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Brymer H. Chin
Brymer H. Chin

Intrigues in Work Collectives: The Story of MentorNet

By Brymer H. Chin

“Brymer, do you have intrigues in work collectives?” That intriguing question was posed to me by Lara1, a physics grad student in Russia. How I came to be introduced to Lara, as well as five other female students, is the subject of this story. This is the story of MentorNet.

MentorNet is an organization that matches female students2 majoring in science and engineering with mentors working in industry or government to provide them with a perspective different from that viewed in academics.3 The program is based on the use of e-mail to make communication more convenient, to accommodate different locations, schedules, and time zones. I am a PhD physicist who joined MentorNet in its first full year of operation (1998–1999 academic year), while I was working for AT&T, a founding sponsor. I have been matched with six students now, and I would like to summarize my overall experiences. In discussions of mentoring, sociological aspects often dominate. The core essence of mentoring–the special personal bond between a mentor and a student–is often lost. In this article, you will not find a formal treatise on the mentoring process. You will not find statistical distributions of the number of women and minorities in various technical fields. What you will find is a personal story of the impact that MentorNet has had on my life, and on the lives of some of my students.

Not all matches will yield positive benefits, for either the students or the mentors. I can tell you what has worked for me and my students. My matches have represented a broad international cross-section. Four were foreign students at universities in the US: a Polish grad student majoring in materials science, a Bosnian undergrad student majoring in physics, a Brazilian grad student majoring in physics, and a Chinese grad student majoring in aeronautical engineering. The other two were students at foreign universities: a German grad student majoring in physics in Sweden and a Russian grad student majoring in physics in Russia.

For inexperienced mentors, MentorNet offers structured services, such as on-line training. To foster a smooth relationship, it periodically sends out suggested topics and checks for any problems. Staff is available for personal counselling. My style is more spontaneous; in my first e-mail, I tell my students that they can discuss anything at all with me, professional or personal...whatever they are comfortable with. Many of the suggested topics come up as a matter of course: life in industry vs. life in academics, significance of a PhD degree, balance of career and family life. If you simply check off a menu, though, you will gain little more than a perfunctory experience. The key to a successful relationship is to develop a personal rapport, implicit trust, with your students. We have discussed careers, grad schools, favorite recipes for etching titanium thin films, problems at home, rheology and colloidal physics, favorite music and poetry, death in the family, the relationship between spins in figure skating and rotational dynamics–everything from second harmonic generation to sexual harassment to sledding down hills on cafeteria trays.

Although generic advice and guidance may be helpful, the true value of MentorNet lies in tailoring the type and degree of assistance to a student’s specific needs. For prospective mentors, a major issue is the time required. That is ill-defined. It can vary by orders of magnitude depending on the student, her particular circumstances, her receptiveness–and the extent of personal involvement and dedication by her mentor. Prospective mentors should not shy away from the program for concern that it may sap up too much time. Successful, satisfying, effective relationships may require as little as 30 minutes per week. With e-mentoring, that time does not need to be a single block scheduled in advance; it may be broken into convenient chunks distributed over the week. At the beginning of the relationship, though, it’s especially important to write frequently (for example, three brief exchanges a week for the first two weeks) to quickly develop rapport. This is not difficult because there are many introductory topics to touch upon...career, major, family, sports, music, books; these can be discussed in further detail later on. This critical phase creates the tone for the rest of the relationship: whether strict and formal or light and breezy.

I have volunteered considerably more time because I did not want to miss the opportunities to develop unique friendships. An hour of discussing R&D jobs in the US with Rosalie, an hour of discussing the pluses and minuses of a PhD with Seila, an hour of discussing grad schools in the US with Lara–all these interactions were helpful. But planning and arranging job interviews for Rosalie, collecting academic and career statistics for Seila, and reviewing applications and essays for Lara produced far more concrete results.

Throughout, we have had lots of fun and laughs. Fun and laughs sustain a relationship; fun and laughs are key elements in facing serious problems. Mentor-student relationships develop like all other relationships. Some falter from the start and never recoup, some mature gradually over the course of the year–others click instantly.

Seila, in her introductory e-mail, sent me some quotes; one from a Hungarian philosopher, one from a German poet, and then the following,

“Because I’m evil, e-v-i-l, evil.” –Spike

I knew she was toying with me. She expected me to think, “Hmmm. Hungarian philosopher. Hmmm. German poet. Hmmm. Very impressive young lady.” But I also knew she expected me to write back, “OK, who the hell is Spike?” Instead, along with passages from Schiller and Wordsworth, I fired back the following:

“OK, OK, so you’re evil, do we have to chat about it all day?” –Buffy

So here she was, a physics undergrad who wanted to go to MIT for grad school. So here I was, a physicist who had attended MIT. So here we both were–fanatics of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was a match with nearly 100% correlation.

Although much humor doesn’t translate well across different languages or different cultures, some instances are transparent. Lara, a competitive ping-pong player, had applied for a PhD program in the States. One professor here called her to discuss his research projects; unfortunately, he overlooked the time-zone difference between the US and Russia and woke her in the middle of the night. After he had talked for a while, he asked her whether she had any questions. She was still half-asleep; the first thing that popped into her mind was, “Do you play ping-pong?” He laughed because ping-pong was a popular sport in his department, and there was intense rivalry among the labs. Lara could very well have become the first student admitted to a PhD physics program on a ping-pong scholarship.

