The Value of a Mentor

I’m in the process of arranging mentorships for the BSc students at the Gokhale Institute, in part because our internship plans went out of the window, and in part because I know I would have liked a mentor at that age (wouldn’t we all?). There were some doubts and misunderstandings about how a mentorship works when contrasted with internships, and what follows is therefore addressed to the students – but hey, maybe others will also find value. So here goes:

Imagine that you, as a 19 year old, were asked to mentor a student currently in the 10th grade. You’ve been through the grind, you know the pain of writing the 10th board, the 12th board, and the pressure of not just doing well in those damn exams, but also choosing the appropriate field of study. You’re bursting with advice and counsel, positively bristling with tips and tricks… except that student from the 10th grade doesn’t know what this mentorship is about, what mentorships in general are about, and what is expected of him/her. It’s kinda like that, except you are in the place of that 10th grade student. And your mentor waits for you to get started, and you wait for the mentor to get started… and whoops. We’re stuck.

A mentor falls somewhere in the middle of the prof-buddy spectrum. Less authoritarian than a professor, and more knowledgeable and experienced than a buddy. You can’t exactly be Jai-Veeru, but it’s not like your mentor is Thakur either (if you didn’t get those references, go watch Sholay. Right now. Kids these days, I tell you.)

Your job, as a mentee, is very simple. Ask questions. Learn as much as you can about your mentor – who they are, what they have done, what their area of expertise is, where they have worked in the past and where they work now – and then ask them questions about all of this.

The idea is to get a compressed version of their lives, so that you can do two things in your own life. One, they’ll tell you about things they learnt on the job – you learn now, rather than later. Second, you get to avoid the mistakes they made.

No question is too outlandish, no query too “stupid”. Your mentors have been in your place, and they’ve experienced the nervousness you are feeling now. So don’t worry about appearing not quite tuned in, because that’s ok.

But given that they’ve chosen to take time out of their busy schedules to speak to you and guide you, it does make sense to follow through on their advice when it comes to reading, viewing or listening to their recommendations – that’s a given.

And a word of caution – sometimes these things don’t work out, and that’s ok. Maybe you are not suited to their personality, or vice versa. Maybe you just don’t gel, maybe there are misunderstandings. And that’s totally fine, because why expect mentorships to not be like the rest of your life? Sometimes things don’t work out, and that’s cool.

But when they do – and you may have to take a little bit more effort than usual to make sure they do – then you may have that most precious of gifts: a person who is older to you, more accomplished than you, and a person who has decided to look out for you, for life. Job references, recommendation letters, career advice, putting in a quiet word for you – all of these are things you can count on for life, because your mentor has also become your friend.

That, more than anything, is the greatest thing to come out of a successful mentorship, and I speak from experience on both sides of the table. Get yourself a mentor, and cultivate that relationship.

It is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best investment you will ever make.

On Networking

It’s a question I get quite often: can you teach me about how to network better?

