Are You A Mentor? Or A Dementor?

Contrary to popular belief, dementors are not just imaginary creatures who live in J. K. Rowling’s imagination and the Harry Potterverse.  Anyone can be a dementor, at any time, to anyone.  Most of us, given the choice, would likely rather be a mentor than a dementor, I think.  But can you recognize the signs – in yourself, or in another?  Herein I offer a wee guide.

Scenario 1: Grad student approaches Director of Graduate Studies
for pro forma signature on registration form. 

  • Neutral: DGS signs form, yawns, sends grad student on her way.
  • Dementor: DGS holds form hostage, mocks grad student in front of office staff, suggests that grad student will suffer emotional crisis and nervous breakdown when faced with writing thesis.
  • Mentor: DGS signs form, inquires how grad student is doing, offers cheerful encouraging words, sends grad student on her way.


Scenario 2: Interdisciplinary (science, humanities) informal
work group begins to read and critique each others’ writing. 

  • Neutral:  everyone struggles along.
  • Dementor: everyone takes turns mocking each other for their lack of knowledge on particular issues.
  • Mentor: everyone takes turns explaining their disciplinary perspective and how feminist theory relates to it.


Scenario 3: established informal work group accepts new member.

  • Neutral: everyone struggles along.
  • Dementor: everyone struggles along, powerful group member singles new member out for public shaming if a group more is seen to be broached.
  • Mentor: everyone agrees on a specific process ahead of time for integrating new members and one member is identified as new member host or sponsor, to help smooth entry, transmit group mores.


Scenario 4: team project in Big Pharma, completion depends on Stats and Med Writers cooperating.

  • Neutral:  Stats produces data, Med Writing produces writing, somehow it all gets done.
  • Dementor: Med Writing blames Stats for being late with data, Stats blames Med Writing for not defining what they needed in the first place; work processes in place foster the continuing nightmare.
  • Mentor: Stats and Med Writing work together at beginning of project to help define what each other need to be successful; reiterate throughout project.


What do these examples have in common?

Any situation can exist in the default.  People may have some idea about their day-to-day responsibilities but are generally clueless about the big picture.  There is no attempt by potential mentors to understand how daily interactions shape and build the learning or work environment for everyone.  But at least no one is going out of their way to make it worse.

In the Dementor mode, relationships have broken down in a bad, bad way.  In Scenarios 1 & 3, one powerful individual can hold others – whether junior individuals, or a group of peers – hostage to whims, prejudices, and ego fantasies.  Scenario 3 has more chance to be rescued by one or a few individuals, because the small group is the entirety of the universe.  In theory it takes only one voice to turn the tide against gross unfairness or a bully. In Scenario 1, an individual can intervene to help another individual, but not necessarily to change departmental and university culture. That process, known as institutional transformation, requires the visible participation of people in official leadership roles (department heads, deans) and support at the very center of university administration (president, provost, etc.).   In Scenarios 2 & 4, it is a group dynamic that has gone astray.  Here, Scenario 2 has more chance to be rescued by one or a few individuals, because again it is a small group entire to itself.  In Scenario 4, Stats and Med Writing (or whatever two work groups you want to suggest) are interdependent but also constrained by a larger corporate culture that may preclude them developing and sustaining a healthy, positive, and efficient interdepartmental relationship. In this situation, individuals in the departments often develop liaisons for workaround solutions to their individual responsibilities within the larger project.  In the course of doing so, they teach each other a little about each department’s function – knowledge which may be of use on the next job, but won’t help much in the present, unless corporate culture undergoes a substantial shift.

Mentor mode – ah, the delights of living in a corner of the universe that operates in mentor mode!  I once was invited to give a talk at a gathering of administrative staff in a university setting; the talk was about leadership and career development.  I described how my last boss in industry had sent me for all sorts of training on the company dime, even though this meant significant time away from my projects.  She did it, she explained, even though she knew it made her employees more likely to be recruited out of her department or away from the company.  Her belief was you did the best you could by your employees, and the best employees would come to you.  So, I said, I carried that philosophy on with me, and I encouraged my staff to take advantage of every opportunity available to them for training and advancement, knowing full well they might leave my office for better opportunities.  An audible gasp rose from every member of the audience.  You see, they worked in an environment where they were discouraged from taking advantage of training, and where they were often blocked from moving into better positions because their current employer would claim they were “too valuable” to be spared at the present time.  Poor employees would be allowed to move on and high performers were stuck in place.  What a rotten world to live in – work hard, stand out, and feel a boot on your neck keeping you down.

Awful, just awful, you’re saying right now.  Well, ask yourself if you have ever been that boot.  Are you a moderate big shot in your field?  Have you had the chance to open the door to someone just coming up?  How did you do it?  Willingly, with grace and pleasure?  Or did you nitpick, find fault, put them through their paces, because you had to come up the hard way?  Ever engaged in any public shaming?  Held somebody’s paperwork hostage just because you could?  Participate in internecine departmental battles?

