In seventh grade, I once got a call in the middle of English class from Mr. Wilson, my physical science teacher, who wanted to know why I hadn’t answered that week’s SciBucks questions. SciBucks were the coin of Mr. Wilson’s realm, and they could be earned by researching and answering weekly bonus questions and then either redeemed as extra credit or spent at an end-of-the-year auction. I’d built up a strategic reserve of SciBucks by this time of the semester, and I told Mr. Wilson so, explaining that I hadn’t answered the questions because I didn’t think I needed any more SciBucks. This was about 12 years ago, but what Mr. Wilson said next continues to have an influence on my academic career. He explained to me that it wasn’t about the SciBucks; his expectations were about me as a learner and as a person, not as a member of the SciBucks economy. He felt that I had the potential to go far in my life, so he expected me to research and learn everything I could, whether or not I needed (or would even receive) extra credit or an awesome Star Wars action figure.
We all need at least one teacher like Mr. Wilson. We all have good academic intentions, but we all need someone whose expectations will help us follow through on those intentions, even when things get in the way. If you’re a student, and a Mr. Wilson hasn’t come to you (or called you in the middle of English class), then I think you ought to go out and find one. Find someone who will have high academic expectations of you, who will remind you of your potential, and who will help you achieve that potential.
If you’re a grad student, however, you might not need this advice. Chances are that you wouldn’t be in grad school if you didn’t already have a Mr. Wilson or two in your life who had encouraged to come this far. Chances are also that having an expectation-setting, potential-reminding Mr. Wilson in your life is actually a formal part of your program; as a first-year student, my advisor is probably the most important person on campus, since he’ll let me know if I’m not living up to his expectations or my potential. In fact, if you’re a grad student, you probably have so many academic Mr. Wilsons that it might be useful to find another kind of mentor, too. Before grad school, we all have good academic intentions that the rest of our life sometimes interfere with. Generally speaking, we have the opposite problem in grad school: We all have great intentions about the rest of our life that academia sometimes get in the way of. I’ve found that having a person or a group of people who will remind me of their expectations of me as a human being has been an important part of my first semester of grad school.
I belong to a community that expects me to be willing to put down what I’m doing and go help people that need my time more than I do. They don’t expect me to jeopardize my academic career to do so (and, for the record, no one should let their life mentors elbow out their academic mentors), but if I can stretch myself a little bit more to add a little service to my day, they hope that I’ll do so. In fact, their expectations are high enough that they don’t always wait for me to volunteer: In the past several months, I’ve gotten calls out of the blue asking me to do some ER translation for a French-but-not-English speaker, babysit without pay until 2 am, and go visit a family on pretty short notice.
To be honest, these calls are usually a pain in the neck. They come at the worst possible times (a day off, the day before a big assignment is due, a night I had set aside for relaxing), and, to be honest, they are rarely things that I would volunteer to do if given the choice. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Mr. Wilson expected me to do things that wouldn’t have done on my own, and that’s why I never skipped a SciBucks question again. My life mentors do the same, and I always feel better about myself as a human being because I responded to those expectations. Better yet, responding to these expectations consistently puts my graduate studies in perspective. Sure, this paper or that conference proposal is pretty stressful, but it could be worse: I could be a Congolese twice-refugee in a country where I don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language. I could taking one of my kids to get semi-urgent medical attention. I could be desperate for some help finding a new job, taking care of my family, or even just cleaning up the house. Instead, I’m pursuing the luxury of another academic degree. I guess that paper isn’t so bad after all.
So, my invitation to grad students is to find a life mentor, someone (or someones) who will ask you to try to fit in just a few more of your obligations to humanity in between your research, your homework, and your assistantship. It doesn’t really matter who your mentors are (I’m pretty attached to mine, but they’re definitely not the only ones out there) as long as they will set high expectations of your humanity, remind you of your potential, and help you achieve that potential. I can’t promise that the phone calls will ever stop being a pain in the neck, but I can promise that answering them (when you can – and you usually can) will be worth it.