Home / General / Would-be Mentors: Don’t Be Creepy. Would-be Proteges: Avoid Being Only The Protege of Any Individual Mentor

Would-be Mentors: Don’t Be Creepy. Would-be Proteges: Avoid Being Only The Protege of Any Individual Mentor


Responding to the discussion of experiencing sexual harassment by Hannah Waters and Monica Byrne, Laura Helmuth makes a couple good points:

Before this week, the word I often heard people use to describe Zivkovic was mentor. And the mentor-mentee relationship is one of the most fraught of adulthood. We glibly advise people starting out in business to find a mentor, to identify a successful, established, generous person in your field and somehow get her to help you become her.

This is terrible advice. It perpetuates old-boy networks, wastes time that early career people could spend actually doing their work, and tells them they are only as good as their contacts and charm. Young people, don’t look for a mentor. Listen to and learn from people who have more experience, but don’t hitch your wagon to their star. Just do your job well.

Now, you established people, listen up. You will occasionally meet younger people who go out of their way to speak with you at professional events, ask you interesting and sometimes personal questions, and hang on your every word. Those are not puppy-dog, crushed-out eyes staring up at you. These are eyes hungry for a professional break. These people are not trying to sleep with you. They are trying to get hired by you.

’m an editor, which means I have a certain amount of power because I assign stories to freelance writers. Several years ago I noticed that handsome young male freelancers tended to gather around me at journalism conferences and laugh at all my jokes. And I’m not that funny.

It can be hard to tell the difference between flirtation and exuberance. The men and the women who approach me are doing exactly what they should do at a professional meeting: introducing themselves, expressing enthusiasm for what I do, asking questions, making clever conversation. They are looking for guidance, not lechery. It’s my job to interpret their behavior correctly. (The gender roles are usually reversed, which often adds to the problem, but plenty of men, including a dear younger friend of mine, have been harassed by women.)

If you are established in your career and in a position to help others, congratulations. Be as generous as you can be, and while you’re at it, remember to thank the people who helped you. But recognize that you have a tremendous responsibility to take your mentees seriously. It’s easy to forget how insecure and uninformed someone can be starting out, and it’s hard to remember that you have a lot of power in comparison, even if you have just a few years more experience or feel like a cog yourself. Be respectful, be appropriate, be professional. Above all else, do not be a creep.

Professionalism is the responsibility of people with power, and it’s generally not hard to figure out what’s appropriate behavior and what’s not. The Byrne and Waters posts convey this very effectively.

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  • Bob

    “Several years ago I noticed that handsome young male freelancers tended to gather around me at journalism conferences and laugh at all my jokes. And I’m not that funny.”
    You know who is funny? Richard Cohen.

  • DrDick

    That pretty much covers it. You would think that should be obvious to any professional, but sadly it is not.

  • Adolphus

    I was wondering if the experienced academics can comment on how this translates into that world. I came to this world mid-career. I think this advice is spot-on for my first 20 years in the museum profession. Now that I am in academia, I find this relationship much more important for both profound and petty reasons, and much more personal. When I go to conferences or talk to people about my dissertation the FIRST question that comes out of someone’s mouth is “Who’s your adviser?” Even before you apply to graduate schools the advice is often to decide with whom you want to study. Even in graduate school advisers often guard their students zealously and often get angry at students who seek out, or want to seek out, advice from different scholars. It just seems like a completely different relationship, or at different in degree if not type, both intellectually and institutionally, than mentor/mentee relationships in other fields.

    Or is the grad student/adviser relationship not a good comparison because the grad student is not really a full professional yet. Maybe a better comparison would be a recent graduate and senior scholar.

    I don’t know, I am asking.

    • Andrew

      I think Scott’s “Avoid Being Only The Protege of Any Individual Mentor” advice to mentees could also use some more explanation.

      Make sure your mentor gets you a paying job? Have multiple mentors?

