The Importance of Mentoring as a PhD Student

Two months ago, I began mentoring a Master’s student who reached out to my advisor asking for collaboration opportunities. I suggested an implementation project that aims to slightly expand the scope of my previous research work Zeus, and the student decided to go for it.

As a mentor, my task was to collaboratively design solutions with my mentee, answer technical questions, provide feedback on design decisions and code, and figure out what pieces of knowledge the student was missing and either provide study material or come up with Google search keywords. While I wasn’t doing any actual work, in that I wasn’t studying relevant technology or writing and testing code myself, the sequence of tasks was very difficult to perform satisfactorily because of the very fact that I wasn’t doing any actual work. That is, without a complete picture of what’s going on, I was supposed to have better foresight than my mentee about what would happen if we were to proceed in a certain direction, or my mentee risked hitting a hard wall. Eventually, when we officially merged the feature into Zeus, I felt very happy and proud that our collaboration worked out.

While the mentorship itself did not specifically push my ongoing research project forward, it indirectly helped with doing research, because I learned two important things from this experience.

First, I came to respect the weight of the advice my advisor gives me and understand the mental pressure of providing advice. My mentee and I were simply developing a moderately-sized software feature, and I could reasonably predict what would happen along the way and what things would look like in the end. Still, sometimes I wasn’t entirely sure about the advice I was giving to my mentee, but I anyway needed to at least look confident in order to give faith and motivation to my mentee. Moreover, it was obvious that if I ended up pointing my mentee to a wrong path, my mentee would face frustration.

What makes it more difficult for my advisor is that we are doing research, which is inherently uncertain; you never know if the hole you’re digging is your grave. Yet, PhD students expect their advisors to still provide advice that is roughly in the right direction. I have come to understand that not even the best professors can know with confidence that the way the student is headed is a good direction, and how incredibly good my advisor is in that he usually provides advice that ends up being correct.

Second, mentoring helped me ask better questions to my advisor. Recalling my mentoring experience, when my mentee asked for clarification about my suggestion, I sometimes failed to give good answers because I myself was operating based on logical guesses and inexplicable instincts. I figured this would be the case for my advisor, too. Thus, instead of interrogating my advisor with a bunch of why-questions, I started to instead ask questions such as “Is it because of A and B that you asked me to do X?”, essentially putting forth my guess of the reason behind his advice. Then, my advisor would answer whether or not he agrees with what I said, or sometimes even make better suggestions when the guess I provided sparked something, and both cases led to highly productive conversations.

All in all, before this mentorship experience, my perception of mentoring was that it’s only good for me if it ends with some nice tangible outcome in a reasonable amount of time. However, now I feel like the process of mentorship taught me a lot about the relationship between me and my advisor, and allowed me to improve the productivity of the meetings with my advisor. Moreover, mentoring itself was an extremely rewarding process, where I could interact with enthusiastic junior researchers.

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