Why Your Mentor Sucks (and how to fix it)

The relationship between mentors and protégés is a simple one, in theory. The more experienced mentor helps the protégé learn the ropes, and shares all the tactic knowledge about how things work that is never written down anyplace.

But it’s rarely that simple. Every grad student and post-doc has heard horror stories about supervisors who make life a living hell for the people they work with. Here are some reasons why this can happen, and how you might be able to fix them.


“I’m not sure what I should be doing.” “I don’t get any feedback.” “I gave him this manuscript three weeks ago, and he still hasn’t gotten it back to me!”

It’s sad to say it, but you are not the only thing on your supervisor’s mind.

First, there are the supervisor’s other work tasks. It is difficult to know just how many irons in the fire the average academic has at any given moment, but it’s a lot. For academics, this is typically a mix of grading, grant writing, committee meetings, student advisement, paper writing, and managing purchases and finances.

Second, many scientists do have personal lives, and their lives are different than yours. Mentors are usually older than their protégés. While it’s easy to joke about “mid-life crisis,” the fact is that many people do have problems when they hit middle age, the mid-way point for many academics. People may start to experience health problems, often for the first time. Some younger supervisors, finally with a stable job, may just be starting families, and adjusting to the reality that is babies. Others may have marriages dissolving.

You may know none of this. People often try very hard not to let their own personal issues affect their professional relationships, such as with their students and trainees. But sometimes these bleed through into forgetfulness or bad moods.

You can often alleviate this problem by being proactive and communicating with your supervisor. Reminders are often welcome things for a busy supervisor, for example. If you want more time, ask for regular personal meetings. Some people are good at responding to emails; some may be as hooked on Facebook as you are. Try to figure out how to become part of their work flow.

More generally, you rarely get what you want if you don’t ask for what you want. Adam Savage (MythBusters) talked about this during a presentation at Maker Faire:

I’ve also been very keyed into what I want. And when I do want something, I ask for it. It’s pretty straight forward, but a lot of people who’ve worked for me don’t do it, and I’ve to ferret out of them what they want out of the situation.

Supervisors are not only distracted, they are not telepathic, either.

No help at all

You might feel like you’re being groomed to become your boss’s own “Mini Me.” Your supervisor takes all the steps necessary to move you down the path of a tenure-track position at a major research university. The only problem is that the tenure-track job at the big university is not what you want.

When you communicate this to your supervisor (because you’ve read the section above), you discover that your supervisor doesn’t know anything about the career path you want to take. She doesn’t know the difference between a CV and a résumé, or how to apply for government jobs. This isn’t surprising. They got to where they are because they learned how to play the academic game.

No one mentor can do everything that mentors are supposed to provide to their protégés. You should not be content with having a single mentor, but seek out and cultivate relationships with many mentors.

> You may also be interested in reading: 'PI Seeks PostDoc for Long Term Relationship'