      Helmuth’s advice also presupposes an ideal, meritocratic world where if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll get good paying job in your field of choice. This seems demonstrably false, especially in highly competitive fields.

      When everyone you’re competing with is smart, talented, and highly credentialed, social networks become decisive.

      Helmuth’s advice would be more usefully targeted at employers–they should court a wider network of people who can recommend candidates, rather than relying solely on their existing relationships.

      • Scott Lemieux


        Academia isn’t really comparable to journalism, in that getting a PhD requires having formal advisers in a way journalism doesn’t.

        • Adolphus

          While I was away from the computer for awhile, it occurred to me that some may have taken my question to mean I did not think sexual harassment and the other more creepy aspects of the relationship did not apply the same way to academia. I wasn’t clear in my question, but of course it does apply. I am glad no one took me that way.

          On the other had, while I take Scott’s point that the two fields are not directly comparable. On the other hand I do think the adviser/advised relationship in academia is fraught with more pitfalls than just sexual harassment. At my institution there were problems with advisers getting free housework, including gutter cleaning, from their students for free. I have heard similar stories at other institutions. This is just exploitative but a natural mutation of the intensely personal and isolated nature of the relationship.

          • At my institution there were problems with advisers getting free housework, including gutter cleaning, from their students for free. I have heard similar stories at other institutions.

            Are you fucking kidding me?!?!? SERIOUSLY!? How on earth could anyone think this is remotely appropriate!?!?!?

            I baby sat for one of my profs because 1) I love kids and loved that kid and 2) they paid. I don’t mean just playing with the kid when she brought him into work (that was fun time for me!)

            Wow. Just…wow.

            This is just exploitative but a natural mutation of the intensely personal and isolated nature of the relationship.

            It should be strictly forbidden by the university. Cleaning gutters is not something you would ask of a friend, by and large, that you would ask it of a student says WORLDS about your scummingness.

            Yeek. This has me seething.

            • Adolphus

              I am not kidding. I was gobsmacked myself when we got a memo saying this was not okay. I was shocked grown people needed to be told this was not okay. But apparently it was not uncommon (ie 2-3 profs doing this in a department of a little a little shy of 40)

              I really think it has to do with the intellectual and emotional intimacy the adviser/student relationship can entail. Authority can be all consuming, especially when the adviser takes steps to seclude the student. This is why I think OP advice to diversify is a good idea.

              There is also the petty politics. I have had some profs treat me with utter contempt who don’t know me from Adam, but dislike my adviser.

              A commenter on this blog (I think. I never write these things down.) quoted a military relative who had turned to academia that the Army and Academia were the last vestiges of feudal society. I think there is something to that. There is a level of privilege assumed by SOME tenured academics that their superiority and authority extends to areas far outside their areas of expertise, including authority in assigning personal chores. (Apparently)

              • It’s just barely possible to imagine a student who also does gutter cleaning on the side, say, deciding at the time of requesting payment that it would be inappropriate to charge an academic adviser. To me it seems unprofessional — a confusion of what’s appropriate in a professional relationship with set roles with what would be appropriate in a kind of feudal relationship — but also might be understandable in an environment where giving 200% was expected 200% of the time. (“Okay, you say I’m expected to charge you, but what are you going to think of me if I insist you actually do?”)

                • I can imagine someone looking at their advisor and thinking “Shit! I’d better comp this asshole.” But I can’t imagine no non asshole academic accepting the comping without an excellent specific reason, eg, “Hey, you watched my kid for two weeks during that class I was taking and this is my thank you.”

                  Even then, you should try to pay.

            • DrDick

              I have known grad students who were paid by their adviser to do such tasks (a mutually beneficial relationship) and once house sat for mine for pay, but unpaid labor is well beyond the pale. I am very careful about what I ask require from my TAs so as not to exploit them any more than the system already does.

