Graduate College

Jon F. Harrison

Professor and Associate Director of Facilities, School of Life Sciences

Mentoring Ph.D. students is one of the most vital things that we do as faculty at ASU. Training a Ph.D. student who goes on in turn to influence thousands of students, or who spends a career pushing back the frontiers of scientific knowledge, is a great amplifier of our effect on society. I have three sources of knowledge regarding graduate mentoring. First, my Ph.D. mentor, Todd Gleeson (currently the Dean of CLAS at Univ. Colorado, Boulder), was a wonderful mentor. He was incredibly generous with his time, and was truly focused on my success. He taught me much of what is described below. My second source of knowledge comes from my experience mentoring graduate students at ASU; I’ve had fantastic students who have succeeded spectacularly and taught me well. Finally, several faculty in my departments have been valuable mentors to me at ASU, graciously sharing their expertise and philosophies of graduate mentoring.

I. Have high expectations, and let the students do it
This experience also taught me that to be a successful mentor I needed to have high expectations and to expect performance from my students. It is easy to lead students by the hand in research, or to write too much of their proposal for them. It’s harder to provide constructive critiques, to go through endless revisions with them as they generate their own powerfully constructed proposals, and to fail them if necessary. But this is the only way the process will work.

II. PhD students should own and love their dissertation project
It is a simple but important principle that, for a doctoral mentoring relationship to be successful, there must be a good match between the student’s interests and the research expertise of the lab. There is no value in my admitting graduate students who want to work on elephant behavior or solar cell efficiency, because I know nothing about these topics and lack the basic tools to study them. However, within the realm of insect environmental and evolutionary physiology, I encourage students to follow what interests them, and to develop their own independent projects. I learned this from my own graduate advisor. My graduate dissertation research on the pH regulation of grasshoppers was topically removed from his central research focus on the activity physiology of lizards. Although my project likely did not help him directly with his grant productivity, he allowed me to find my own path to a field that has yielded tremendous personal satisfaction and professional success for me. I am fortunate to work in a field where it is still possible to do much of my research on a moderate budget. This frees me to encourage my students to explore beyond the boundaries of my current research projects. This synergy works well both for my students and myself, as it continuously exposes my lab to new research themes and approaches.

Becoming a successful doctoral student requires an incredible mental and emotional effort. Then, at the end of the process, success in seminars and jobs usually means being able to transmit a love of the subject. To achieve this success, doctoral students must own their research topic, and be driven to find answers to the major questions their dissertation will raise. With this in mind, I think that I am especially lucky to work in the field I do. I can't imagine what is cooler than finding out that honey bees thermoregulate by varying their wing beats, or learning why insects are small, or figuring out the triggers of plague locusts. I love that my students feel the same way about the projects they choose.

III. Match the mentoring to the student’s personality and goals
A large part of being a successful mentor is paying enough attention to your students to correctly assess what they need. Students vary considerably in their goals and personalities. Some students perform best with a schedule of regular meetings, emails, and external deadlines to help with their focus and organization, while others do better if they control the timing of interactions. Most need lots of confidence-building, while a few are over-confident and need to be regularly reminded to be more cautious. Some of my students aspire to become faculty members at research-intensive institutions. For these students, it is critical for them to prioritize the key factors on which they will be judged: quality and quantity of publications, and demonstrated grantsmanship. Others aspire to teach at a small college; they need to be encouraged to gain effective teaching experience, and to devise research programs that fit well with undergraduates. The mentor’s role must be to help each student find the right balance of activities for career success as the student defines it.

IV. Provide disciplinary preparation and focus on dissertation proposal development
If we want to produce outstanding Ph.D. students, we must scrutinize the student’s preparation and provide them with a strong foundation of graduate coursework. Often I find that the only way to ensure disciplinary training is by “readings and conference classes”, in which I meet weekly with 1-3 students, and go together with them through a key text or set of papers. Although this is time-intensive, it allows me to tailor the material more directly to the student's needs and goals. I also encourage my students to go outside the lab to proactively seek knowledge and training. Most faculty are very willing to provide help if asked, but students must actively seek training, and mentors should encourage them to do so.

Preparing the dissertation proposal is probably the single largest challenge for a Ph.D. student. They must identify an important problem in the field, summarize related literature, devise experiments that answer questions about this problem, and write persuasively about it. No other task will take more time for the mentor. This is a very individualized process, but I have found common threads. 1) The process should start at a small scale with single page proposals clearly outlining hypotheses, experiments and predictions. 2) Preliminary data is key so the student must begin early to develop tools and approaches beyond what is in the literature. 3) An intense, synthetic literature survey is critical for the students to develop their own questions. 4) Many revisions will be necessary. Mentors need to constructively critique all aspects of the proposal, and try to find holes in experimental design, logical arguments, literature coverage, and significance. I encourage the students to work closely with me on this process, with the philosophy that in-house critique leads to outside success. Finally, the mentor needs to be sure that the student assembles a scientifically strong and participatory committee, and that the student communicates well with them, especially in sending multiple drafts of the proposals to them in time for a critical evaluation.

V. Train entrepreneurship
All biologists and most scientists are entrepreneurs. To be successful, we must sell the significance and excitement of our research programs to funding institutions or agencies. Very few biologists today find success without this skill. I regularly involve students in the development of my own grants, sometimes linking their research interests with mine (integrating their dissertation proposals), and sometimes just asking for their scientific advice. To further teach this skill, all of my students are asked to find at least some of their own funds for research. My students have found that the process of applying for funds is an excellent mechanism to develop clarity in experimental design, and construct clear explanations of how their work addresses fundamental questions and has societal impact.

VI. Encourage breadth and engagement
Most science is now interdisciplinary, and scientists are increasingly expected to engage broadly with society. I encourage all of my students to find ways to broaden themselves by engaging in outreach activities that matter to them. Some have become very involved in minority student outreach, others in science writing, and others in conservation issues. I also encourage all of my students to establish side collaborative research projects with other graduate students and faculty. These broaden scientific expertise and hopefully increase their publication rates. Because teaching will become an integral part of their professional careers, all of my doctoral students are expected to serve as teaching assistants for at least part of their graduate career, and I encourage them to develop their pedagogical skills and philosophy. My students learn that teaching a subject brings fundamental understanding, and provides an extremely valuable career skill.

VII. Teach professional skills
At a job interview, candidates are often assessed for their professional skills. To prepare for this, virtually all of my Ph.D. students regularly participate in professional workshops and courses, such as the Preparing Future Faculty program. Most PhDs are expected to mentor others in research. We involve many undergraduates in research in our lab, and I encourage all of my graduate students to help with mentoring these new researchers. Our weekly lab meetings are particularly useful for covering a wide range of professional issues. They are sort of a group therapy, cupcake- and coffee-fueled roundtable discussion of research projects ranging from undergraduate summer proposals to paper drafts and full NSF grant proposals. We also cover lab ethics, authorship issues, lab safety, lab organization and cleanliness, and celebrate birthdays.

Mentoring graduate students has been one of my great pleasures as a faculty member at ASU, and I feel I have gained more from the experience than I have given. My graduate students have been bright and stimulating thinkers, as well as fun and interesting people, and the majority have gone on to become great friends and colleagues. Being a PhD mentor is, for me, the most rewarding type of teaching, because it is so intensely personal.


Current and Past Outstanding Doctoral Mentors