Maybe, at best, you just don’t bother to get involved.  That’s better than being a dementor.  But if you have achieved any level of success in your career at all, there is some way in which you could serve as a mentor. Even if all you do is ward off dementors with your patronus and hand out chocolate to the targets, you’re doing service.

My patronus is unusual in that it is not an animal – it’s a silvery spew of puke landing on a shoe.  Let me know if you are ever in need.  I’ll be glad to let it loose.

And let me know: have you been mentored? dementored?  have you been a mentor? have you, in retrospect, been a dementor?  Do tell all!


Some true tales of dementors:
"One Woman's Life in Science,"S. E. Franks in Women in Science:  Meeting Career Challenges, ed. A. Pattatucci.  Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, 1998
A true tale of group mentoring:
"The Evolution and Process of a Successful Graduate Feminist Reading Group," S.F. Shedd [Franks], S. Park, E. Newman, M. LaRocque, A. Hubler, M. Haussman, A. Forrest, and G. Brock.  In Engaging Feminism:  Students Speak Up and Speak Out, ed. Jean O'Barr and Mary Wyer.  University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, 1992
Stuff about leadership (similar to mentoring) in engineering:
Telling Stories About Engineering: Group Dynamics and Resistance to Diversity C. Burack and S. E. Franks in NWSA Journal v. 16 No. 1, 2004 (Re)Gendering Science Fields.
Some steps toward institutional transformation:
Evaluating STEM Department Websites for Diversity” S. E. Franks and C. Burack. WEPAN 2006 National Conference Proceedings.
Designing Welcoming and Inclusive STEM Department Websites” C. Burack, R. A. Dyer, S. E. Franks, and B. Montelone. WEPAN 2006 National Conference Proceedings.
Ruth A. Dyer and Beth A. Montelone. 2007. An institutional approach to establishing professional connections. Pp 48-61 in Transforming Science and Engineering: Advancing Academic Women, A. Stewart, J. Malley, and D. LaVaque-Manty, Eds., The University of Michigan Press.
See also these publications.

13 responses so far

  • An Ony Mouse says:

    Can I share a recent dementor story that drove me up the wall?

    I am coming up for tenure and am freaking out a little bit about it. I went to a party a few months ago that was also attended by some other professors from my department and some local bigwigs who are potential donors/outreach collaborators. I ended up in a conversation with a bigwig and a senior member of my department in which we discussed a potential future joint outreach effort. Mr. Bigwig and I exchanged cards. Then Dr. Senior Professor said in a jocular way, "Of course, Dr. M is coming up for tenure this year, so who knows whether she'll be around to participate?"

    The kicker is that Dr. Senior Professor is my official (department-identified) mentor. I think I'll be mentally adding "(de)" in front of the word from now on...

    • Zuska says:

      Do you have a good relationship otherwise with Dr. Senior Professor? If so, can you use the remark to open up a discussion with hir about your tenure situation? Something like, remember the other day when you and bigwig were joking about whether I'd be here in a year to work on the outreach effort? Ha ha ha! It prompted me to think it was probably a good time to sit down and chat with you about my tenure package, get some feedback from you on it bladibladibla and see what suggestions if any you might have that could make it even stronger. DrSP will either blow you off, reassure you that things are going great and you are a shoe-in, or tell you you have some gaps and maybe you can patch them with xyz. In any case, get the perspective of another trusted SP as well, if you can. Eat chocolate first in both cases. And afterwards.

  • Peanut says:

    Love this. Thank you.

    I have a mentor at school and a dementor at work. Whiplash.

    I have this lovely visual in my head now: Expecto Patronum! Splat!

  • becca says:

    I have a neutral-mentor postdoc supervisor now, after having a dementor-neutral phd advisor, and the difference it makes is astonishing. It boggles my brain.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    We had a dementor in the Graduate School. I discussed this with her and thought we had agreed to disagree. She sat down for lunch with me, my dean, and a fellow chair, and brought the subject up again. I became angry, for the only time during my tenure as chair, and left her white and shaking. It was an interesting experience, I felt like I was a spectator cheering me on. Afterwards, my dean and the other chair shook my hand and congratulated me. It turned out she was acting under the direction of the Graduate Dean. We changed Graduate Deans, and she became a mentor.

  • Deray says:

    My mentor went from neutral to dementor when the grant started running out. Thankfully I have a great committee or I would've lost my PhD.

  • scicurious says:

    I think my patronus is a squirrel. That is all.

    • Zuska says:

      A squirrel holding a coffee cup?

      • Dev says:

        What would be the best guess to the prescence of dementors? o their motivation?

        Is it a learned behavior (as in taught) or just some awkard sense of humor (as in cultural)

        • Peanut says:

          I think it's fear: fear of being inferior, fear of being passed up, fear of power (that they will screw up, that others have it, etc.).

          So, they get their energy (and justify their existences) by sucking it from everyone else. I've heard such people called psychic vampires, but I like Zuska's neutral/mentor/dementor terminology so, so, much better.

          Really puts the differences in a very clear light.

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