On early-career mentorship
Today, I bring you some unsolicited practical advice on mentorship for junior professors. I was originally going to post this as a Twitter thread, but limiting myself to a bunch of 280-character chunks seemed inadequate for this important topic. A lot of what is written here I picked up from my own mentors, peers and, especially, the CEMENT workshop run by CSWEP, which I highly recommend to junior female economists (I would recommend it to male junior economists too, but it is for women only).
There is a lot grad school does not teach us about navigating a career as an academic economist: the publishing process (including how to review others’ papers), the norms and practices of the profession, anything grant-related for the most part, and even conducting and writing up research. The best way to get up to speed is to have more experienced mentors who can help you navigate the maze that is academia.
Of course, academic economists have written plenty of career advice, so blogs and Twitter can be “mentors” of sorts. There are many helpful threads and documents on everything ranging from tenure strategies to teaching to software to referee reports. It would obviously be inefficient to seek out a “live” person to repeat these things for you, so the internet is a good place to start. There are too many great economists on Twitter for me to list them all, but two examples of great sets of internet resources are CSWEP’s collection of early career advice and Amanda Agan’s collection of writing/presentation resources.
But what if you have a question or concern specific to you? It is rare to have a formal “mentor”, so for better or worse the burden is on the junior people to seek out and cultivate these relationships. But before I give some suggestions about how to find a mentor, I would like to present examples of what mentors can be very helpful for:
- Understanding the norms and practices in your department: How many papers am I expected to publish for tenure? Do I have to have a top 5 publication? Are there journals that do not “count”? What kind of teaching ratings are expected of me? Am I doing too much service? Should I be trying to get grants? I have a difficult situation with a student – what would you do in this case?
- Publication strategies: Which journal should I submit this paper to first? What do you think of my paper’s introduction? My paper got a revise-and-resubmit – could you share an example of how you have written reviewer replies with me? My paper got rejected – could you help me figure out where to send it next? A word of caution here: Do not ask someone for feedback on the entire paper – a 30+ page read is too burdensome for most people. Instead, ask specifically for feedback on the abstract or introduction. That is also where more senior people have a comparative advantage.
- Miscellaneous: Which conferences in my field are good to go to? Could you share a few examples of referee reports you have written? What are your suggestions for how to write a really strong recommendation letter for an undergraduate/PhD student? Could you share a few examples? What are your suggestions for writing a lukewarm letter? (No one writes “This person is mediocre”, it’s usually more subtle than that).
There is no need to ask anyone to serve as your official mentor (most would-be mentors would probably find that a somewhat strange question anyway). Instead, try to identify more senior individuals you consider successful and nurture relationships with them. I personally don’t think you can have too many mentors in practice. The more mentors you have, the more likely you are to truly understand the profession (since you’re aggregating many opinions) and the less likely you are to impose too much on a given individual. Ideally, at least one of your mentors should be in your department and at least one of the mentors should be in your field. But people outside your field and department can also be incredibly valuable resources in some cases – for example, they may have a better sense of whether your motivation has general-interest appeal. Tenured people obviously have more experience, but advanced untenured individuals can also be immensely helpful.
How do you get started? Ask would-be mentors in your department to grab coffee or lunch or just an office meeting. Here, you should not need to be subtle – most of your colleagues actively want you to succeed and should be happy to find some time to meet with you. If you are not sure which colleague to ask, ask some of the more advanced junior professors which of your senior colleagues is receptive to these kinds of requests.
Meeting senior people outside your department can be trickier, but here are some ideas. Go to conferences, especially smaller ones. Sit next to someone you do not know at dinner and chat with them. Introduce yourself to people during coffee breaks. Ask other junior people you know to introduce you to senior people they know. Come up to senior people who have just presented and ask them a question or just compliment them on the paper. There may be some who are not very friendly in response, but most like discussing their work with an interested person. Here, you of course do not necessarily want to jump straight into asking for career advice, but in some cases it may come up naturally. Use your best judgment (and of course those amazing social skills all of us PhD economists have).
Finally, co-mentorship among equally ranked people can be helpful too. For example, you can form a virtual group to read each other’s papers and give feedback or (if you are in the same place at the same time) organize an informal discussion/presentation of early-stage research. Research can be lonely and uncertain work sometimes, so invest into having a good support system – you won’t regret it!
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