Peers, mentors, role models, and heroes in science (UPDATED)

I now receive emails from grad students and postdocs indicating that, for them, I am now a person that they look to as an example that one can have a tenure-track career with children…It’s a little scary – and definitely humbling – to me that some people view me as a role model for this sort of thing. – Meg Duffy, in a recent post here

When I’ve crossed paths with him at meetings, I have been reluctant to disturb him. Even when he’s two chairs down from me having a beer. I had a similar feeling when I walked past John C. Reilly when I was out to lunch last month. I wouldn’t want to disturb his pleasant lunch by getting all excited that I saw him, though it’s moderately exciting, like finding a bird far outside its range or stumbling on a Leptogenys colony in your field site…he’s frickin’ Bert Hölldobler. I’m pleased to retain some awe in his presence. – Terry McGlynn, in a recent post at Small Pond Science

Which is something you really need to try to get over–the feeling that anyone is your superior…have the confidence to approach others as peers–and they’ll treat you like one. – Me, in an old post here

I once did a post about networking at scientific meetings where I referred to a hypothetical “Dr. Famous”. It’s a little weird to think that, at least in some folks’ eyes, I’m Dr. Famous. – Me, in a comment here

I am not a role model. – Charles Barkley, in this old commercial:

Think of some people you consider to be your scientific peers.

Now think of some people you consider to be your scientific mentors.

Now think of some people you consider to be your scientific role models.

Now think of some people you consider to be your scientific heroes.

Now consider those four sets of names. Did you name anyone more than once? If so, are you sure that’s even possible? After all, a peer is someone you consider to be your equal in some sense, right? You’re the same as your peers, not in every way, but in some important way. But the whole point of mentors, role models, and heroes is that they’re different than you. A mentor is someone who’s more knowledgeable or wiser than you about something, who agrees to advise you. A role model is someone who is different than you, whom you try to model yourself after in the hopes of someday becoming like them. Which you can do without them knowing that you’re doing it, or even knowing you at all, in contrast to a mentor. And a hero is someone whom you respect and admire to such an extent that you probably don’t try to model yourself after them, because how could you ever hope to become like them? Indeed, you might admire them so much that you’re too awed, nervous, or deferential to even speak to them.

Are there people you named in one category whom you wish you could’ve named in another category? If so, why? And are you planning to do something about that? For instance, say you’re a grad student hoping for a career in academia. And say some of your role models or heroes are academics. That’s understandable, and probably fine; it could even be a really good thing for you. But it has drawbacks, and it may be something that you want to try to get over. If you think of someone as your role model or your hero, then in some sense you think of them as better than you. Which can be a problem because it can alter your behavior. For instance, if you feel like you’re inferior to someone (which is just the flip side of thinking that someone is better than you), it can make it hard to talk to them, or to talk to them without treating them with deference. And the surest way to get someone to get someone to treat you as an inferior rather than a peer is to act deferential towards them. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great to have role models. But paradoxically, I think the best way to model yourself after your role models is to treat them, and people like them, as your peers. You have to walk the walk and talk the talk, as the saying goes. You’re not magically going to start thinking of people with PhDs as your peers the instant you get a PhD, or magically start thinking of faculty as your peers the instant you get a faculty position. People become your peers–in your mind, and in theirs–when you treat them as your peers. Like Morpheus, Neo’s mentor in The Matrix said, “Don’t think you are, know you are”:

Not that I recommend actually trying to kick your mentor or role model in the head. In fact, I’m sure I speak for Meg and Brian as well when I say: please don’t kick me in the head. 😉

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of learning from others. And I certainly don’t think you should go it alone or ignore what everyone else thinks and does! And I’m also well aware that you need to grow into seeing others as your peers, and having them see you as their peer. That’s where mentors come in, I think. Like everyone, I’ve had mentors in my career, and I’d never have gotten anywhere without them. Two important features of mentoring relationships in the sciences is that they’re mutually-agreed, and that (at least in the case of advisor-student relationships) they’re designed to end. Both the mentor and the person being mentored* agree to their roles, and (at least in advisor-student cases) agree that they’ll cease to fill those roles once the mentor decides that the person being mentored has achieved some agreed goal or standard (like graduating). This makes it much easier, I think, for the person being mentored to come to see their mentor–and by extension, others like their mentor–as their peer. In contrast, if you see someone as a role model or hero, it’s up to you to decide if or when you’ve achieved the standard that you think your role model is setting, or what to do about your inability to achieve the impossibly-high standard you think your hero is setting. Which might be totally fine–or might be setting you up for imposter syndrome.