  1. I actually don’t network all that well. I suck at small talk, for starters. I’m never sure of what to do when I walk into a large gathering. My preferred thing to do at large parties is to seek out a person I’m comfortable with, and chat with that person for as long as possible. So if that is the kind of networking you have in mind, I’m not the guy to ask.
  2. But reaching out to folks to ask for help, I have a lot of experience in. I’ve been doing it for years, and will do it for life. Unashamedly, unabashedly. That I can speak about, since I have skin in the game.
  3. “Life is a non-zero sum game” is an axiom for me. So if somebody asks me for help, I will always try to help. I’d advise you to do the same. And that is a good way to start building out your network: help other folks when they ask you for it. Two advantages, one personal, one societal.
    1. Of course that person is likelier to help you when you reach out to them for help. You can, Vito Corleone style1, call in favors, even years down the line.
    2. But at the margin, that person is also likelier to pay it forward. That is, there is a non-zero chance that the person you helped will in turn help other folks who ask that person for help. If your ultimate aim is to build a society that is more willing to help each other to learn (as mine is), help others as much as possible. And you can call that networking, if you like. 🙂
  4. But that is the larger point about networking. I think most people have “how can I get others to help me?” in mind when they want to get better at networking. And sure, that’s very much a part of it.
  5. But it cuts both ways, no? I think it makes sense to first ask “How can I help others?”, before asking others for their help. Exports matter as much as imports!
  6. And a college student (my primary target audience on this blog) might well say, “But what can I help them with? They have so much more experience and knowledge than me!”
    1. True, for the most part. Not always, mind you, but I get the merits of that argument.
    2. But can you help somebody else? Can you help your juniors learn better? Can you help your neighbor’s schoolkids out with a project? Can you put out blogposts regularly that other folks may eventually read?
  7. If at least a part of your personal mission in life is to help other people, you will be that much more confident in asking others for help. Because you’re not asking for help only for yourself to get a job (for example), but through the help you’re receiving, others are benefitting too.
  8. The bottom-line is this: networking isn’t just about asking how to get others to help you. It is also about asking how you might help others. And doing the latter first makes it much easier to ask for the former.
  9. One final point: it is of course still entirely possible that the person you’ve asked for help will say no. They’re not doing it because they don’t like you, or your work. It is because they have commitments of their own, and honestly and really don’t have the time.
  10. Which is fine! There’s seven billion of us out there, you can always find someone else 🙂

Previous posts on EFE that have mentioned networking.

  1. don’t take that analogy too far, please![]

Faculty Internships: Some Follow-ups

I received some fascinating feedback to my faculty internship post from last Friday, and some offers to get things kickstarted. To those of you who reached out about trying to get this off the ground, I’ll be in touch over the weekend. Thank you! 🙂

But this post is about responding to some of the suggestions, and to some thoughtful responses.


First off, Sneha Joshi‘s responses:

Given the short term internship, usually the intern is barely starching the surface of the work done in any organisation, adding a faculty member along with it becomes a difficult job for the employee in the company to manage.

I see the faculty member’s role as one that supplements the employee who will be the primary mentor, and I think (hope?) that the faculty member will need much less hand-holding and support. If there are to be daily debriefs (where the student intern is concerned), these could be handled by the faculty, for example. And relatively simple queries and doubts could be handled by the faculty member. But hey, that’s just my hope and hypothesis – the only way to check on what works is by actually conducting the experiment. Sneha could well be right!


It would be much better to split the course into two parts , one semester theory and next semester covering practical aspect of the theory by an industry professional. Industry experts are willing to teach, however at times, academic regulations and specific requirements in terms of teaching experience and publications etc restricts the industry entry. Also, some hand holding can the done by the prof who teaches the theoretical aspect if the industry expert isn’t well skilled to teach.

I prefer, when learning, to go from the specific to the general, so my personal preference would be to go from the practical semester to the theoretical part. But I don’t say this to disagree with Sneha, simply to state that the ordering can be switched around, if needed. But the larger points are spot on: introduce and emphasize practical applications of whatever is being taught, and for the love of god, do away with the bureaucratic hurdles when it comes to industry professionals being allowed to teach!


If at all, an internship as you suggest happens in reality, it will require a great deal of effort and initiative from the intern and faculty to derive real insights from the internship and can at times result in frustration or no concrete result as well.

Indeed. If such a thing is to work, there will have to be some cherry-picking involved. The best faculty from the most suitable institutes being matched with the most receptive managers from firms that have a culture that is open to experimentation is a prerequisite, and there will be hajjar teething issues. More, as Sneha points out, you’ll need to budget for things not working out every now and then.

But I still think the experiment is worth it, and for a very simple reason: we have far too little collaboration between academia and industry right now, and what little there is, is mostly signaling. Conclaves, panel discussions and guest lectures are great, but we need to go deeper.


