Around the time I entered the second half of my undergraduate studies, I joined a research group as a trainee or sort of apprentice. Despite my eagerness to become more involved in research- and teaching-related activities, I was entirely ignorant of the day-to-day dynamics of a research environment. Soon I learned that the links between advisers and advisees, or between mentors and mentees, were more complex than those between conventional teachers and students.
It rapidly became clear to me that our advisers led the group, first and foremost, through their moral authority. I learned that advisers can positively impact their teams without relying on an authority given to them solely by hierarchy. They interact with younger researchers with courtesy and consideration, even when facing stressing or demanding situations. Such advisers do not trash talk about their advisees, or expose their vulnerabilities to others in an attempt to downplay the adviser’s responsibilities.
Even when they express their most critical assessments, inspiring advisers possess the ability to make you feel free and secure. Responsible advisers do not have the need to control through fear. Truly good advisers thrive in large part because they promote accountable freedom, and because they earn the trust and loyalty of their teams.
Long after graduation I came to more deeply appreciate another guiding principle: Effective learning requires an unavoidable interplay between progress and failure.
When a learning opportunity arose my advisers did not give me reasons to doubt the potential value of the new experience. They did not ask me to overthink whether I was worth it or not. They told me to go for it and get it done to the best of my abilities and resources available. When the challenge became bigger than one could have anticipated, they did not regret it or tried to find excuses in preparation for a possible failure. If failure occurred, we were allowed and guided to try again, harder, better. Repeating mistakes learned from previous failure was the only mistake to be afraid of.
At a relatively early time in my research experience, I was asked to give a presentation for the group. Initially I thought that I did not deserve such an invitation. I felt that I was wrongly appropriating a place that only graduate and more experienced researchers were entitled to. Fortunately, those thoughts gradually became irrelevant. My mentors did not use this presentation as a mere test of my work performance or skills, they did not ask me to do it just to satisfy some internal procedure, and they never questioned the significance of the occasion. They had simply given me an opportunity to advance my learning experience, to strengthen my connections with my work and that of others.
That first presentation provided me with a profounder message though. An explicit reminder of something that had been encoded around me all the time: I belonged and was welcomed to a community. Furthermore, all those student presentations and discussions allowed us to understand that mutual respect and support were the glue that kept such community advancing together, despite material obstacles or other difficulties.
This was confidence building as a patient nurturing of intellectual growth. Mentoring seen as the unselfish gardening and sculpturing of young minds. Those were our advisers. Incessantly, almost imperceptibly, exercising an unpretentious brand of leadership based on ethical conduct and professional integrity. A generous exemplification of respect for the efforts and capabilities of others, in triumph and in adversity.
For that and more, I will always be grateful to the mentors of my early years in academia: Gianfranco, Guillermo and Fernando.
This post is also available at Medium.