Saturday, January 13, 2007


I am often asked whether I had any mentors when I was younger, but it's less common to be asked about what I will call anti-mentors: people who actively try to discourage you, but not out of kindness or wisdom. Perhaps I will write a relentlessly upbeat posting soon to balance these negative ones, but in the meantime -

My thoughts have turned to anti-mentors in part because of the occasion this week of the 80th birthday of one of the most virulent ones I have encountered in my life. I have had 2 notable anti-mentors, and one died 20 years ago. This is the other one. I was told recently that it would "mean a lot" to this person if I acknowledged his birthday, but there don't seem to be any birthday cards that quite express the depth of my loathing and contempt for this person, and I don't want to waste my time to make a suitable card. Furthermore, if I did send a happy little card with fond birthday wishes, he would take it as his due as a Great Man that even people he tried to crush pay him homage. No thanks.

I think that anti-mentors can be useful, to a limited extent. Of course life would be better without them, but in my own experience, the unfairness of it all and the anger I felt at how I was treated by them gave me an extra bit of motivation to succeed. It would be devastating if someone I respected had told me I was stupid and was never going to be a professor, but I didn't respect these people. "I'll show them.." isn't the purest of motivations, and it's not enough to get you where you want to go if you don't also love what you're doing (despite the jerks), but, even so, it can push you along at times.


Anonymous said...

Appreciate your honesty from your decision of not sending a birthday card to your anti-mentor. I would make the same decision to anyone who was trying to destroy my dream.

I have been greatly impacted by my anti-mentors in recently years. I totally agree, my confrontation with them are somehow useful as extra motivation. However, I have been spending a lot of energy to get out the unfair situation and to cope with disappointing facts learned from those confrontation.

To me, those anti-mentors became less respectable as people, but I told myself and them to still respect their scientific contributions.

I believe the most important thing is knowing where is my dream and fight for it. Obstacles are just obstacles ...

Anonymous Professor said...

My adviser was one such Anti-Mentor. I completed my Ph.D. in four years because I hated her so much that I had to get out of her lab. I don't think I've spoken to her since the day I defended my thesis.

But it taught me how to be a better mentor, I guess. Although I think one of my former students hates me now even more than I hated my anti-mentor. I tried my best.

Anonymous said...

I am in the (rather encourageing) situation, that I don't have to respect my anti-mentor a bit: His research (the little there is) is crap. (How he got his professorship? Dunno.) I suspect, that's why he is so keen on crushing other people: He doesn't have any means of getting an ego push.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

As my grandma always said, everyone (like the Anti-Mentor) is an example, if only of what not to do.

Pity there aren't any really snarky cards in existence; I can think of a few uses myself.

Anonymous said...

I completely understand the extra push or motivation acquired from interacting with an anti-mentor. And now when I run into a former anti-mentor, I cannot resist the joy of telling them I'm a tenured professor at Stanford University. Life can be sweet at times!

Am I a woman scientist? said...

What a great post. I have had two such anti-mentors in my life (both professional)... a new one seems to come along every 10 years or so, kind of like asteroids. I hope like hell they aren't the ones that orbit (are those comets?)... I'm not sure I could handle one of them coming around for a second pass.

Ms.PhD said...

Hooray for starting a snarky card company. I think they do exist, actually.

And hooray for admitting there are anti-mentors out there.

I sometimes get the impression from my male colleagues that anti-mentors are some kind of hallucination particular to me. I have had several, though as some people here pointed out, statistically speaking they don't come around that often.

I've noticed an unfortunately tendency though, that I have trouble trusting new mentors because of my bad experiences. I'm never sure at first.

I respect your decision to not send a birthday card. I think a lesser person might yield at the thought of eventually getting a pat on the head from even an anti-mentor, but realistically speaking, these guys are never going to give us a shred of encouragement, only the opposite. That's why I love the name, and plan to steal it for future use.

Great post. Thanks as always.

Anonymous said...

I definitely think about the anti-mentors more than mentors. I even had a particularly mean 4th grade teacher who I was thinking about the other day. I, too, wonder what delusion they suffer? Are they aware how hurtful those comments are? Are they proud of their power? How can they get tenure? One professor in my graduate department drove away almost every student she (!) had, yet still got tenure. The comments of one such pseudo-supportive person, however, really helped me when I asked him to review a grant I was writing. After he tore it apart ("I don't like this idea and I'll tell you why" - a viewpoint that I was not expecting, by the way) I was able to revise it to address the potential criticisms, and I got the grant. But I certainly agree with the drive to "show them." Take that, 4th grade teacher.

Anonymous said...

Some things have changed, for sure. I'm an undergrad in Aerospace Engineering and I haven't come across a single anti-mentor. Maybe I'm just lucky. Then again, I walk a strange line. It was never the people within my department that caused me doubt.

And I was just looking up professors and the like, hence coming upon your page. I'm thinking about going along that path someday, myself.