On navigating politics and the importance of female mentors

One of things I find hardest about being a graduate student is navigating interactions with others of varied statuses around me. My institute now is very different, culturally, from my undergraduate institution, despite being in the same country and only a couple of hours away. I think a lot of that comes from being an institute, rather than a university department – of course we are connected with a university, but there are no undergrads around, and very few Masters students. There are few teaching responsibilities for PIs, and none for postdocs or PhD students. There is no departmental tea room!*

Here, the only people who ask questions in seminars are PIs and senior postdocs and people who don’t know yet. People don’t hang around after seminars and debate or chat; work always takes priority over networking. The culture is less relaxed, but more than that, it’s unclear even what is and is not acceptable. There are few opportunities to observe how others interact with each other – to see who is gregarious and who of few words, to see if and how other students will approach a PI with a question. The politics of how and what and when I am supposed to speak to others about their work, about my work, to ask for help, to collaborate – it escapes me. And of course there are no written rules, no induction course, nothing to go by except what observation you can.

Maybe I’m just slow at this – I certainly wasn’t the most socially skilled as a child – but I wish there was a little more guidance available on navigating departmental and intra-lab politics. The title of this post by Athene Donald – On being Feisty and Unconventional – made me smile because I figure that’s what I’m doomed to be. I’ve always been feisty, even when shy, and eventually a part of me says sod convention, whatever it is around here, and speak my mind.

I’m probably going to grow up to be one of Hope Jahren’s ‘difficult women‘. I’d quite like that, actually 🙂

But what I’d really like is a local female mentor to help me tread the line between ‘difficult’ and ‘impossible’. Between ‘feisty’ and ‘rude’. Between ‘confident’ and crossing boundaries.
I have two assigned academic mentors, both male, along with my two male supervisors… People talk about the importance of mentors, of multiple mentors… but, erm, how do you find one, if you want one, in the first place?

— BoB

*probably what I miss most; I think a department-wide tea break is great for building community.