Mentoring

There is a lot of evidence that women in science in long-term faculty or leadership positions are underrepresented (not speaking of other minorities in science…). This may be due to learned behaviors, missing networks, or less self-promotion (reasons are manifold), but I really faced that challenge after becoming a mom.

At the end of my PhD, with a newborn at home, I canceled a conference for the first time. While a night shift used to be no problem as long as I could recover the next day, that “next day” just didn’t exist anymore. I applied for a spot in a provincial mentoring program for women in science called Pro Academia. Essentially, I wanted to learn how others navigate academic careers and a ‘second’ life at home. I got a spot in the program and also quickly found a mentor. Meeting my mentor was great and I learned a lot from her. However, I would have different expectations of a mentor now. I think the relationship would have been even better if we hadn’t been working in the same research area. Sharing personal weaknesses in science or problems with colleagues is something very personal, and I realized that it was not important to talk to someone whose research areas overlapped with my own, but to talk to someone who was struggling with the same problems. Maybe also someone less established would be just right, someone who knows about the recent struggles to stay in science (thinking of the Wissenschaftszeitgesetz in Germany…). But I’m not going to complain about our relationship, because I benefited a lot from it.

The narratives of the other peer mentees during the mentoring program were particularly helpful. Bad bosses, abusive relationships, burnouts. I began to understand how lucky I am. My PhD supervisors were both very good mentors themselves. They encouraged me to do my research, motivated me, and gave me the freedom to do it myself. I had colleagues who told me what they liked about my research and what needed improvement. Not everything was always nice, but overall, I had a really great work environment. Something that everyone deserves.

Most valuable, however, was the solid time I invested in the workshops or before meeting with my mentor to think about what kind of research I would like to do in the future. Time that I would have used for something else (maybe sleeping) if I had not participated in the program. I think my favorite assignments were a drawing of the direct path to reach my “goal” and possible alternative paths, as well as a diagram of the ups and downs during the PhD and the underlying factors. Somehow these thoughts and reflections relieved me.

So I haven’t learned a best practice to be a good researcher and mother or anything like that. It may not be impossible, but it’s often a compromise - and I think I’ve learned to accept that. And the most important thing is that during the program I became clear about what I want to do in the future and which paths are worth considering.

Christine Wallis
Christine Wallis
Postdoc @ CABO

Remote sensing of biodiversity

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