In forming a student-mentor relationship, the critical step is the matching process. When students and mentors first sign up, they fill out profiles with basic information such as (for students) major and year in school and (for mentors) academic training and current career. A computer program produces the best matches from the available pool of students and mentors.

Initially I thought that a match with a grad student would be more effective and satisfying for both of us because she would already have focussed, well-defined, goals. Seila proved that my first instincts were dead wrong; she was a sophomore when we were first matched. Besides vampire jokes, we discussed what technical fields would stay viable in the future. Over the last four years, we have covered course selection, undergrad thesis research, applications for grad school, and–the most agonizing–choosing a grad school. Since her interest lies in soft condensed matter, and my concentration had been solid-state physics, we have discussed the physical properties of silica suspensions, as well as the vampire-staking properties of wood (I personally prefer birch). Seila received her bachelor’s degree in May 2004, and has started her PhD program. So stay flexible in your matches.

My first student, a grad student in her fifth year, didn’t like to write much. Suddenly I got a desperate plea from her; she was being sexually harassed by a professor, and her department failed to provide her with urgently needed support. Her situation was precarious since she had already invested five years in a PhD program. And as a foreigner on a student visa, she could not simply walk away. I spent many anxious hours on the phone with her.

My second year with MentorNet, I was matched with Rosalie, who had just started her graduate program. After the initial round of introductions, she suddenly announced that she had decided to quit. I had gone through a rough time in grad school, and I also had almost quit. That was over 20 years ago. I had buried those memories, and I was scared–terrified, if I care to admit it–to unearth them. She was reluctant at first to give me details. With a little nudging, though, she told me the whole story. It was the same as my story 20 years ago. Rosalie told me she wanted to get an industrial R&D job in the US. After much discussion with her, I called up a number of my friends and colleagues, circulated her resume, and helped arrange a job tour for her in the US. She is now working in a major R&D lab. We have become good friends and stay in regular touch. Personal friendship is the ultimate culmination of a successful MentorNet relationship.

It is easy to see how students may benefit from MentorNet, but the question always arises, “How do you as a mentor benefit from this program?” Some mentors will pause and then give some generic, impersonal answers. But I don’t have to pause, again because of my close personal ties with my students. They have taught me much. When the Berlin wall came crashing down, we in the West saw images of people dancing among the ruins, and we viewed the event positively; only good could arise from it. But Lara was a young girl in Russia at the time–and she has a far different story to tell. The Soviet system crashed so abruptly that there was no other to take over. Food was in short supply. People received ration coupons, but the coupons were often useless; there simply was no food to ration. Many went hungry for long spells.

Lara is a grad student in the US now. I smile when she tells me that her research is flourishing. I laugh when she tells me of the latest ping-pong tournament she has won. Her current e-mails to me are especially poignant since I know the difficulties of her past. I’m lucky that MentorNet brought us together.

My participation in MentorNet has helped me take more initiative than I would have before; I did things that I would never have imagined doing before. When I later transferred to another company, which was not a sponsor, I decided to make it become one. I approached the VP of HR, made an appointment, and gave her a presentation. I never had such confidence before. Life at many hi-tech corporations these days is extremely stressful. Even senior engineers and researchers such as I often feel powerless to resolve their own problems. I function on a low layer of the corporate hierarchical architecture, but, relative to students, I function on a high layer, high enough to improve their situations. MentorNet has helped me find satisfaction outside the workplace. MentorNet has helped restore my sense of self-worth.

MentorNet has helped me become less self-absorbed. Over the course of the hi-tech crash, we have often heard “I have survived working at … <pick one or more of your favorite companies that have been decimated>.And we boast of our resilience. Wall Street speaks of red ink dripping like blood from corporate balance sheets. And we cry when our company stock drops below a buck a share. Seila, however, was trapped in Sarajevo during the horrific bloodshed there. “Surviving” a layoff and “blood” on stock portfolio summaries are meaningless, maudlin metaphors to me now. As for the “Intrigues in Work Collectives” that Lara had asked me about, whether we are in Russia, Sweden, Bosnia, or the States, whether we work in academics, industry, or government, we are all, unfortunately, subjected to intrigues in work collectives–corporate politics, academic rivalries, internal competition, power struggles, personal jealousies. A mentor cannot eliminate these but can at least strive to help a student deal with them better.

Lara once asked me whether I’ve ever felt completely alone. She then went on to tell me the details of why she felt that way. Her concluding sentence was, “As I am finishing writing this letter, Brymer, I realize that I feel a lot better now.” As I was finishing reading her letter, I realized that I felt a lot better too. And that is the story of MentorNet.

At the time this article was written, Brymer Chin was a Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff at Lucent Technologies. Ironically, as this article was going into press, “intrigues in work collectives” overtook him, and he is currently unemployed. He may be reached at bhchin@alum.mit.edu. For more information about MentorNet, see http://www.mentornet.net.

1Name has been changed from the real one.
2Although the primary focus of MentorNet is on female students, male students are eligible to participate.
3MentorNet has since added an academic mentoring program.

 



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