  • Tyro

    That is wishful thinking when it comes to advice to would-be protégés. It seems that having a mentor who basically “sponsors” your career up the corporate ladder is the way things work in a lot of corporate environments, and while this is a fairly stupid way to manage careers, it is the way it works in a lot of places. It would be better advice to tell would-be protégés to find other jobs and industries rather than to make a futile effort to defy the system.

    • Not to mention, now we’re blaming the protégés.

      • Vance Maverick

        Mmm, I think it’s possible to caution them, “Here are good ways and less wise ones to make use of your relationships,” without thereby blaming them for crimes of the mentor.

        • Didn’t we just have this discussion with drinking?

          I don’t particularly have a problem with this advice (although it may be unrealistic), but I don’t have a problem telling college students to stop drinking so much either.

          • Andrew

            Wasn’t the advice less about all college students drinking less and more about telling women in particular not to drink? That’s why it was criticized.

      • Anonymous

        Yes, it seems like a false equivalence, just to be able to say both sides can be at fault. The people with power are the ones who maintain the system as it is and are solely responsible for its flaws.

        Mentors set the rules about what’s expected of a protege. If they focus their energies on a select few and in return expect a protege to be “loyal” and come to them first and foremost for advice and opportunities then what the sam hill is a protege supposed to do? Not have a mentor at all?

        This pattern of close/exclusive mentor/protege relationships is common, and does not necessarily lead to misconduct, but is fraught with the potential for it. It also gives maximum power and prestige to the mentor, so it’s easy to see why it’s so common. To address the downsides, the mentors have to be reined in. Good luck with that.

  • N__B

    I’m always amazed at experienced people who don’t understand that “Don’t shit where you eat” also applies to where you work. Maybe it was once generally true that having a reputation as a creep didn’t hurt your career, but it sure as he’ll is not true now.

    • He’ll or She’ol?

      • The designers of autocorrect are surely destined for both.

  • Tiny Tim

    I think the Bora situation is a bit sad because his behavior, as described, really was borderline. Over that border, sure, but still borderline. Unless I missed it no one felt punished by their failure to, um, engage with him.

    It sounds like he’s a guy who spends most of his time in a sad loveless marriage (as described, what do I know of the reality), and then very occasionally he gets to pose as a minor “celebrity.” I doubt he felt very powerful, or saw himself as a big authority. He should have, I’m not disputing that, but I can understand that he didn’t.

    I found what the women wrote to be very educational. I like to think I’m pretty enlightened about these issues (am I? who knows?) but they gave me a stronger sense of what is or isn’t ok behavior in these contexts. Bora probably didn’t see himself in a clear authority position over these women, and om some sense he wasn’t, but he was enough of one that he should have been aware. Lots of hierarchical relationships these days aren’t quite so formal and we should be aware of that.

    • Andrew

      That’s the insidious nature of this kind of harassment. While there’s no overt harm–he didn’t spike their career–he created an uncomfortable environment for people aspiring to climb the ladder in his field.

      It’s a failure on his part not to recognize the authority he commanded and engage in behavior that welcomes new people to the field in an appopriate manner.

      • Adolphus

        Someone posted this during the It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia post, but it resonates with me during discussions like this. It’s all about The Implication.

    • ema

      I’m curious, before all this happened, was it not clear to people that, unless you’re talking to your urologist, going on and on about my erection…want[ing] it inside of her,tin[y] underpants, too small to really contain my hard-on, and musings on a penis [not] as a weapon, but only as a cute and exciting appendage is never OK in a professional setting?

      • L2P

        I dunno – there’s “professional” and then there’s professional“.

        No one would start a board meeting or a deal meeting or something similar with a bunch of “my penis is just sooo damn big talk. But there’s this huge grey area between formal business settings and informal, but still business, settings. Think of meeting clients at a golf course. Or getting lunch with co-workers. Or meeting for happy hour after work.

