An Example of On-The-Spot Networking/Mentoring

Over at Sciencewomen, Alice has a post up on the topic of colleagiality that includes the story of a casual encounter with a very nice outcome: seatmate was Jamie Comstock, provost of Butler University. She saw I was editing a student's paper, and asked "Faculty or student?" That was nice that she didn't presume I was a student. :-) She introduced herself, and then did I, and mentioned I was in my second year of tenure-track at Purdue. She went back to reading her book, and I went back to my paper; and then she said, "Can I interrupt you for a second?" She said she was very curious to know whether there were any surprises I had about being in a faculty position.

I mentioned how I skew the distribution, what with two parents who are faculty members (at UW-Madison) and a husband who was a faculty member, but that I was surprised by two things -- 1) that I had to learn to say no when no one had actually given me a choice (particularly about whether to participate in something or not), and 2) that I had expected that, because of the unique nature of my department (that it was the first such department in the country, that it soaked up all kinds of good people in engineering education research into one place) that I had expected more intellectual stimulation and sharing of ideas. I had thought it would be common to have colleagues knock on one's door and ask one to look over a manuscript, or for one's opinion on some new idea. Not that this doesn't happen to me -- in fact, it happens more now than it did when I started -- but I confess it surprised me greatly last year.

Dr. Comstock thanked me, said she had felt the same way when she started, and eventually after a bit more chit-chat, she handed me a card and said I should give her a call if I ever needed to talk about things as I progressed through my pre-tenure years. I felt this was a very generous thing to do, and was quite struck by how I missed that hand being held out, something I'm also feeling a lack of in my department.

Couple of things to note here: Dr. Comstock, the senior person, made the effort to get to know the junior person. If you are in a (relative) senior position, this is how you should behave! She was not condescending, and did not make presumptions about the junior person, instead giving the junior person the opportunity to tell her more about herself. This had the benefit of allowing Dr. Comstock to learn more about the experiences of junior faculty, which is no doubt helpful information for a provost. Finally, Dr. Comstock made it possible for this casual encounter to extend into the future, expanding Alice's network, giving her the opportunity to be connected to a senior woman in academia. Again, senior people: take notice! Mentoring and expanding the networks of junior people is part of your job!

Junior people: if you find yourself with the chance to chat with a more senior person, be polite, but don't be afraid to present yourself strongly and positively. Take advantage of the opportunity. If Senior Person does not proffer a business card (as they should), ask for one, and ask if they would mind if you contacted them in the future if you have a question (about science, about career planning, about careers in administration, whatever it is you think you might want to contact them about). Maybe they'll say no, maybe they'll say yes in a way that sounds like they wish they were saying no, but most likely they'll say "sure, fine!"

The main point of Alice's post is really about the issue of colleagiality in academia, and it's a very interesting post. Do go read it.

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