then we arrive at the current day: me unemployed, full of rue and vinegar, wondering what went wrong. Well, I can see what went wrong: I never had a mentor. I never pursued a relationship with someone who could be a mentor; I gave up too easily on the sorts of jobs that could have a career path that a mentor could help me with; I had a string of bad luck when it came to bosses who could have been mentors but weren't. Nevertheless, I've made a career, of a sort.

What about you? Have you had mentors? Have they made all the difference, or is mentoring overrated?


Oz said...

Hey lady! So glad to see you in blog land.

As for mentors...I was lucky enough to stumble into a job where I found a career mentor. That's a good thing, I suppose, for my day job - which I love. It's not a good thing for my writing. Though my mentor is very supportive of my writing in the abstract, the (paid) job opportunities I've had draw on a lot of the same mental energy that writing requires. So, perhaps not having a (career) mentor has been a good thing. Your word tally is far higher than mine. The only non-work related words I've been writing lately have been on my blog.

I also think good mentors are like good relationships - you have to cross paths with the right person at the right time and both be willing to put in the time and energy. And that's rare.

Jess said...

This is so interesting. It makes me think about mentors differently. My company has a mentoring program, and I joined, and my mentor was very nice but I think she felt that she wasn't very useful because I didn't really have problems or need advice, per se. Not that I didn't want it but it was like, she didn't really know what to say to me. And then she was out of the country on business for a month and we never got in touch once she came back. So as far as official mentors go, not so helpful for me.

But what you're saying makes me think of unofficial mentors. I've had a few of those, people who would never say they were my mentor but who were definitely helpful and educational and involved and who contributed to the career path that I'm on now. That kind is the useful kind.

Melospiza said...

These comments are fascinating to me. My husband, too, has a "mentoring" program at his work, and it's been useful as a place for him to explore ideas, ask delicate questions regarding what responsibilities to agree and which to decline, and basic advice on proceeding up the organizational ladder. But from what you guys say, and from what I've seen while watching my husband's career progress, official mentoring programs are almost a contradiction in terms, since the mentoring relationship is necessarily so personal.