        That’s where a lot of inappropriate and harassing stuff happens, but it’s also where people make a lot of off-color or intensely personal conversation. I had lunch with a boss last week who spent the whole time telling me about her daughter’s sex life. It wasn’t inappropriate in context, but it certainly could be if the conversation had been . . . slightly different.

        I wish there was a silver bullet, bright-line, black letter answer here but I don’t see it.

        • Andrew

          I think there’s a pretty clear brightline. Employers and authority figures shouldn’t initiate discussions about personal lives. And when employees do, employers should cautious in engaging with or reciprocating that level of familiarity.

          • GoDeep

            If by personal you mean “sexual”, I think that’s only half of it. Subordinates, not just managers, have a responsibility not to engage in risque discussions abt sex. Its never professional. Throw in a drink or two, and like L2P says, it becomes highly problematic.

            Suppose a subordinate talks abt their great weekend of sex. Its highly possible that a manager might reach an entirely reasonable conclusion that the person was hitting on them. I’m all for inter-office relationships but they come with a degree of risk.

            • Andrew

              I agree that subordinates shouldn’t bring up their personal lives, either. But the authority figure has to model the behavior, establish the norm, and then enforce it.

              And I wouldn’t limit that to sex.

              There’s also a clear difference between conversations with peers and conversations among people with different levels of authority.

    • LeftWingFox

      I think the Bora situation is a bit sad because his behavior, as described, really was borderline.

      What Bora did was completely inappropriate for his position. It was not criminal.

      He lost the position he had abused. He’s not being criminally prosecuted. I think that’s exactly right.

      Ideally, people subject to this behaviour should be able to speak out and report without fear of retaliation, which might have resulted in behaviour modification before it became a pattern. That’s not the world we live in yet.


      I think there tends to be a big blurred mess when dealign with bigotry as to the appropriate response. Defenders of bigotry like to trot out fears of a police state criminalizing every interaction, but there are a great many actions that can and should be taken in the private sphere long before bad behaviour rises to the point where cops should be called. Clear institutional policies and procedures for implementing them are a great example.

  • The problem is that science is explicitly setup as mentorship. You start with your PhD adviser and then move on to a post Doc with somebody who is most likely friends with your PhD adviser and whom you’ve been introduced to at meetings… and the alcohol fueled social events surrounding said meetings. I can see how you can avoid mentor/mentee relationships in journalism or business in general, but not in science… which is the field that the original controversy stems from.

    • Hogan

      The original controversy is from science journalism, not science.

      • Well that’s distressingly accurate… I suppose I equated the two because the stories I’ve heard from female grad students and post docs are so similar.

    • Mathematics is (or didn’t used to be) much at all like that (and from what I’ve seen at a few recent meetings, where I was one of the Ancients, it still isn’t; although there certainly are many more “post-docs” in mathematics than there were 40 years ago, when somewhat the equivalent function was served by “named instructorships” and, later, “named assistant professorships”). Engineering—on the very partial evidence I’ve gathered from attending robotics conferences—is much more so. I would assume that the norm of working in a group, in a “laboratory” with a “director”, which holds (as far as I can tell) throughout the non-social sciences and engineering, but is entirely foreign to the way mathematicians work, is highly entangled with mentorship (as you describe it) in those disciplines.

      My observation of psychologists (years long and in depth, but only at one not exactly modal Ph.D.-producing institution) is that they’re in somewhat the same boat as your “scientists”, but that there are far, far fewer post-docs available, and that once graduated, those who don’t (try only to) get into clinical work mostly eventually, even with luck, end up far from any research center and not at the same college/university as anyone who can usefully “mentor” them as far as possible “research careers” go: they become teaching drudges (with bad luck, adjunct teaching drudges). No doubt the actual, practicing social scientists hereabouts have information on their own disciplines.

    • I’ve been wondering about this. I’ve found the word “mentor” attractive. I’d like to think that I’d be a good mentor. But I don’t know if I’ve ever been one.

