Written by Svetlana Dotsenko
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Harvard Professor Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, MPH, PhD, is an internist and social scientist who conducts research on social factors that affect health, health care, and longevity. He is a Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Professor of Medical Sociology in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School; and Professor of Medicine in the Department of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
How does academic mentorship work?
Essentially, academic mentorship works a lot like marriage insofar as it’s a two-person “market.” A student cannot just decide to be a mentee, just like I could not simply decide to marry my wife without asking her first. Plus, it takes time and commitment to build a relationship.
Generally, students have more to gain from mentoring relationship than a professor; therefore, the shrewdest students figure out how their interests overlap with the professor’s. Students must be able to study the professors that they approach. Professors often give trivial work assignments at first, just to see student’s commitment. Alas, there can be hoops to jump through. But, in the end, in the best case, academic mentorship works to elevate both the student and the professor.
What are the main stumbling blocks in mentoring relationships?
Essentially, there are two. First, personal qualities of a student – like being a self-starter –are often more important than the substantive fit between the student’s and the professor’s interests. My laboratory is very decentralized, for example, so students have to work independently, and not have their feelings hurt if I don’t respond immediately.
The second is that professors themselves have to take an interest in what students are doing. It’s our job, of course (and, in many cases, a calling, even), but I think professors have a duty to mentor students, to be flexible, gentle, and kind. Professors forget that most students are at an early stage of their career and cannot easily stand aggressive questioning or interaction.
Who were your mentors?
I’ve been blessed with tremendous teachers ever since the 4th grade, filled with certain kinds of charisma or intellectual poise. I developed real mentoring relationships later in my life, as a graduate student, or even as a junior faculty member. As a graduate student, Renee Fox was my dissertation advisor, and Paul Allison and Sankey Williams were on my dissertation committee.
When I went to the University of Chicago, I was 33 years old, and Arthur Rubenstein, who later went on to be Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, had a tremendous impact on me. He was so confident in me. And pragmatically helpful.
Final advice for people that want to be like you when they grow up?
You mean in terms of approaching faculty to be their mentors? Just do it. Prepare for rejection and visit five professors. If you have a dialog with two out of the five, that’s great. And remember mentoring relationship is not a one-time game.
If you are interested in as many things as I am, academia is one of the few sectors of the society where this trait is rewarded. For me, a key part of my education was breadth. Breadth is not required for a successful academic career. But if you want to be like me, I’ve certainly enjoyed that.