Siddharth Deshmukh, with whom I recorded a great episode of Back to College, had a suggestion that might elicit a phew1 sighs of relief:

Excellent idea. Why not uncouple it with students? May make everyone less nervous 😊

Me, personally, I would love to be part of such an internship with students around, because anything that maximizes serendipity is a good thing. But Siddharth has an excellent point: the option to choose should be available. At least where the professor is concerned.


Mudit Gupta pushes back against the idea:

Interesting concept but I see writing case studies between an industry and academic research or allowing an industry professional to join a research center will be much more useful rather than short term faculty internship. Faculty internship will be only useful if faculty is sponsored by the industry for a project rather than being paid by the college they are working for.

I would disagree, in the sense that I think what Mudit is suggesting can (and should) happen in any case. The faculty internship has a very specific objective: help professors understand what is going on n the corporate world. This is as much about the culture of work as it is about the work itself.

Does the corporate world have a different understanding of work hours, and work/life balance? Does a deliverable mean the same thing in academia as it does in industry? How does accountability work when it comes to projects, deliverables and working relationships? Should colleges have somebody working as a full time HR person? Are meetings the same, or is their pace, structure and cadence different? Why do corporates insist on using first names as opposed to honorifics?

Cuts both ways, of course! Industry professionals should also be able to imbibe the culture of an academic environment, and understand the opportunity costs of both approaches. But for these things to happen, soaking in the atmosphere and the daily rhythms of life in an office/college is really and truly important. And therefore the internship, rather than the collaboration.


  1. it’s Friday. I’m allowed one bad pun[]

On How To Be A Good Mentor

A student wrote in asking me this question: how should one approach mentorship, while remaining friends, or while being a senior, or both.

Well, a certain television series has one answer to this question, and I could take the easy way out, but here goes:

  1. For a mentorship to work, even a little bit, the mentee has to value the time of the mentor. This bit is non-negotiable. As a mentor, you have the right to ask that this be done, and you have the right to walk away if it is not done. This should be crystal clear throughout.
  2. But then again, on the other side, as the mentor you have to be ultra-professional yourself. That means showing up on time without fail, being prepared yourself, and dedicating the time that you promised. I am less than perfect in this regard, I am sorry to say.
  3. A good mentor nudges, but doesn’t become overbearing. Learning the art of pushing ever-so-gently is very, very difficult, and most mentors never learn it. Some mentors (and I think I am one of them) err on the side of pushing too little, which is also a problem. I find it easy to remain friends with my mentee, I find it difficult to push them to do better.
  4. Think of it as a spectrum (or if you want to geek out, like a two tailed test). The intensity that you bring to the table as a mentor can err on the side of being too little, as in my case, or too much. Both aren’t good, you want your intensity to be Goldilocks level. This intensity level differs on the basis of each separate mentee. Some need no nudges whatsoever, some require Evergiven levels of pushing. Most lie somewhere in between.
  5. But before starting on your job as a mentor, you should ask yourself which role you’d rather give up if it came right down to it: continue to be friends and stop mentoring, or continue mentoring and stop being friends.
  6. Whatever your choice, be consistent, and don’t hesitate to pull the trigger. In my case, I usually choose to continue being friends, and if I think a mentorship isn’t turning out well, I stop the mentoring gig, and as quickly as possible.
  7. Always try to mentor someone, and always try to get someone to be your mentor. Apply what you learn while being on one side of the fence to the other.
  8. It is easier to find a new mentor, it is difficult to find a new (good) friend. That’s my opinion, so I would rather continue to be a good friend, and sacrifice my role as a mentor if I had to choose.
  9. But that being said, as far as possible, avoid being a mentor to a really good friend.
  10. Never, ever make the mistake of commercializing the mentor-mentee relationship. Some things in life are sacred.*

*But cups of coffee being purchased by the mentee are fine. I’m just sayin’

Faculty Internships. But Why Not?

