Two scholar-activists offering academic mentoring to each other, writing together in a park, sunlight dappling over their smiling faces, pen in hand and deep in conversation

Why Academic Mentoring Costs Money

Since releasing my year-long mentoring program, Wayfinders, one question that people have broached with me — usually with a little embarrassment and trepidation — is why I am charging for academic mentorship.

In this post, I’ll share some of the reflections this question has elicited about my own assumptions and expectations as an academic and why I don’t think academic mentoring is ever truly ‘free’.

For those who would like to work with me but do not have the financial means, I’ll also outline the opportunities to work with me via a fee-free scholarship and offer some guidance around how working academics may seek financial support from your institution to join Wayfinders.

Graphic featuring pink roses with thorny stems and white block letters saying, "this is why mentorship costs money", interwoven with the flower
Graphic based on the botanical paintings of Pierre-Joseph Redouté

Mentoring is Rarely Ever ‘Free’

I concede that before I hired my first mentor, I assumed mentorship is and should be free.

Yet many of us understand that mentorship is not really ‘free’.

For one, mentorship is, in theory, underwritten by the institution. Either the mentor’s Faculty would offer them a teaching release (i.e., trade teaching hours for mentorship hours) or their mentorship would be formally recognized as an act of service at their next promotion.

Almost all academics, but especially those with marginalized identities, are no longer seeing their mentorship valued in the neoliberal university.

As workloads intensified in the neoliberal university, publications and funding took precedence for survival.

The two times I attempted to offer unpaid academic mentorship in my career rapidly led to illness and burnout.

Another way that mentorship is not really ‘free’ in academia is how the exchange for mentorship has shifted along with mounting pressures. Some mentors only offer their time and energy with the expectation (if not the contractual obligation) that their mentees name them on publications and grants.

The practice of ‘free’ mentorship is also in part grounded in academic cultures of paternalism.

It can enable powerful mentors to assemble junior scholars who become dependent on them for their livelihoods, compelled to mimic their mentors’ thinking and writing.

A former colleague used to design his PhD students’ projects, all of which confirmed a model he designed early in his career. He created something of a cartel, training a whole contingent of junior scholars to inflate his clout.

I admit that as a PhD candidate, I romanticized this paternalism. I recall feeling a pang of envy when a fellow doctoral student told me how he and his supervisor met every day to talk about philosophy.

I yearned for a senior academic to tap me on the shoulder and recognize my potential. As a PhD candidate, I hadn’t yet fully understood the workload pressures Faculty staff were under and I confess I wondered if the reason why nobody had offered to formally mentor me was that I wasn’t really cut out to be an academic and they all knew it.

The dangerous myths about academic mentoring can therefore serve to keep scholars with marginalized identities feeling as though they don’t belong in the white patriarchal academy.

I appreciate that not being able to access academic mentoring can trigger belonging wounds for many of us who have experienced marginalization in academia.

I want to affirm that if you can’t afford Wayfinders or simply don’t think it’s the right time or program for you, you are not missing out.

Our neoliberal capitalist culture perpetuates false scarcity everywhere. But I am here to say that our scholarly activist community is abundant.

If you deeply desire Wayfinders, I trust that we’ll find another opportunity to work together.

If you don’t, I trust that you’ll find another program or coach better suited to your needs.

I have cultivated immense philosophical, editorial, and writing expertise in my 8½ years as a revolutionary feminist theorist, but I don’t have the secret sauce for easy, instant success as a scholar-activist.

I know that you’re intelligent, thoughtful, and resourceful.

I trust that with or without me, you’ll find your way.

Why I Charge for Mentoring

I charge for Wayfinders because I’m providing this mentorship outside of an academic institution.

It means I get to design a program that fully serves the collective without being constrained by work directives and performance indicators.

It means my mentorship won’t have strings attached — no expectations for naming me as co-author and no expectations to fawn, conform, or obey.

It means I can be resourced to create free teachings and tools accessible to everyone.

Black woman in a minimalist room full of house plants and art, lying on her bed with her cute dog, on her laptop, meeting with her mentor for an academic mentoring session
Photograph by Samson Katt

Scholarships

I set a fee for Wayfinders that fully resources my time and energy, and at the same time, financial accessibility is baked into my business model.

One in five positions in Wayfinders are reserved as fee-free scholarships.

The scholarship is for folks who genuinely need this program but are unable to enroll due to financial hardship.

This may mean you have multiple marginalities (i.e., you experience oppression based on your race, religion, caste, sexuality, gender, disability, etc.), you’re a resident of the Global South, you’re a long-term precarious worker, you’re a full-time activist, and/or you have significant debt and experience instability with housing and food.

I understand that some of the people who would benefit from Wayfinders the most are scholars in the Global South where my fee would be almost as much as your salary. Or scholars with multiple marginalities trapped in zero-hour contracts as adjuncts, barely making a living wage as you travel from campus to campus and trying to write in the middle of the night.

If this is you, you should not even be looking at my fee.

If this is you, I warmly invite you to apply for the scholarship.

If this is you, I want you to reach out and I’ll do my best to support you.

I’d be very grateful if you would consider making space for someone else to benefit from the scholarship if you reside in the Global North and enjoy racial, gender, or class privilege.

This may include people who are currently unemployed or engaged in volunteer/casual/part-time work by choice, such as if they are undertaking full-time study with the expectation of increasing their earning power.

I trust you to select the scholarship option from a place of genuine need and you don’t have to justify to me why you qualify.

Scholarship applications for Wayfinders open for a week after normal enrollment closes, which in 2021 is September 1–7. Applications will be reviewed and awarded to those who I believe would benefit the most from Wayfinders. Applicants will be informed of the outcome on September 14.

I also offer flexible payment plans for anyone who would find it more easeful to have them. If you need longer than 12 months, please email me and let me know what would work best for you (the answer will probably be yes).

Seeking Institutional Funding

If you’re currently employed in an ongoing academic position, do check with your institution for any development funds or grants you’re eligible to receive that may help you cover the cost of Wayfinders.

My university, for example, offers $20,000 for early career academics within the first five years after graduation.

They also offer $15,000 in career re-establishment grants and a $50,000 fellowship for staff who have undertaken parental leave or other caring responsibilities. (Take a look around for research equity initiatives.)

I’ve also received discretionary development funds simply by asking my Department chair.

In both cases, no funding was advertised, but I was granted $500 to cover image licensing for an article and $3,000 to cover some marking relief (on top of the yearly development funds that came with my role).

To help you find the words, you’ll receive a template letter based on what I’ve used to secure a range of development funds when you sign up for my newsletter below.

In many countries including my own, academic mentorship would be a tax-deductible work expense. Do speak with your accountant or check with the tax office in your country about how you may list your fee as a deductible expense.

Conclusion

Academic mentoring is an intensive form of care work that requires specialist skills and experience.

The neoliberal university romanticizes mentoring yet often at the same time refuses to fairly compensate for it.

I have chosen to offer my mentoring outside the institution so that I can align my business model and practices with my values.

I appreciate it means Wayfinders is a significant investment, which is why I offer scholarships for those who deeply desire the program but cannot afford the fee.

For those who can and do choose to invest in Wayfinders: thank you.

Your investment resources me to keep creating free content and offering free workshops for everybody.

Featured image by Charlotte May

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