Graduate College

Margaret Schmidt

Assistant Director, Professor, School of Music, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts

I have very strong memories of my years as a doctoral student. I began my doctoral program after 12 years of successful public school teaching. I knew I wanted to work with future teachers, and I knew that a doctorate was required to do that. Beyond that, I knew almost nothing about what I had signed up to do. Throughout my doctoral program, I often questioned whether I was really qualified to be a doctoral student, because it seemed to me that some of the faculty implied that I did not measure up. I also felt like I never quite understood the rules of the game—I lacked political savvy and, after years of feeling confident of myself as an educator, it was unnerving to find myself suddenly unsure of what I needed to do, and too confused even to know what questions to ask. Fortunately, I had a few professors and wonderful peers who helped me believe in myself.

These experiences have shaped my beliefs and practices as a mentor for doctoral students. I believe a mentor is a facilitator of learning, an advisor, someone who offers encouragement and challenges students to go further than they thought possible. Most doctoral students in music education have been “good” students; that is, they know how to learn information and provide “correct” answers. Through their teaching experience, they have learned a lot about how to teach and about how different students learn, but they may not have given much thought to how they themselves learn. Mentoring involves helping students develop comfort with uncertainty, rather than black and white answers. Mentors also help students develop excitement about their questions, as well as the tools they need to explore them, both to learn what other researchers have found and to address new questions on their own. Most importantly, as a mentor I can guide students to discover skills that they may not know they have, and to envision expanded possibilities for what they might contribute to their future students and colleagues in the profession.

Philosophy operationalized

Like myself, all music education doctoral students have been successful K-12 music educators for at least five years before entering the program, and most envision doctoral study as an opportunity to share with eager undergraduates all that they’ve learned about teaching. The role change from a competent professional educator to a doctoral student can be overwhelming. The discourse in doctoral course assignments and discussions may seem very unlike that in daily K-12 classroom work. As students discover the heavy research expectations for future professors, they may feel inadequate to the task. In classes, individual mentoring, and informal conversations, I remain alert for students’ unformed or unasked questions, as well as for clues to feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt. I share my own story, encourage students to express questions, confusion, and puzzlements as important contributions to learning and growth, and use humor to help relieve some of their worries. I have always been fascinated by how people learn, and my research has often focused on how teachers form the beliefs and attitudes that inform their teaching practice. This research guides me as I mentor doctoral students on two levels: as they discover their research interests, and as they learn to teach undergraduates who are themselves learning to teach.

In our department, mentoring of all doctoral students is shared by all the faculty, and I am honored to contribute to the growth of all our students, whether or not they are my advisees. My faculty colleagues and I share leadership of our weekly doctoral seminar, where we read and discuss books or other research, practice research presentations for upcoming conferences, or jointly explore research questions. We aim consciously to create a community of scholars, encouraging students to view their colleagues as resources and as a support network. Students each choose a different faculty mentor every semester to work with on a regular basis, as they read research and write a literature review on a topic they may find interesting, with the long-term goal of helping them identify possible dissertation topics and choose a dissertation advisor. I often meet individually with students to help them refine posters and papers, practicing their conference presentations with them to assure that they can feel prepared and stay within assigned time limits. When our research interests align, I mentor students by co-proposing and co-presenting conference papers. In addition, I frequently critique papers students want to submit for publication, guiding them to learn both the specified and the unwritten rules of academic writing. Because I have more research training than many performance faculty in the School of Music, I have been asked to co-chair three DMA dissertations for performance majors. I enjoy working with these students as they explore topics related to teaching, often introducing them to methods of reviewing appropriate literature, refining research questions, defining their procedures, applying to the IRB, and collecting and analyzing data.

Because I serve as department liaison to the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, I am the mentor for all our doctoral students in their supervision of student teachers, guiding them through the required documentation and evaluations, attending supervisor meetings with them, and advising them when concerns arise about individual student teachers. My colleagues and I also mentor our students in learning to teach undergraduate and master’s students in their teaching assistantships and in the teaching internships required in their degree program. This may involve talking about teaching approaches, offering feedback when I observe their teaching, and team-teaching or modeling effective approaches to working with undergraduates. As we work together, we are continually reminded that teaching is not about filling students with information, but is instead about engaging students in constructing their own learning. I remind myself the same is true with doctoral students, helping them construct the beliefs and refine the questions that they have about teaching and learning.

With my dissertation advisees,[1] I meet weekly, in person if they are on campus, or by phone or Skype if they are teaching elsewhere. These meetings provide them with a weekly check-in and keep them motivated to make progress towards completion of their dissertations. I also make myself available by text, email, or phone as questions arise, knowing that sometimes a brief discussion of an immediate question can provide the impetus for sustained independent work. As doctoral students gain independent research skills, I appreciate that they introduce me to new areas of research literature and that they challenge me to continue to grow as a researcher and mentor. Each student’s path to writing a dissertation is unique, and I enjoy seeing their ideas emerge, evolve, and crystallize. It is exciting to contemplate the growth they demonstrate in the process, culminating in a confident dissertation defense, conference presentations, and job applications.

In addition, I view informal mentoring opportunities as one of the most important aspects of my role. Many of our doctoral students stop by my office to tell me about something exciting that they read, an inspiring discussion they just had with an undergraduate class, or because they need some chocolate from the candy dish I keep by my office door. As a K-12 teacher, I received a small pamphlet advising of the danger of “making a molehill out of a student’s mountain” (The MASTER Teacher, 1992). As such, I believe it is important for students to be able to share the excitement of their moments of discovery with someone.

Student accomplishments

One of the most rewarding parts of my work is seeing the growth in students during their time in the doctoral program, and then continuing their accomplishments as they move into a variety of jobs. As a group, our faculty works consciously to induct students into the community of scholars and the full range of activities available in our profession. We introduce them to major researchers in their fields, both at professional conferences and by inviting those researchers to meet with our classes via Skype. Based on each student’s individual interests, we encourage them to apply for research conferences. Some students are ready to independently take on major responsibilities, and others need more nurturing to move from safe initial conference experiences at the state level to major national poster or paper presentations.

We also assist them in identifying and applying for appropriate jobs upon either completion of course work or completion of their degree. In my doctoral class, “Teacher Education Research and Policy” (MUE 754), students examine various options for future employment for PhDs in music education. My advisees have been successful in finding jobs appropriate to their situations, whether college positions, public school teaching, or other educational ventures. I am pleased that all of them have remained active as researchers, mentors for student teachers, and professional development clinicians for K-12 teachers. It is a true privilege to serve as a mentor for our doctoral students. I have learned much from them, and am deeply honored to have been nominated for this award.


[1] I have chaired or co-chaired 4 PhD dissertations in music education, 4 DMA dissertations in music education, and 3 DMA dissertations in music from start to finish, and am currently chairing 3 PhD dissertations in progress. The music education doctorate has functioned as a PhD program in its requirements for many years, with PhD-level work expected for dissertations under the DMA designation. ABOR approved conversion to a PhD in Fall 2009.