What stops the world from inviting teachers and professors to work for a while in industry?

We need to make education more relevant to the demands of the workplace – most people would be in complete agreement with this. The question is how to go about doing this. Sure, one could rejig the syllabi, and get feedback from alumni and industry – and this has been happening for years in many colleges and universities.

But how many industry professionals have spent a semester seeing what is taught to students? How many professors have spent a couple of months observing what work happens within a corporate set-up? Would the world be better off if more of this happened?

And if your answer to that question is yes (and this is very much true in my case), then why are we not trying to make more of such “internships” happen?


  • When a firm visits a campus for placements, also have the firm explore the option of asking professors if they would like to tag along for the duration of the internship
  • No money need change hands – the college will pay the professor their monthly salary (and if need be, an additional stipend to cover living expenses)
  • Students get a mentor on site, which means lesser work for the employees of that firm
  • The professor gets a peek into what is going on in the corporate world:
    • Which are the tools in use, versus the ones being taught in college?
    • What is the work pressure like, and are students being adequately prepared?
    • How important are the changes in the style of writing and speaking?
    • Is what is being taught in college relevant?
    • Are corporates missing out on tricks that the professor can help them out with?
  • And the firm gets an insight into how the professor has been teaching. Even better, while at this faculty internship, the professor can attend training sessions that have been organized in the workplace, meet with departmental heads across the firm, and perhaps even meet some of the clients.
  • If the professor can actually get involved in a project, nothing like it. Sure, you’ll need to sign NDA’s and all of that, and sure this might not be possible in all organizations for all projects – but surely some projects in some organizations should be possible?
  • And if a firm is willing to make the investment, why not have industry professionals spend a month in a university? Maybe conduct a course, or a part of a course – but really more like a scholar in residence. The ability to interact in a more relaxed environment with students, to guide them, to mentor them, maybe collaborate with them – surely there is merit in the idea?
  • I do not know if there are colleges/universities in India that already do this. If you know of any, please do let me know.
  • But especially if you don’t, please do one of these two things:
    • Help me understand the potential downsides to such a scheme
    • If you think there to be no potential downsides, help me try and get this off the ground? Bridging the gap between academic ideas and real world problems1 is a great problem to try and solve, and I think this idea has some serious merit.
  1. if you know, you know[]

Say’s Law and Education

Does the supply of education create a demand for that supply?

Now, I know that is not what Say’s Law says. I’m simply using the rather more popular version of the statement of Say’s Law (“supply creates its own demand”) and using it in the case of one specific sector, education.

So, with that disclaimer in place: does the supply of education create a demand for that supply?

In other words, is it enough to create awesome MOOC’s, prepare thoroughly well-prepared lecture notes, write fantastically well-thought out textbooks – or is there a role for mentorship in education?

The reason I ask the question because there is an abundance (some might even say far too much) of teaching material out there. YouTube alone has more lectures on any given topic than you can expect to watch in a semester, and that is ignoring everything else that is available on the internet. Add in good ol’ textbooks, journal articles and what-have-you’s, and well, there’s just too much supply.

A glut, if you will.

Has it, then, reached a stage where Barry Schwartz might want to take an interest in analyzing this problem?

So say, for example, I had to teach a course called Principles of Economics (as I hope to next semester). Should I teach this course as I would have otherwise? Take the concept of elasticity of demand. Should I draw the graphs, spell out the concept, write down the equations… or might it be better taught by asking four different groups to watch four different videos about the topic, and then discussing it all in class together?

Teaching in 2020 ought to have taught all of us that teaching in a class can no longer be a substitute for material that is already available on the internet. It must necessarily be a complement. And if it is to be a complement, playing the role of a Guide For Everything That Is Out There On The Internet is perhaps the best use of our time.

