The legacies of mentors

I sat with a colleague over lunch at the Australian Antarctic Division one day, and our conversation turned to our respective PhD’s and careers. Our PhD’s and undergraduate degrees were from different universities. We had different supervisors. We discussed who the mentors were in our lives.

This lunchtime conversation happened over 10 years ago and mentors have been a great feature of my career to date. Those I consider as my mentors may not realise the legacies they have left me. So, what are these legacies?

‘You should write as you speak’.

He probably doesn’t remember saying this to me, but when I handed my Hons thesis draft to my supervisor, and it was returned completely covered in corrections (don’t you love red ink?) these words found their mark. He was right. I was trying to sound intelligent and write in the manner of the many papers I had read. All I needed to do was read the literature, speak about the studies to colleagues and peers, and then I would have the tools to write. The more I read, the better I spoke and the better my writing became.

‘I don’t need to go in the field with you’.

Do you know an Honours supervisor who has said this? I was told an Honours year was seriously hard work. Being told your supervisor didn’t need to go in the field with you was huge. I had a few co-supervisors in my Honours year and they all had expertise in different areas – not one of them solely covered everything I needed. My main supervisor, the one who was my guide and knew everything I had to do, never went in the field with me. But what a great legacy to give. What a confidence booster. Likewise for my PhD candidature; my supervisor came in the field with me twice and my associate supervisor once. These supervisorsprovided field work direction and guidance; this was all I needed to instill confidence and capability. It taught me to work with independently and with conviction of my abilities, and to network and seek out help when I needed it.  Most of all I learned the value of making mistakes.

View to field sites. Warra LTER and the southern forests of Tasmania.

View to field sites from my PhD. Warra LTER and the southern forests of Tasmania.

‘If you do all that is asked of you, expect a pass or a credit. If you do more than what is asked of you, expect a distinction of a high distinction’.

This statement (or something like it) was passed onto me by a colleague and friend a few years ago. We were discussing students and rubrics. The colleague was handed the advice in his undergraduate years from a lecturer. I remember giving out rubrics to students undertaking a Masters Unit. In much detail, there were told what they needed to do for each assessment. But when I summarised it with this one statement, the reaction was clear and the results paramount. I was asked more questions, students read additional papers; they became more involved. And so did I. Every ecologist loves someone interested in their field.

‘Don’t hang onto your written work for too long. Get someone to read over it. Let it go.’

I never learned the true meaning of this statement in my undergraduate degree. I wish I had. It wasn’t until I was told to give my Hons. supervisor a draft of my thesis many weeks before the due date that I realised the advantage of having someone read over your written work early. This is exactly what we do when writing peer reviewed publications. So why wasn’t it exercised in my undergraduate degree? I experimented with Masters Students, telling them that I would read ONE draft of their essay and give comments if they handed it to me AT LEAST 1 week before the due date. I wouldn’t look at it in the week leading up to the due date. Yes of course it gave me more work. But when the final essay was handed in I was familiar with their topic and what they had written (hadn’t I already read it?). And what it gave them was much, much more. For those who handed in a draft the final version was so much better.  For a few, their essays were nothing short of exceptional. And of course every time I write and I think “Let it go” I also think of my pre-schooler singing her favourite song from Frozen!!!

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