The Ziehvater Dilemma

The search for excellence extracts a personal price.

Posted Mar 01, 2017

Ziehvater: Nurturing father. According to google translate, just ‘father’[1]

A king's time as ruler rises and falls like the sun. ~ Mufasa

It's a father's duty to give his sons a fine chance. ~ George Eliot

A mentor looms large in an academic’s life space. Mentors are parental figures. They teach and train, and they lead by example. Most academics feel their mentor’s imprint on their own professional outlook, preferences, and prejudices for decades after leaving the parental lab. Those academics who seek a productive career wish to have an able and distinguished mentor. How distinguished should this mentor be? Every field has a few stars, larger-than-life figures, professors whose names ring in the household. These are the pioneers, the paradigm makers and shifters, the creators of memes and shapers of collective consciousness. Being their student is a blessing. Being their student at the right time, when the great person is already known for one or more breakthroughs and is working on another one, is one of the greatest experiences academic life has to offer. But there is a price to pay. Chances are, the student will not be able to outshine the mentor when attaining academic self-sufficiency. The law of regression makes this unlikely (Krueger & Fiedler, 2012). After a Darwin or a Newton, lesser biologists and physicists sat at the high table (Galton, 1886). These more ordinary figures are compared with their extraordinary mentors and held to their standards; it is overlooked that they are much smarter and more productive than the average scientist in the field. This is the curse of greatness. It casts a shadow on its most beloved heirs.

What are the alternatives? Young academics can look to study with unknown or average trench scientists. They might learn enough and benefit enough from the mentor’s network to find a good job and become another anonymous trench scientist. They also have a decent chance to surpass the mentor’s accomplishments, but few others will know or care because the work will likely remain in the middling range.

The sweet spot is to find a good mentor, a person who has the qualities for greatness but for some reason did not hit the scene at the right time or in the right way. A young scholar can learn the finest skills and professional attitudes from this mentor and apply them to do their best work. This scholar has the opportunity to surpass the teacher, either by taking the work to a higher level of sophistication and excellence or by outright refuting the mentor’s most cherished accomplishments.

There is an parallel psychology on the mentor’s side. A wise mentor wants to have students who go on to do greater work even if that means that some of the mentor’s own contributions are overturned (see here for notes on patricide). Yet, the luminaries, pioneers, and household names of the day are unlikely to see this happen. The law of regression will not let them. Their own excellence burdens them with the experience of disappointment in their students. Excellence is by definition rare, and so it compels an intergenerational conflict. From the point of view of the ambitious young scholar, the question is where the conflict should play out, with their own mentor or when being a mentor.

Fiedler, K., & Krueger, J. I. (2012). More than an artifact: Regression as a theoretical construct. In J. I. Krueger (Ed.). Social judgment and decision-making (pp. 171-189). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Galton, F. (1886). Regression toward mediocrity in hereditary stature. Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 15, 246-263.

[1] I have used the word Ziehvater loosely. In the German language a Ziehvater is a stepfather or foster father. A colleague/mentor of mine used the word to refer to a fellow academic who had mentored a student to prominence. The parental imagery is also seen in the term Doktorvater. My biological father playfully asked if he had become a Doktorvater when I earned my Ph.D.