Filtering out the not-so-good videos (and maybe even speaking in class about why we think they’re not-so-good) ought to be one of our job descriptions from here on in. Having students speak about what they thought about a particular video – what they liked, what they didn’t, and why – ought to be another. Best of all, having students create their own material ought to be top of the list.

We’ve all heard that line about learning happening the most when we teach others. The ubiquity of electronic devices this past year should mean that learning need no longer be an act of passive listening. It can, instead, be an act of active content creation. Watch videos, read blogposts, listen to podcasts, discuss what you learnt, pinpoint what you didn’t like – and then go and make it better.

Honestly, what better way to learn?

We’ve been talking about flipped classrooms for years now. This past year may well be the impetus we needed to turn it into an everyday, mundane reality rather than a gimmicky line in our documentation.

Professor Nigam’s Twitter Thread on the AIU

Professor Nigam is the registrar at NLSIU, and he was kind enough to read my series of posts on the Almost Ideal University. What’s more, he took the time to respond with a very thoughtful series of tweets, as a part of his excellent series that is freely available on Twitter. I don’t know if he has a name for it, I think of it as the “My Dear Law Students” series.

If you are a student of law, the series ought to be mandatory reading. If you are a student of writing, the series ought to be mandatory reading. I’m quite serious, please do read all of them!

In this post, I’m going to cite some of his tweets, and add my two penn’orth.


And nor will students of economics be able to demonstrate real world potential unless assisted by real economists. You learn best when taught by folks with skin in the game. In my Almost Ideal University, you can’t become a teacher without having worked in the field first. And that’s a non-negotiable requirement.

Yes, of course there are problems with this. Why will folks want to leave a corporate job? Won’t the pay be lesser in academia? Why would firms be ok with having folks just “go away” for six months to teach? All great questions, and valid ones. But that’s exactly what we need to figure out if we’re going to ever get around to building out the AIU.

These problems arise, of course, only because I am in complete agreement with Professor Nigam when he says that you need people with skin in the game.

And I’d much rather solve these (much harder) problems than solve the problem of how to make three hour long in-class theoretical exams more relevant.


The equitable access problem is a real one, and I’ll state upfront that I do not really know how to solve it. Technology can help to an extent, but the AIU won’t be equitable to begin with. Yes, replicability, if it works out, will help. But it won’t ever be a perfectly equitable system. My sole defense is that the system I seek to replace is, if anything, even more inequitable.

Not, I hasten to add, that this should mean that we stop worrying about equitable access in the case of the AIU!

And regarding the second tweet in this section, yes, bureaucracy is inevitable. But if gamified well, there is a chance that the system (again, while not being perfect) will be better than the status quo.

My point is this: if we can get students to view assignments as something to work on cooperatively rather than combatively, the need to monitor is that much lesser. Of course, the need to mentor is that much higher, but isn’t that the point of education in the first place?

But yes, those of us in academia will need to figure out how to make this happen, and as Professor Nigam has pointed out, that with the help of working professionals.

There’s a great deal of detailing to be worked out here, and apprenticeships, mentorships and professionals in residence on campus will all have a role to play. Again: a hard problem to solve, but attempting to solve for this is a worthy mission as an academician.


I wish I could do a better job of writing more clearly, and the fault is mine over here. In my AIU, the onus isn’t on the student to attend. The onus is on the professor to make the class interesting enough to attend. The student is always free to not attend, but the professor should be good enough to make the student feel regret at not being present in class. Specifically:

  1. The professor should have the ability to not just explain a particular student’s doubt, but also in the process enrich everybody else’s understanding of that issue.
  2. The professor (or their assistant, perhaps) should allow the most non-intuitive doubts to filter up in class. That is, study groups, whether offline or on (say) Discord servers will allow the students themselves to resolve the relatively easier doubts. Those that prove resilient will be handled by the professor. Will it work perfectly right from the get-go? Of course not. Is it worth trying? I vote yes – but of course, as they say, your mileage may vary.
  3. So, no, not a diminishing role for physical classroom instruction at all. Au contraire, a role of paramount importance for the physical classroom, for synthesis will happen there. And perhaps can only happen there, but that takes us into deep waters for a blogpost. And on a related note, the more you agree with me over here, the more you should worry about inequities across the entire system. For obviously, physical classroom sessions can’t scale.

