Hello Ms. Harriet,

Your letters have given me a lot to contemplate.  I mentor graduate students and, when they’re ready, help them navigate the academic job market.  Some are minority students.  I think I’d be considered an ally to them.  I’m hoping to learn how to be a better one, especially given these turbulent times.  Finding faculty positions makes doctoral students anxious.  But, who wouldn’t be?  The academic job market can be intimidating.

I’ve got one student who uses big words.  She’ll casually mention a California conflagration, while the rest of us refer to the latest forest fire.  Her best students are erudite, while ours are bright.  We attend a meeting to address the impact of student protests; she asks about incorporating views of those supporting disestablishment during our classes.  And, she seems proud of how she talks.  But the more nervous she gets, the rarer the terms she’ll use.  I’ve watched this happen when she presents her work to a large audience and in smaller settings, like when I ask her questions about her work during our one-on-one meetings.  I admire her extensive vocabulary, but I worry that it can be offputting and detract from her overall message, a view I share with my colleagues.

I worry that my grad student’s use of big words will keep her from getting hired.

I have a good working relationship with this student.  But when I confronted former students—with whom I also had a good working relationship—about how they talked in similar ways, it resulted in a strained relationship.  I don’t want to re-create this type of tension.  And, this student has a lot to offer our discipline.  I want to make sure she becomes positioned to do so.

Personal? Professional? Both seem to be at stake

I’m not sure how to help.  Of course, it’s my job to give young professionals I mentor feedback.  But, this matter involves the professional as much as the personal.  And, the world is changing.  Your advice to others makes me wonder if there’s a better way to handle this situation.  How do I help this student be at her best throughout the very competitive academic recruitment process and beyond?

–Sincerely, Wanting to mentor meaningfully

Dear Mentoring Like We All Matter,

Once I was walking with a friend along the beach’s edge in Baja, Mexico. She wanted to rent a kayak, and I wanted to try out my new Spanish language skills. After walking for some time, I pointed to a hut a few dozen yards inland that posted fair hourly rates for kayaks and related gear. She pointed to a set of rental vendors we saw up ahead on the sand. After being unsatisfied with options we found there, we returned in the direction we’d come, which we noticed was slightly downhill. This time after walking for a while, she pointed to the hut I had mentioned earlier, exclaiming, “hey, those are excellent rates!” I agreed.

We kayaked and swam for a couple of hours before returning our rental gear and heading back to where we were staying. I said something about being glad to have seen that hut initially. “No you didn’t,” my friend corrected me, laughing. She turned around just then to see where we’d spend the afternoon, but didn’t see the rental hut. I pointed to it, but she just looked more confused. Finally, I bent down to her height and could only see a hill of sand and sky. I didn’t see the hut until I stood back up to my full height.  She hadn’t seen the hut when I first pointed it out and hadn’t believe it existed.

For years, we laughed and laughed about having relaxed so much that we were no longer using the communication skills our careers—as a human resource professional and a librarian at that time—required of us.

A little self-awareness can go a long way

As an ally, consider helping other faculty manage their reactions to behaviors that may seem different.

As an ally, consider helping other faculty or doctoral students become aware of and manage their reactions to behaviors that may seem different, like your graduate student’s. For example, after interviewing candidates, Deans frequently ask faculty for comments about whether or not to that person would fit in the department. Hiring Committee members who review those comments should ask for subjective terms used to describe candidates to be explained, preferably with examples of things that a candidate did or said.

You may even consider finding ways to help candidates like your student, whether or not your institution hires them. Talk with them confidently during conferences. Or, contact them off the record, explain how you know them, and ask if they would like to talk with confidentially and independent of their experience at your institution. Alternatively, if you know their advisor and can trust that person to be confidential and cooperative, ask the advisor for the best way to provide feedback to the doctoral student.

Help job-seeking students be themselves

Above all, candidates in professional recruitment processes need to relax and be themselves. If this means peppering speech with a healthy dose of spice, so let it be. If this student is one of the Ones who made it, chances are she has stories about how she does and doesn’t talk and where. To them, securing a position in higher education may mean an opportunity to use their intelligence freely and stop apologizing for it or hiding it as they may (have had to) do in other areas of their lives.

Fortunately, this behavior occurs in a controlled setting. I’d suggest you take time to discuss it the next time you meet alone with your advisee and notice her talking in ways that concern you. Consider what your vantage point allows you, but not your student, to see and have a frank conversation with her that addresses the following.

Mentoring like we all matter, steps
  1. First and foremost, be sure to explain why you’re giving her feedback. And, clarify that she must decide whether or how to use the feedback.
  2. Tell her what you notice about the way she talks. Explain what you find effective about it and what concerns you about it.
  3. Be sure to describe your view of the potential impact her way of talking can have on others—from students to faculty who’ll influence hiring decisions.
  4. Finally, let her know that self-awareness can go a long way. Provide options. One option may be to use fewer big words. Another option may be to manage how others react to hearing her talk. For example, encourage her to introduce herself—online and off—in ways that alleviate awkwardness. She could describe herself as the Empress of Expression or mention being a lover of all words, big and small on a Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter account that she links to her formal website. Finally, she could explain the importance of accurate communication in her course syllabi or challenge students enrolled in her classes to use new vocabulary terms.
Turn on the charm

I was tickled to learn that the Motown Record Corporation had its own charm school instructor. Maxine Powell taught singers, some of whom we recognize as stars today, how to manage their hands, postures, speech, and more while singing, sitting, and interacting with others in general. Meeting such an objective may be easier when an organization issues a top-down mandate to address the personal along with the professional for those it serves. I doubt such clarity exists where you advise and mentor. When I’ve negotiated national job searches, I prepared in part by reviewing resources about manners. Advice has changed some over the years. But, reviewing those materials encouraged me to manage impressions I made. Your student may appreciate hearing about a couple of videos (by Sabrina Samuels and Lily Jarlson) on this subject.

Finally, I share this advice with you hoping you’ll, in turn, find ways to help your student. Yet, I fully understand that we all, like my friend, tend to act solely on what we’re able to see on the horizon.

Signed, Ms. Harriet