Friday, May 23, 2008

On Leaning On

Recently a person who is somewhat prominent in a certain scientific/technical field asked me to "lean on" a young professor who showed great promise in this field a few years ago as a grad student, but who has since found being a new faculty member rather overwhelming and so hasn't progressed with this work.

My first reaction was that it would be highly inappropriate and no doubt stress-inducing for a senior professor (me) to "lean on" a younger colleague about this. I happen to know that he is well aware that he needs to make progress on this particular research.

Upon reflection, though, I wondered if there was a constructive way to "lean". Mentoring can be a constructive form of leaning, although mentoring is most effective if it involves conversations over time, not just a random "leaning" now and then.

And even if I did "lean" on my colleague, what would I say? For example, the following statements are all in the spirit of "leaning" on someone, but are not particularly nice or constructive:

"Some prominent people in your field think that you have failed to live up to your early promise and are wondering if you are ever going to publish anything. They asked me to push you a bit on this issue." [cruel, with ominous subtext re. the consequences of this failure]

"What's the latest with that fascinating research you gave a talk on a year or two ago? Did you write that work up yet?" [not obviously cruel, but might be interpreted as such in a passive-aggressive work-harder-if-you-want-tenure kind of way]

I think I will I forgo the colleague-leaning for now and provide instead some longer-term friendly support and conversation.


Psych Post Doc said...

I agree with you that he knows that he must get this done and if he's already feeling overwhelmed the leaning could really be disasterous.

I also agree that giving him long term support and conversation could really be helpful. I know if I were in his position it would be nice to know that I had senior people helping me, providing support and advice rather than leaning on me. Especially if the leaning concerns stuff that I'm stressed about getting done already.

Ms.PhD said...

if you want to lean on someone, maybe you could lean on my advisor for me.

i can't do it myself. when i try to ask for reasonable things (like getting papers published) i get personal insults.

Anonymous said...

I was that "young professor". Twice.

Once, as a young postdoc, struggling to find my own research without being overwhelmed by the teaching.
A professor came to talk to me. He was a bit harsh. He said that I would be given a term without teaching, and that I was expected to pull myself together, and make the most of it researchwise. I did. I didn't like the tone, but I was grateful for the opportunity and for the wake-up call.

Later, in a new job, my time was eaten up in the day by research students, and in the night by crying babies and toddlers. I didn't do any research, for years. None of my (new) colleagues cared, nobody helped. They didn't even seem to notice.
Finally, an experienced colleague invited me to give a talk at his university, and stay at his place. He asked me, kindly, how I was doing. When I explained, he listened: he then told me that this was nonsense, that I shouldn't waste my time, and that my primary duty to myself and to science was to do research. It took me very long, but I did go back.

I don't know what "lean" means. But if a young colleague needs help, or advice, don't be shy. Don't leave him alone. Please.

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

I'd hope that some supportive conversation might help reveal whatever is holding this colleague back--perhaps some undisclosed family issues or something similar?

The other thing is that even smart and dedicated people can use a little nudge--not one that focuses on the failure, but that focuses on the future. It's too easy to get into a bad habit of ignoring aversive parts of your job, and just knowing that someone you respect is expecting you to succeed can help.

Rah said...

I, too, was that young professor. How about this: "Your presentation at xxx conference was so stimulating, and I am eagerly waiting to hear more. I know there's a lot of pressure from many directions on new faculty members. Want to join me for a cup of coffee to see if there's a piece I could help with? I would love to see you jump start that research again."

The message is still there, but it's framed with confidence and support. There's probably a low likelihood that the newbie would actually have a task that you could do. Sometimes a listening ear goes a long way, and the coffee conversation could be turned into a strategic planning conversation--e.g., "What's the next step you need to do, and what's standing in the way of it?"

Anonymous said...

There are many ways to "lean", some obnoxious, some helpful.

But you absolutely *dont* want to say "young professor knows s/he needs to get this published, I don't need to tell him/her" and then, when tenure time rolls around, suddenly tell them all their shortcomings and hand them a negative tenure decision.

Sometimes people need an external push, or at least need to be reminded of expectations.

Anonymous said...

I think that mentoring of junior faculty by senior colleagues has a place in academia. Let's put it this way: Suppose that, hypothetically, this young fellow came to you, expressed his nervousness and frustration with his lack of progress, and asked you for advice. Would you have any misgivings about giving it to him ? Would you feel "uncomfortable" telling him things like, "You are working in a highly competitive field; if I were you, I'd try and get your current incremental results published on a second-tier journal... That will show some progress, establish you as one of the players, and may actually give you momentum. And by the way, I think you should submit an abstract to that conference; I know much of the action takes place there. It did a lot of good to me...".
I am sure you'd have plenty to tell him, and from personal experience (hey, don't we all need someone to lean on ? :-) even a single "random" conversation of this type may just be the wake-up call that this person needs.

