Monday, May 31, 2010

Non-Academic Mentors

This post first appeared on the UVenus blog at

There are three women, all with PhDs, who are probably the most important to my development as an academic and now as a mother and entrepreneur.  The first is my dissertation supervisor.  She was the first (and only) person to get excited about my dissertation research topic and guided me through my research, without dictating how the work should look (unlike others who tried to steer me in a direction I wasn’t interested in going). She had an unconventional path to her job as a professor; after getting her PhD in French, she followed her (now ex) husband, did a law degree and a masters in law, then became a French professor.  She has held just about every administrative role that doesn’t require a special hiring committee (assistant dean, associate provost, special assistant to the president, senator, etc).  When I announced I was going to run (uncontested) for Graduate Students’ Association President, she laughed and wished me luck.  For that year I was GSA President, during our meetings about my dissertation (I defended my dissertation proposal while President), we would trade war stories about university politics and meetings from hell.  She supported me in all of my work, and continues to do so.
In hindsight, I should have gone with someone who would have pushed me towards an approach that was more “marketable” rather than just simply what I wanted to do.  I should have had a supervisor who would have discouraged me from getting involved with university politics.  Instead, I went with the person who allowed me to explore all of my strengths as an academic, learning valuable skills along the way; skills that I never expected would help me in my new life, my new role.
The two other women aren’t professors.  One of the women, I met while I was GSA President and selected to sit on our university’s hiring committee for a new president.  We hired a search firm, founded by a PhD in history who 15 years earlier couldn’t find a job in academia.  She now is CEO of the largest and most successful higher ed search firms in Canada.  I didn’t know it at the time, but her example, her success outside of academia provided part of the inspiration I needed to be able to break out on my own.
The other woman is also not a professor.  She is a mother, translator, writing, teacher, editor, publisher, award-winner, change agent and all-around inspiring woman.  She got her PhD from the same school when I did my undergraduate and masters degree.  When we first met, she was the first person I had ever met who had a PhD and wasn’t a professor.  She had carved a life for herself doing what she loved, and it didn’t involve full-time employment with tenure.  I looked at her life, on the brink of starting my own PhD and was at once inspired and terrified.  I was about to embark on the path to being a professor, and here was someone who had done something different.  A reminder that life could be different.  I wasn’t, at that point, interested in being different.
It’s hard when you’re a PhD; you only meet other PhDs who (mostly) want to do the same things you want (your fellow students) or PhDs who have achieved the dream (your professors).  We never meet PhDs who have done something else with their degree.  We have been taught that these people are failures.  As a woman, at least for me, there seemed to be an added pressure of becoming a professor, in the name of women and equality. 
But the three women with PhDs I mention here represent something else, and allowed me to become who I am today, just by being who they are.  Wonderful, smart, caring, respected and successful women in whatever they chose to do.  Now, I aspire to be the same, in my own way.

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