A rare area of disagreement for me in this Twitter thread, for I do have a lot of confidence in the motivational levels of undergraduates. Not all undergraduates, I should be clear. As with everything else in life, so also with motivational levels of undergrads: there will be a distribution. Some will be very motivated, and will remain so no matter how bad college is. At the other end of the distribution, some will remain very unmotivated, no matter what how good college is.

But that being said, it is true that I prefer to award the benefit of the doubt to the student. This is in good humor, Professor Nigam, and please do forgive me my impertinence, but innocent until proven guilty! Or in this case (and is it the same thing?) motivated until proven otherwise. 🙂

But quite honestly, and I’m no longer joking around, I very strongly believe that the enthusiasm to learn is systematically sucked out of a student with every passing year in academia. The more years you spend in the system, the more likely it is that you will want to not learn. This is not a universal law, but in my experience, it has been a fairly accurate heuristic.

Will there be students who will abuse the system I propose? Absolutely. That is the nature of a distribution.

Do more students suffer today for being made to mandatorily sit through classes that just aren’t good enough? Absolutely, and I would rather avoid this than the former.


Completely agreed!

I could get into one of my classes, as a hypothetical, a retired bureaucrat who has impeccable knowledge of how the Union Budget takes shape over the course of the financial year in India. This hypothetical bureaucrat has forgotten more about the budgetary process than any of us will ever know. Unfortunately, watching paint dry is more entertaining than listening to this person speak.

We’ve all met folks like these: really, really good experts, but really, really bad communicators. And that’s fine! Their job wasn’t to be good communicators. It then becomes my job as the teacher in that class to make it more interesting. Maybe I interview the bureaucrat, rather than have him speak? Maybe I record the interview and play snippets? Maybe I speak offline with him, and then conduct I class based on that conversation?

But yes, we absolutely need great teachers to make the subjects accessible and enjoyable.


It’s a great question, and I wish I had an answer, but I don’t. As I said in my first post on the AIU:

I’m a big believer in the fact that students should have skin in the game, and therefore I think that a price should be paid for acquiring an education. But I’m also all too aware of the fact that some students simply cannot pay, and therefore think that some amount of subsidization is inevitable.
It gets trickier still, because you will almost certainly have to spend more resources on those students who will need subsidization. They are, other things held constant, likelier to need more intensive training in getting the quality of their writing up to the same level as that of other students, simply because they are likelier to not have had the same exposure to quality education in school. And this will apply to other dimensions as well: quantitative skills, the luxury of having time to practice their skills and so on.

https://econforeverybody.com/2021/07/09/the-almost-ideal-university/

That is, the economist in me is saying that students from poor or underprivileged families will need more intensive training and help, educating them in the AIU will be more expensive. But that still doesn’t explain the how of it. Sure, it’ll cost more, but for doing what, exactly, and how?

There are some potential answers (bridge programs, extra assignments, more mentorships) but I’m hazy on the details right now.

Would I be correct in saying, however, that if we don’t solve this problem within the university itself, the student will face an ever tougher challenge out of it? That is, an underprivileged student who doesn’t get the kind of education we are speaking about right now will find it even more difficult to succeed out in the real world – is that a reasonable hypothesis? And if yes, then it becomes even more imperative to ensure that we work towards ensuring that these students get the kind of learning that we are speaking about?

Food for thought, for sure, and I’ll be feeding at this trough for a while. 🙂


Thank you, to Professor Nigam, for an excellent set of thought-provoking questions!

And a request to all of you – please help by letting me know what makes sense, and what doesn’t when it comes to the Almost Ideal University.