Minos said...

Also having been (being) that professor, the right nudge can be incredibly helpful, when it comes from someone who is genuine, clearly "on your side", and trying to be a mentor not a taskmaster. As you say, it works best over time, and if you have a good professional/personal relationship. Dr. Jeckyl / Mrs. Hyde and Rah have good approaches. These are similar to what has been done (productively) for me.

Azulao said...

Not to be snarky here, but why should FSP have to be the one to do the leaning? How about the Prominent Person who is oh-so-concerned?

FSP would absolutely be very effective at helping the Young Prof, since she is both kind and practical, but why is she being asked to be "mom"? Is the YP at her Univ? But even if, it would be nice if the PP called the YP and said, "Hey, I'm concerned about you because you sort of seem to have fallen off the map. There's a great person at your U who could be very helpful to you, do you know FSP?"

Might be stressful for the YP, but at least the PP would be honest.

Isis the Scientist said...

FSP, I have been a stalker on this blog for sometime and have only recently begun to comment. I really enjoy your commentary and the dialogue between your other readers...

I know that nothing would irritate me more than to feel like I am trying to keep my head above the water only to learn that more senior faculty didn't believe I was cutting the mustard. I would be grateful to have someone tell me that the "prominent folks" in the field think I am not living up to my potential. It might give me the kick I need to get going...

But then again, this is all speculation.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes people need help. If PSP doesn't want to do it then it would be very kind of FSP to extend a hand to the young prof who may be feeling overwhelmed. It is so easy to drown at an institution. This has been an absolutely horrible year for me personally and I can't tell you how much it meant to me when a colleague from another department noticed and took to me a movie.

ScientistMother said...

After reading the comments, I went and re-read FSP's post. She never clarified whether the initial person making the observation was also at her U or whether the prominent person in the field was at some other uni and was contacting FSP because the young professor is in her department. As a grad student, I would appreciate having a senior individual approach me in an compassionate manner to provide mentorship. Rah and Dr. Jekyll are on the mark with how to approach the situation. YP maybe having difficulty focusing / prioritizing, and you probably could provide advice in a very non-negative way.

Anonymous said...

I just had an opportunity to juxtapose two kinds of "leaning on".

The first was filled with saccharine, vague language of support, and upon revisiting its uselessness I realized, language of we-the-department vs. you-the-untenured. I believe the intention was to convey support (if it has been a Sesame Street episode, the average 3-year-old would have spotted it as Word of the Day), but the conversation turned sour as soon as I suggested any concrete tangible shows of support They might be able to provide. Useless, "Why didn't you"s were thrown my way. The conversation took place in an office setting, with me sitting across the grand desk, in the little visitors chair, and the senior professor sitting on the other side, in their grand senior professor twirly chair.

I walked out of there feeling like shit. As soon as I closed the door to my office, I slumped down against the door, sat on the floor and cried. I thought about quitting.

Later that day I had another conversation. It started with a walk to get coffee. During this walk, I was asked open-ended questions about how I was doing and how I felt about work, family, life. When we came back we sat at a round meetings table and I was asked to list "what worries me" with respect to the tenure process. I rambled for about 10 minutes. The senior professor ignored the whiny part of the rant and focused on what I can do, drew a timeline, and with minimal specific input on his part other than as a sort of facilitator, laid out a very clear doable plan.

I walked out of there with a feeling of self-confidence. I can do this. It won't even be hard, I just need to shift my priorities a little, not throw more time into it.

I think shows of support and friendliness can be helpful, but only if the person feels SAFE enough to open up. I'm not sure how to accomplish that, but I think connecting at a personal level or at least meeting in a non-office setting, helps. I also think any underlying feelings of We-the-Golden-Ones, You-the-Wannabe on your part will come through no matter what you do to dress the Golden Ones as a pep squad, so if deep inside you feel that way, maybe just stick to the friendly waves in the hall.

Anonymous said...

Here's the deal:
I am a beginning assistant professor. And I wonder if I am getting enough done.

I actually DO think that leaning on and commenting are very helpful. I want someone to tell me "Paul, you are messing up - this is exactly why and how - and you can fix this - and this is exactly why and how." This is much better than the conversation at the end which goes like "Well, how could you NOT know that you have to do X, Y, and Z and that you started too late on A and B?". Then, the game is over.

SO (#2):
I would suggest approaching the person by saying "I have some comments for you on your progress. Are you willing to hear them?"

I would say "yes, yes, yes".

Anyways, good luck and thanks for the blog.