Productivity in career choice from a mentoring relationship

May 5, 2023 at 4:20 PM
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Productivity in career choice from a mentoring relationship

Helena Horvat UC’23 and Jim Stellar

The goal of this blog post is to discuss how a mentoring relationship can develop between a faculty member and an undergraduate student and how that interaction can be productive to the student. The overall underlying theory, we think, is similar to that of experiential education, the general topic of this series of blogs, as both activities depend on tying cognitive-explicit planning to emotional-implicit evaluations.

Helena and I met in the Fall of 2022 in an upper-class behavioral neuroscience course (Psychopharmacology). Then I had the good fortune to become a second reader on her undergraduate honors thesis. That interaction developed into a mentoring relationship where we discussed her next steps after graduation and our plan to continue to work on them as her career develops. However, before we discuss mentoring, Helena, maybe you can take the next step here and say what you will be doing after graduation.

As I write this paragraph, it is only three days until my graduation from the University at Albany. While I am taking the time to celebrate my accomplishments and reflect on the past four years, I also have a summer plan to continue engaging with my love for psychology. I applied to be a research volunteer at Columbia psychiatry in NYC and heard back quickly about a study that could not be more aligned with my interests. I will be helping screen participants for phase three psilocybin studies as a treatment for treatment resistant depression. Here I’ll learn the requirements to participate in the study, how to create a safe environment for administration, and how to help participants manage their expectations. This will be under the guidance of the main investigator Dr. Hellerstein and his research program manager. I am so grateful to be a part of this research and am excited to form connections with people who are doing work so similar to my future career goals.

This is perfect and you know how much I push gap years. So, let’s move back a step and talk about how a mentoring bond formed between us and then after that discuss what you hope will happen over the summer. I will go first. I noticed in my class that you seemed very enthusiastic about the course material and of course did very well in the class. I also noticed that you had a quality of insight into the topic that seemed more on the graduate than the undergraduate level. While I do not remember the details of our first meeting after or outside class, I do remember wondering if you planned to go on to graduate school.

Psychopharmacology is interesting to me on its own, but I don’t know if I would have been as engaged if you did not deliver the course information in such a palatable and engaging way. I knew I had to take a neuroscience elective but ended up choosing your course specifically because you had amazing rate-my-professor reviews. Since high school I always knew that the course topic matters, but the instructor who teaches it also determines if it will be a class worth taking. Our conversations outside of class started when I sent you a YouTube video I enjoyed about fentanyl and opioid receptors. This email prompted you to invite me to chat in your office and we began to have frequent meetings since then. I think your kindness and genuine openness to talking to me is what made me comfortable discussing my career decisions with you. Your wisdom and experience is what made me value your advice and guidance.

Thank you for the nice words. Part of what brings a mentor and mentee together is that they see an opportunity in working together. But the interaction has to serve a goal. So, talk about what you see yourself doing going forward and how that relates to our conversations about your professional development.

I have always been in tune with my emotions, which has helped me realize I am drawn towards clinical psychology and practice. Working with my peers to increase their wellness through the university’s Middle Earth Peer Wellness Coaching program felt natural and rewarding. Research, on the other hand, while I enjoyed being investigative, did not light that same spark within me. Talking to you helped me realize that I can still engage with the work I love and on a doctorate level – a PsyD program. When I had doubts about the length and difficulty of a doctorate, your encouragement and belief in my abilities is what kept me following the path towards that decision.

I had the same experience when I was your age with a mentor who helped me sort out whether I wanted to go to medical school, as I had long planned, or whether I should pursue graduate school and neuroscience research as he was discussing in his course. On his advice, I did what you are doing, an internship, but mine was over my junior/senior summer.  I fell in love with the field and ended up not applying to medical school. The point is just as you said – mentoring made me feel comfortable with first looking and then making a choice. I still consider him to be my mentor.

It sounds as if your personal experience of having a mentor has taught you its value and motivated you to do the same for your students. I, too, hope to be an advisor and mentor for students struggling with discovering their passions and making career decisions. The relationship is invaluable and makes us wonder where we would be today without the encouragement and guidance from our mentors. 

This conversation illustrates a few points about mentoring between faculty and students in college, as well as mentoring of any kind, e.g. between college student peers. Perhaps the first point is that there is a limbic-level of contact between the two people. It takes on a quality almost like between family members where there is a natural expectation of mutual interest in each other’s development. When such an appropriate familiarity develops, it can lead to the second point, and that is an opening to discuss intellectual ideas/planning such as what type of graduate program (e.g. Master, PsyD, PhD.) or no graduate school suits the mentee.

The common stress associated with thinking about such next steps is reduced by having someone to support you and bounce your ideas off of as a student. Additionally, trust is key as the mentor should react while putting the mentor first (after all it is their life) so that there is this more limbic interaction. The mentee, who remains the decider, needs to trust the mentor and so can allow their ideas to have an impact. The key, and perhaps the third point, is that interaction is one of repeated cognitive-limbic interaction. None of this would be necessary if the decision was completely obvious or if it could be rendered to a spreadsheet column-sum-type decision process. Most career planning decisions involve a gut-level process and that process requires reflection to bring it to the explicit or conscious level. In a mentor-mentee interaction, that reflection involves two people who trust each other and that makes for better reflection, or so we think. Besides, it is fun.

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Reflection on going to a public university, growing-up issues, and moving past graduation?
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