Last weekend I applied for a PhD at my chosen institution. During the process I had to identify two academic referees who could provide a supporting statement. I cringed at the imposition of the request, the task it would add to the to-do list of these unwitting mentors, the life update I would have to provide, the justifications I would have to give.
I selected my MA supervisor as my first referee. My work with her was recent enough that the request didn’t seem out of the blue; she’d already advised me on what a PhD proposal should contain. I knew her to be a supporter and it wasn’t that long ago that I’d exchanged emails with her – she’d graded my MA thesis, sent me an unofficial congratulatory email and had a good understanding of my recent work and my ability. Tick.
However, the second referee was someone who I’d had a deep connection with during my undergraduate days: a lecturer and my BA thesis supervisor. He was my biggest champion, held safe space for me in an extremely difficult period of my life, he pushed me beyond what I thought I was capable of, and provided endless encouragement and support. I am and will remain forever grateful and in awe of this individual. And so, the prospect of getting in touch again, after seven years, was daunting.
Part of this fear was due to the weight of his expectations. He always told me I’d do a PhD, that I’d go back, even if not immediately. He knew my mind and desires before I did. I felt like I’d let him down by ‘selling out’ and choosing a career in financial services in 2012, but I had to put a roof over my head and food on the table. He understood that and held no judgement. But the drastic difference in my career path, from the one he foresaw for me to the one that I took, meant that it was often painful to get in touch – to hear about his career and the institution that meant so much to me. It was painful to, year on year, confirm that I was still in a career which wasn’t my preferred option. I had tried to keep in touch after graduation, but as time rolled by and I saw my dreams of a PhD fade, it only became more difficult to sustain and comprehend the different spheres that we participated in.
I bit the bullet – I got in touch. I nervously wrote an email, reading and rereading it until it was perfect. Or as perfect as I could make it. It felt like I was holding my breath until I got a response from him. I emailed him Sunday night. He responded Monday morning, first thing. He wasn’t even on campus – he had leave for research. Mentors show up for their mentees, no matter how long it’s been.
Once more, he welcomed me back – he didn’t crow about how right he was, but only congratulatory regarding my MA and supportive of my decision to advance to a PhD. Most touching was his own life update. He told me of his marriage in 2017, sent me photos of his little girl who was born the following year, and shared his current research project. Marriage and babies was something he’d always discussed as something that seemed unobtainable, and so to see his sheer joy in photos with his daughter made my soul smile. I could feel the warmth radiating.
I was incredibly honoured that he’d shared those moments with me. It also made me realise that I had isolated him to a fixed moment in time, circa 2012, and expected him to be the same as when I’d left him (somewhat like Ms Haversham). I think we often freeze mentors and teachers within a moment in time, and expect them to be sitting there waiting when you return. But my mentor is also human, he has needs, he’s not supernatural and he’s not only an academic. The email exchange both reduced him from a ‘god-like’ status of academic, but also made him such a bigger person in my life – a warmth, a presence, and sheer humanity that I had not completely seen before.
The exchange exceeded my expectations. A mentor doesn’t just respond to what you’re asking; they seek to understand you. He eagerly wanted to read some of my recent academic work, and provided me with such positive feedback by return. It’s not even the same as his research specialism – nowhere near. He has a 10 month-old daughter at home. But he still took the time to understand before being understood. He provided me with validation that I had what it took to achieve my goals, that my results to date were no mere fluke.
Like a true mentor, he also took the time to review my PhD proposal – my future research. He provided his feedback, guidance, and he challenged me appropriately. He raised questions for me to explore within my own mind, to help me clarify my own intentions. That’s what a good mentor does: they apply their own experience and specialism to help you walk your path, to help you question whether the path was one you intended to take.
My mentor has always been someone who’s guided me not just on academic matters, but was an all-encompassing confidant. I shared with him some of my other life goals, those which I haven’t yet shared with many others. I launched my idea and my justification for it, knowing that he’d be objective. Sometimes having no intimate knowledge provides the most helpful guidance – he was impartial but highlighted my strengths that would support success in my plan. These were things I didn’t even see in myself. He could have dismissed the idea, declared no knowledge of what I was talking about, said I was taking on too much, but instead he held that space for me and offered only encouragement to realise my goals.
Reconnecting with my mentor was like being truly understood. Undoubtedly he doesn’t play the same role in my life today as he did back then, but that’s ok – it’s not something to feel guilty about. He never expected to participate in my daily life as he once did, that would be impossible. But it’s about keeping hold of those mentors and moulding to the transforming relationship as you both ebb and flow through your own lives. If it provides value and meaning to both parties, the relationship and connection will remain – no matter how long it’s been since the last contact. It really was like slipping back into a comfortable conversation with someone who almost (but not quite) knows you better than you know yourself. I’ve realised it takes maturity to cope with this transformation in a relationship – it doesn’t have to be ‘all or nothing’. You don’t have to feel guilty for having a life that’s different to theirs. They understand.
And so, with an invitation in my inbox to visit his new family, and his guidance echoing in my ears, I embark upon my new paths with more wisdom and self-assurance than I had before. A mentor really “is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself”.
Quote: Oprah Winfrey