Image: Thanksgiving - taking home turkeys from raffle, 1912 (Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Every year since completing my Ph.D., I’ve marked off a weekend or two of November for baking. I pick a seasonally appropriate cookie — something with spices, chocolate, maybe just the right amount of fruit — make them by the dozen, and pack them for shipment to friends and family across the country. (Chocolate-dipped shortbread survived Priority Mail pretty well. The almond Florentines? Not so much.) The list of recipients shifts every year, but I’ve always given priority to four names: the people who’ve agreed to provide letters of reference in support of my applications for faculty jobs.
It’s only a gesture, but I hope it’s an appropriate one — especially this year, when I’m calling on my letter-writers more than ever before.
In graduate school and as a postdoc, I’ve been exceptionally fortunate in my formal and informal relationships with senior colleagues. As I’m nearing (I hope) the day when I will begin teaching, training graduate students, and supervising postdocs myself, I’ve tried to keep track of specific ways that my mentors have aided me. It’s helped me define what I want to do as a mentor myself, but it’s also good, I think, to remember how much my career has depended on others’ support.
I’m grateful that my doctoral adviser was open to a prospective grad student who wasn’t exactly a younger version of himself. When I first got in touch with him — in the form an actual printed-on-paper letter — I had solid GRE scores and I was interning in field ecology, but my bachelor’s was from a small, church-affiliated liberal-arts college. Its biology department didn’t offer a course on evolution in the curriculum, and its website included a formal statement affirming the validity, if not the definitive correctness, of Intelligent Design. (A version is still there.) My would-be adviser invited me to campus for an interview, gave me careful consideration, and found that I wasn’t what my credentials might have suggested.
At every stage of my scientific career, I’ve had supervisors who gave me the freedom to explore new problem-solving methods, develop side projects, and plan for things that won’t come together for, possibly, years. And I’m grateful. My dissertation adviser picked up the cost of statistical software and equipment that he would never have used himself, only telling me to “do some good science.” He never questioned me, either, when I started blogging about science, and taking time off for out-of-state meetings with other science bloggers. In fact, he took it to indicate I’d be well-suited to manage the website for a conference he was coordinating. One postdoctoral mentor gave full support when I started a side project with a social-scientist friend. Both that mentor and my current P.I. have made it clear that, as a postdoc, part of my job is to pursue the professional development I need to land a permanent position, whether in academia or otherwise.
I’m grateful for a member of my dissertation committee who bumped into me at a conference sometime after I’d moved on to a postdoc, and sat me down for an earnest discussion about my research and his own future plans. He’s a tremendously smart scientist, and he was a sharp committee member. When I was a grad student he intimidated me to the point of social dysfunction. But that chat between conference sessions made me realize he saw me as a colleague, not just a student fumbling through questions at his dissertation defense.
Likewise, I’m grateful for the ever-growing list of senior colleagues who’ve guided me to opportunities I couldn’t have found on my own. There’s the professor who — after spotting something I’d written on a popular science book that badly misinterprets human population genetics — put me in touch with an editor who accepted that blog post as a pitch for my first paid book review. There’s the postdoctoral adviser who continues to forward job listings, point out grant-writing opportunities, and suggest award nominations — even after I’ve moved on to another position. There’s the collaborator from my dissertation research who still invites me to join him for fieldwork, and who recently cajoled me into a visit with another potential collaborator. That meeting laid the groundwork for a project that could be the centerpiece of my research career.
Isaac Newton’s epigram about “standing on the shoulders of giants” is sometimes invoked in the context of mentorship, but it’s not really how I think of my relationship with my mentors. (And anyway it was not originally intended as a compliment.) A better image, I think, comes from a text that featured more prominently in my life before graduate school: “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses … let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” On the marathon of my scientific career, every mile marker I’ve passed has been thanks to the support and guidance of my mentors, those witnesses.