Mentoring and Professional Fulfillment / by Todd Yarbrough

I fell in love with economics in my sophomore year of college at the University of Tennessee. I can remember the exact moment too: the first time I laid my eyes on the short-run cost curves of a firm in a perfectly competitive market. I developed an absolute passion for the ways in which economics tells stories, and the aforementioned cost curves told a logical, lucid, yet theoretical story. And it was in that frame, theory, that my love for economics first blossomed. 

Later in grad school I fell in love with the other side of the economic coin: empirical analysis. Specifically policy based economic analysis. But at the same time I was venturing into the instruction of economics. Here I was able to use the very tools I fell in love with to express my passion for economic theory and empirics to impressionable young minds. I was immediately floored by this. 

I'll admit that I initially had no intention of becoming a professor. I envisioned myself becoming a public sector policy analysis economist. I wasn't much into the idea of teaching, but in grad school I was first a TA which included teaching recitation classes and later most semesters I taught an entire class on my own. I also spent two years as a research assistant, but still taught courses in the summer. Very early I realized that the role of college professor was far more involved than I previously believed. 

Dedicated instructors naturally take on the role of mentors to their most interested students. This happens in many ways, but usually happens because those students ask a lot of questions, come to office hours to discuss economics, and necessarily improve the classroom with their own economic insights. Professors reciprocate by taking on a mentoring role, at first by happenstance and then in a more dedicated fashion. Yet, not once when I was thinking about going to graduate school or even when I first began considering using my Ph.D. to become a professor did I think about mentoring as a source of professional satisfaction. I mean its sort of obvious when you think about it, and even most of us had mentors even if we didn't really know it. But I also think it is something you have to experience on a personal level to truly appreciate.

Success in research is great, publications are awesome, and praise from your peers is certainly a nice byproduct of the academic life. I think a lot of us first pursued economics because of the hope that we'd contribute significantly to the field. Professional fulfillment from mentoring undergraduates is, I think, taken for granted when economists encourage their students to pursue advanced degrees. And I think this is very unfortunate. 

I recently had a former student of mine apply to and receive multiple funded offers from some very good Ph.D. programs in economics. This was a student who asked a lot of questions, came to office hours many times, and I witnessed her develop a tremendous grasp of the economics discipline. I've published, I've presented at conferences, I've met senators, governors, and mayors as a result of my work. None of it comes close to the professional fulfillment I've felt seeing this student set out to accomplish her dreams.. We should publicize this aspect of the field more, because I think it would be a great incentive to attract the precise type of professor we want to mentor students. 

Since becoming a full-time professor I've mentored a handful of students who've pursued advanced degrees in economics. I invested a lot of professional and personal time taking on this role and I've never once felt it was a misuse of my time. Paper edits and conference travel come and go, but students who carry with them your mentoring create a perpetual stream of professional fulfillment. I absolutely love this part of my job.