      I have *students* (who are colleagues or nigh-colleagues) and *colleagues*, some of which are co-workers, some of which are unaffiliated, some of which are former students, and some of which are line managees. For my students I have a professional responsibility to train them in all aspects of the profession and some duties wrt their personal development as well. As we’re usually friendly, I also care about their personal life in a friendly way. As I’m usually older, I offer my own experience and interpretation there off for their perview if it seems helpful, interesting, or funny.

      For my former students, some of that continues, at least in the early days post graduation. When they hit a big professional decision, we usually have a chat. Since we are generally friends, I hear about stuff in their personal life and we chat about that. I feel more duty bound to keep an eye out for opportunities for their professional benefit. I.e., I definitely have a think every few months or so. But it’s not my responsibility to manage their careers.

      For current line manages, I’ve a nigh student level of responsibility for professional and personal development (not personal life development per se, obviously, but work life balance). I have to evaluate them, keep an eye on their career prospects inside and outside the university, articulate development goals, help them reach them, etc. I have to monitor the occupational health situation. As they are often friendly, we also do friendly like stuff, but it varies with the person.

      For other colleagues, it varies more. I generally try to keep the health of my various institutions and the profession as a whole in mind. I try to promote and encourage others to promote the progression of junior people in our field esp. So, if someone asks me for advice on how to develop a course, I’m likely to spend some time on it if it’s a fresh hire learning the ropes. I encourage people to invite speakers who are establishing themselves. Etc. etc.

      Is any of this mentor ship? I don’t feel like it is. I don’t feel like I have “proteges”. I have students, of course. And they all say that I’ve taught them a ton on all fronts. And I find that tremendously rewarding and satisfying. I’m told that I’m way way more engaged than most PhD supervisors, but I don’t see that that makes me a mentor. Does it?

      • Well said. I have always been doubtful about the existence of “mentors”, in general, in mathematics and (though I’m less broadly acquainted with the field) computer science (or, the computer sciences).

        I certainly never had (what I would think of as) a mentor. And in one way, at least, I wish I had had. No one ever told me—and I didn’t learn until I was in my 50s—that once you get an NSF grant, you’re expected to apply (when it runs out at the end of, modally, 3 years) for a renewal doing more of the same, but better; nor did anyone ever tell me that, when your proposal isn’t accepted one year, you should tweak it and resubmit it the next. I thought, and acted on the thought, that I should make a totally new pitch every time.

        I got intermittent support from the NSF (and better support from foreign powers…) until they finally essentially stopped giving research money to people at places without graduate students. Of the 20 or so proposals I submitted (in topology), I’ve actually managed to do some (or all) of the proposed research in between a quarter and a third of them (unsupported; but, then, as my grants officer told me on the phone one day, if we know you’re going to do it anyway, why should we pay you to do it?), and other people (not my own non-existent graduate students; some graduate students of friends of mine; and some people who found my work on their own) have by now managed to do maybe another 1/4 to 1/3. So there’s still some meat on those bones, and writing new proposals every year wasn’t worthless by any means. But I still wish I had been told how the system worked by some kindly protégeur when I was young enough that it could have made a difference.

        • Yeah, we have a “mentor” (I think that’s the name) when we join the school. Their job is to show you the ropes and a bit of pastoral care. Seems fine.

          I would expect the school to provide training for the things you’re talking about as well as arbitrary colleagues. I would have as head of school suggest that you have a grant guide.

