Creating professional distance


I was in a bit of a conundrum when I was hired in my current position.  I stayed at the same university.  I also remained engaged in research with my former department where I earned my phd.  Now, this is not a negative conundrum, it has had many advantages which I’m very thankful for.  Not having to learn a totally new system, already being in the system, and having immediate colleagues are a few of the many advantageous things I’ve been enjoying.  The biggest downside: figuring out how to distance myself from my graduate students.  It has taken me a while to wrap my mind around this one, but professional distance is turning into a must for me.

I attended a colleagues defense last week and saw some of the other graduate students I had worked with.  This colleague defending is the ‘last’ one in the cohort that began with me and I felt compelled to attend. Upon seeing the other graduate students I was friendly and said hello, but skipped the other pleasantries.  I also made a point of going up to my old advisor and the other faculty members afterwards to say hello.  While it wasn’t meant to be an unfriendly gesture, I had made sure to exchange pleasantries, it was more for my benefit.  I am not a graduate student.  I find myself moving farther and farther away from them from a professional standpoint and it’s time to physically do that as well. Does it mean I think I have a higher ranking or am better?  Hell no. Quite to the contrary in fact.

I don’t know when the shift happened, it’s been over the last few months, but I find myself seeking out the camaraderie of other graduate students less and less and these were people who I considered friends.  Don’t get me wrong, I keep in touch with all kinds of folks and live with a graduate student, but it’s a different feeling.  For me, it’s been a psychological shift.  I still keep in regular communication with many of my former graduate student colleagues who have all graduated and gone onto various jobs/roles in their professional lives. Heck, I was even texting a former grad student who is also my editor now because she’s fantastic and runs her own business now.  She ‘hahahah’ed’ me and said, “isn’t it fun to analyze our own cognition?”  You know what? She’s right–it is fun and also necessary.  It just so happened that two nerds texting is also like two nerds talking.  😀

As I become ingrained in my current position and have started to mentor/advise undergrad researchers for summer work, I have found myself shifting from the role of ‘equal buddy’ to ‘mentor/advisor’ in a good way.  I think what tipped it over for me was mentoring summer researchers.  As we meet each week, they continue to look to me not only for answers, but for that mentoring role that I feel better about providing than I did a year ago. As I talk to them about theory and research and methods, it’s a solid base for them to start with and I feel confident discussing these things with them. It’s also a fine line in getting to know them to be able to mentor them but also keeping professional distance so we both know there are clear(er) lines of professionalism between us. As I mentioned in an earlier post, sometimes it is about being more forceful and reminding people of their responsibilities and that will ultimately move you from the ‘friend’ to ‘colleague’ zone.  Whatever the reasons, I’m ok with them.  I don’t need to be friends with these grad students, but friendly and professional with them.  I can take an interest in what they are doing and then separate myself from them because they will be just fine in life.

I know this will continue to evolve but as I examine my own cognitive shift from student to faculty, it’s been something I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on and will continue to muddle through.  PIC asked me why I wasn’t making more of an effort to spend time with a current grad student since we had worked at an informal relationship and my answer was simple, “I just don’t feel like it.”  It has nothing to do with the student and everything to do with my own introverted perspective.

As a new faculty, how do you handle students you mentor closely?  How do you draw boundaries with them versus other colleagues?

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3 thoughts on “Creating professional distance

  1. […] still live with a grad student, I have friends who are grad students, but I found myself creating professional distance from some of them (besides PIC). My shift from student to faculty has recently started to take […]

  2. […] yourself is an excellent place to start.  I had begun creating more distance with my colleague months ago when I received a frantic phone call over nothing.  I decided that I […]

  3. […] discussed boundaries with grad students before and kicking grad school mentality. It can be really difficult. Sometimes, no matter what we […]

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