In Pursuit of Excellence: The Importance of Mentorship in Academia

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Katrina Ackerman

As the winter semester comes to an end and students prepare to enter graduate programs in September, I have thought a lot about the students who turned to me as a mentor and the ways in which professors helped students from lower socioeconomic groups, like me, navigate academia. In the current academic market, mentors should prepare their students for a non-academic career, and this is increasingly important for lower class students who rely on loans to fund their education.

As my SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship came to an end in November 2017, I reflected on the professors who shaped me as a scholar. I remember the day my professor, Deanne Schultz from Vancouver Island University, planted the kernel that I could strive for a graduate level education. Coming from a working class background, obtaining an undergraduate education was my goal and I had not considered teaching beyond secondary schools. Although I always wanted to be a modern-day Anne Shirley, I never considered a career in university teaching.

Fortunately, my history professors at Vancouver Island University informed me of the SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarships Program Master’s Scholarships, which paved the way for my graduate education. Unlike many graduate students from working class backgrounds, I received sufficient financial support throughout my graduate education to conduct my research and complete my theses.[1] However, where I attended school was always determined by financial support. Rather than attending universities in major cities where the cost of living was higher, I always looked to smaller universities that had lower rent and tuition. Because of significant advice from mentors and my good fortune of receiving SSHRC funding, I avoided having to take out loans to complete my graduate education, unlike many graduate students from working and lower class backgrounds.[2]

In addition to financial considerations, where I attended school was also largely influenced by the reputation of the supervisor. My professor Cheryl Krasnick Warsh from Vancouver Island University emphasized the importance of choosing a strong supervisor and listed a couple of people for me to consider. I ended up working with both of them for my graduate level degrees. The career and psychosocial support provided by my Master’s and PhD supervisors, Linda Kealey and Wendy Mitchinson, was integral to my completion of both degrees.[3] Their encouragement to meet a higher potential was certainly central in my drive to research and publish my work; however, they also modeled the importance of creating a meaningful life outside of academia, from activism to gardening. Throughout my doctoral studies I turned to CrossFit to maintain balance in my life and I have since tried to model the importance of these pursuits as an instructor.

Most recently, I had the good fortune to receive mentorship from Raymond Blake as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Regina and witness his great commitment to establishing collegiality and a supportive teaching and research environment. However, it was his unwavering support as I took on the role of program chair and local area coordinator for the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association that demonstrated the significance of strong mentors.

As tenure-track positions dwindle, there is greater need for mentors to adapt to the changing labour market and begin preparing their students for careers beyond academia. While there are professional development programs in many history departments, it would be useful to either develop or promote existing co-op programs within the university to help students build their resumes and see what other opportunities exist outside of academia. As a mentor to undergraduate students, I encourage them to explore these opportunities; graduate students would similarly benefit from learning about non-academic careers. This might also diminish the feelings of failure many experience when they walk away from academia after years of applying for tenure-track positions.

As we gather in Regina at the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association, perhaps take a moment to thank or raise a glass to the many professors who inspired you, guided you, and continue to support you from afar. Also, take a moment to consider the ways in which you can mentor your students going forward.

Katrina Ackerman recently completed a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Regina. Her co-edited collection, Transcending Borders: Abortion in the Past and Present, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017. Her research has been published in the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, Acadiensis, Labour/Le Travail, and most recently, Abortion: History, Politics, and Reproductive Justice after Morgentaler (University of British Columbia Press).

[1] Deborah M. Warnock and Sara Appel, “Learning the Unwritten Rules: Working Class Students in Graduate School,” Innovative Higher Education 37, 4 (August 2012): 312.

[2] Warnock and Appel, “Learning the Unwritten Rules,” 318.

[3] Serena Carpenter, Naheda Makhadmeh and Leslie-Jean Thornton, “Mentorship on the Doctoral Level: An Examination of Communication Faculty Mentors’ Traits and Functions,” Communication Education 64, 3 (2015): 368.

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