          • Well, “grant guides” didn’t (as far as I know) exist as of 1982, during the first big NSF crunch, when for the first time the large group grant in Topology at Columbia wasn’t renewed—all the senior people got their money as usual that year, but none of us junior people (it was my fifth and last year as a non-tenure-track, non-named assistant professor). Where I ended up eventually (after a fertile period of research supported mostly by the kindness of strangers abroad) a “grant office” eventually coalesced, but it was (and remains) hopeless for anything serious in hard sciences or mathematics. I actually learned about the “keep renewing” scamscheme from a junior colleague (now my collaborator and sometime NSF co-PI) in Computer Science (who had learned it from her advisor/mentor, a woman who’s been a VERY good advisor mentor to slews of students at Texas A&M), though I probably could have learned it from our Office of Sponsored LeechingResearch, since that’s apparently all that the social scientists ever do at all. Grrrrh. (I also spent many many months of my life writing NSF and NIH grant proposals with psychologists, getting some of them, and being viciously undercut by the OSR on all of them. Grrrrh.)

  • Sebastian H

    The piece mixes aspiration with reality. It accurately describes how mentors should act. It accurately describes how a good meritocratic system should function. But it is awful for practical advice. Good mentors help immensely, and in some fields are absolutely necessary. That truth probably isn’t a good thing, but ignoring it will get you run over.

  • James E Powell

    Please don’t say mentee. A mentor does not ment. It is protégé. It means protected.

    • Djur

      “Manatee”, I believe.

      • I was ging to guess “Mento.”

        • “going,” too.

        • Gregor Sansa

          Fresh goes better!

    • Hogan

      Mentor being an eponym and all.

      • rea


        • Hogan


      • Not so fast, pardner. Immediately an English eponym, but how’d the old Greek guy get that name, hmmm?

        […] perhaps ultimately meaning “adviser,” because the name appears to be an agent noun of mentos “intent, purpose, spirit, passion” from PIE *mon-eyo- (cf. Sanskrit man-tar- “one who thinks,” Latin mon-i-tor “one who admonishes”), causative form of root *men- “to think” (see mind (n.)) […]

        (From the Online Etymology Dictionary.)

        • Hogan

          Are you suggesting “the son of Alcimus or Anchialus or Heracles and Asopis” may not have been a real person?

          • Certainly not. But when he took his Justice League of Olympia superhero name, he made it relevant.

  • I know of big high-tech (okay, not that high in 21st century terms, but still) firms that would institute “mentor” programs for women that were more like networking groups, where women with about 7-10 years experience were paired with women higher in the organization, for discussion and advice. I have never heard anyone suggest that a more correct definition of “mentor” would be something like what I think I’d call a “patron” or even a “sponsor.”

    • Andrew

      There’s some overlap but it’s not a 1:1 correlation.

    • NYPD lingo: “Rabbi.”

      • I would have assumed that was somebody you could go to with your work problems, find out who to ask for information, etc., though I’m working from old memories of Hill Street Blues. Tyro, above, suggests something like an environment where there’s no meritocracy at all and little professionalism, just dog-eat-dog and everybody undercutting everybody else, unless you get somebody to undercut other people to your benefit.

    • JL

      Right, there are various mentoring programs in the sciences and engineering for women, underrepresented people of color, and LGBTQ people (some of the biggest ones, these days, are run through MentorNet). The idea isn’t that it’s a sponsorship, it’s for people starting out to be able to network and discuss both technical stuff and potentially difficult issues with a more experienced person who can relate to being a minority in fields dominated by straight cis white guys.

  • BH

    Of course, every relationship– anything worthwhile– involves risks of one kind or another. It would be a dull life indeed if we never took the risk of associating ourselves with other people. Getting a mentor is not terrible advice at all. Mentors are affirmatively good things to have. Saying that finding a mentor involves identifying “a successful, established, generous person in your field and somehow [getting] her to help you become her” creates a straw man (woman). The mentors I have had have helped me become who I wanted to be. Also, saying that finding a mentor “wastes” time that the young person could be using to get work done is silly. You can get good work done AND find a mentor– it has been done many, many times. And how about cutting into the time the would be protege spends surfing the net, going to the club, or some other activity. No one works 24/7, and for periods in our lives we adjust our schedules to do the things that need to be done at the moment. We should all be professional and honorable in our relationships. It is possible to to have a relationship with mentor that is both.

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