And while I haven’t learned only from my mentors–far from it–I’ve learned from others whom I think of as peers, not role models or heroes. I don’t know that I really have anyone in science I consider to be a role model or a hero. Again, don’t get me wrong. I have huge respect and admiration for lots of people in science! And I often ask for advice from others who know more about something or have more experience than I do. But I still think of those people whom I respect, admire, and ask for advice as my peers. I don’t emulate or copy anyone–I’m my own person–and I don’t see anyone as being my superior. After all, people whom I hugely respect ask me for advice too! And I think and hope that they respect me just as I respect them.

Do the people you named know that you consider them peers, mentors, role models, or heroes? If not, how do you think they’d react if they did? Would it be a problem if they didn’t consider themselves to be what you consider them to be? For instance, I do a fair number of “advice” posts, and for that reason I’ve had more than one grad student tell me that they consider me to be a sort of surrogate advisor or mentor. Which I find tremendously flattering, but also kind of scary, much as Meg finds it flattering but scary to be considered a role model for how to be both an academic and a mom. I mean, yes, I am confident in the advice I’m giving, or else I wouldn’t give it. And I am glad that students find my advice useful and take it seriously. But it is just advice, not gospel. Further, it’s haphazard rather than systematic advice; I make no attempt to offer advice on everything students might want or need advice on. It’s not tailored to anyone’s specific situation; what’s worked for me won’t necessarily work for anyone else. And it’s no substitute for ongoing guidance from someone who’s agreed to mentor you. In short, unless you’re my student or I’m on your supervisory committee, I can’t really be your mentor. So while I’m sincerely pleased and flattered if you like the blog, and find the advice you read here useful, try not to think of me as a surrogate advisor. Because I’m not.**

And while, like Meg, I’d be very flattered if you took me as a role model in any way, be a little careful about that. By which I mean, be careful about the respects in which you try to emulate me (or anyone else in science). Much like Charles Barkley, I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on a basketball court publish papers in leading journals, get grants, and do the other sorts of things academics at research universities do. Don’t get me wrong, in many respects I’m sure I (like all of my colleagues) set a good example. I mean, it’s not like I act illegally or anything! But it’s not like I go out and consciously try to set a good example for others either. Perhaps some of my colleagues do, but I don’t. Plus, in at least some respects the example I set could well be considered a bad one rather than a good one, depending on your point of view! Just because I dunk a basketball publish in Nature doesn’t mean I should raise your kids always do things you should emulate, even if you are or want to be an academic ecologist. For instance, if you believe academic ecologists need to get more serious about doing policy-relevant research on climate change, then should should probably see me and people like me as hypocrites rather than role models. If you think academic scientists have a moral obligation to publish publicly-funded research in author-pays open access journals, then you should probably see me as whatever the opposite of a role model is. If you think arguments among scientists are mostly a bad thing, that they mostly arise from closemindedness and represent a breakdown of science and civility, then you should probably see me as part of the problem (and there are some people who do). Much of my blogging is aimed at a rather narrow audience, and if you’re not part of the intended audience reading it might even be counterproductive. Heck, I may not even know how I do what I do, which makes my example pretty much impossible to emulate (much as Meg says she feels stumped when asked what the secret is to being both a tenure track academic and a mom). So by all means have role models. But try to use their example as a means to help you become what you want to become, or just as living proof that it is (somehow!) possible for you to become what you want to become. As I’ve said before, academic ecologists actually are a pretty heterogeneous group in many ways; there’s more than one way to be one. Don’t feel like you have to emulate anyone, or that you have to emulate anyone in every respect. Choose your own path and walk it as best you can.

And while I’d be very surprised, and of course hugely flattered and humbled, if anyone thinks of me as a hero, I really hope no one does. I’m just a science prof with a blog. There are lots of people like me in all the ways that matter. Probably including you. So don’t think of me as “Dr. Famous”, someone you should hesitate to approach, or treat with deference, or could never measure up to, or whatever. And feel free to interrupt me if I’m eating lunch. 😉

UPDATE: I’m actually a baseball fan, not a basketball fan; I only used the Charles Barkley commercial because it seemed both fun and relevant. Plus, I couldn’t think of a relevant baseball commercial. But I just thought of one! So here’s an illustration of the perils of trying to model yourself after others too much:

*The mentee? What’s the right word here? Not “trainee”. “Pupil” or “student” doesn’t seem quite right either. Teachers have pupils or students, and a mentor isn’t quite the same as a teacher…

**Don’t think of me as a guru or oracle either. Maybe that’s a fifth category I should have considered: scientific gurus and oracles. People whose advice you choose to follow unquestioningly (even if you don’t understand it), but whom you don’t try to emulate and with whom you don’t have a mentoring-type relationship. People you just treat as infallible sources of answers to whatever questions you might have. I definitely think you shouldn’t have any scientific gurus or oracles.

17 thoughts on “Peers, mentors, role models, and heroes in science (UPDATED)

    • Hmm, could be–can’t believe I didn’t think of that myself! Although I think of protege as having the connotation that the protege becomes just like the mentor, or tries to. Which isn’t necessarily the case for mentoring relationships in science–I don’t aim to turn my students into clones of myself. Then again, maybe I’m just wrong about the connotation of the word. Robin is often referred to as Batman’s protege, and he’s not a clone of Batman. 😉

      • Right on. I don’t want a protege. I don’t want to raise someone just like me. I want to help them find their own path. Some labs do raise little clones of the PI. That doesn’t help anybody.

    • If I could’ve thought of a relevant commercial featuring baseball players, I’d have used it. But I couldn’t figure out how to work in “Well played, Mauer”:

      Although now that I think of it, “Chicks dig the longball” is kind of about the perils of trying to emulate your heroes! I’ll update the post.

  1. I think role models are fine as long as you don’t follow someone uncritically — as I suspect you do too. I have subconsciously compiled lists of people I look up to for various reasons: this person always gives a great talk (and I think about what makes those talks good), this person brings energy and good will to collaborations (and I think about how they do that), this person does great science but is down to earth and always brings out the best in those around them. These are people I want to be like, at least in those aspects. (And yes, some of these role models are also mentors and peers.)

    • Your comment strikes me as basically a much shorter (and in some ways better) version of my post, so thanks!

      You also raise a good point about our tendency to be less critical of people we look up to or think highly of. I’m sure you’re right to suspect that I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Indeed, your comment just now prompted me to try to think of cases when I have been critical of someone I really think highly of. Not disagreed (that’s different), but really thought “Man, I usually love so-and-so’s stuff, but this is mediocre/poor/terrible”.

      Your practice of looking up to people for specific reasons is a good one, I think. You say it’s subconscious, but I could definitely see making it conscious. As you say, trying to think of people who, say, give good talks focuses your attention on what makes for a good talk. It keeps your focus where it ultimately should be–on getting better at *specific things*–rather than on *people* whom you just really admire and want to “be like” in some *non-specific* way.

      I think the difficulty of thinking critically about people we admire is closely connected to the difficulty of being honest with ourselves about our own work. Ok, for many people that’s not a problem, many people are if anything too hard on themselves. But I’m definitely someone who’s harder on others than on myself, despite my best efforts to be hard on myself too. I find that good peer review is really helpful here. There’s nothing like good peer review to open your eyes to the limitations and flaws of your own work. I mean, not just make you aware of how *others* see your work, but change how *you* see your own work.

    • Following on from my previous comment, I just thought of a few cases where I’ve been at least mildly critical of the work of someone I admire. In my appreciation of Peter Abrams post, I talked about I sometimes found his work to be over-focused on exploring the consequences of arbitrary complications to simple models, just for the sake of saying, “hey, the world is complicated”.

      And I’ve thought of a couple of other cases too. But I don’t want to share them in a brief comment because I couldn’t give enough context and I’d probably be misunderstood.

      I wonder if at some point it might be useful to do a post on “What’s your worst paper?” As an exercise in self-criticism.

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