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Each year up to three faculty are recognized with an Outstanding Doctoral Mentor Award. View the past Outstanding Doctoral Mentors recipients. To nominate an ASU tenure/tenure track faculty, please visit Outstanding Doctoral Mentor Awards page for more information.
Terence Tracey, Professor, Counseling and Counseling Psychology, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts (2016).
“Get B’s—stop getting A’s.”
This is the message I give new graduate students. My annual ritual lecture. This lecture is met with doubt from the students. Faculty tend to view this with bemused tolerance. Students have worked long and hard to attain their high GPA and they are appropriately proud. However, the benefits of attending to a GPA are now gone. The payoff for those long hard hours has been achieved, entrance into a quality PhD program.
But progression through the PhD program is unlike previous education. Grades are not the indicator of quality work. First, there is little variance in grades in graduate school and the modal grade is often an A. So a high GPA carries little information as most everyone has one. Of course, students can beam regarding the high GPA and brag to their mothers (who no doubt will also be proud). But beyond this, there is little value provided.
A PhD program is more than courses. Of course, there are many courses students have to take and a great deal of information that needs comprehension. Each instructor has content that he or she appropriately thinks is crucial. Students have been well socialized to discern what each instructor requires and then to provide this. In essence, a student with a 4.0 GPA is thus someone who is skilled at pleasing various faculty. But graduate school is a time for students to decide their own goals and to rely less on the structure provided by courses.
A well planned education is one where students decide what goals are desirable and then structure their time to attain these goals. Much of this is work outside of classes, working closely with mentors. I urge students to focus less on the courses and more on deciding on and achieving their goals. There a myriad of opportunities in graduate school and these should be seized. While all students who receive a PhD degree have met requisite skills, the quality of the education varies greatly. Those that take initiative and search out opportunities learn much more than those that focus on doing well in courses.
My message to new students is simple: “Graduate school is different. Figure out what you wish to gain and then seize opportunities to do so. There are many opportunities there and it is up to you to decide which are best for you and then to diligently seek them out. These opportunities do not generally arise in your courses. Search out mentors to give you wisdom”
All of higher education involves assisting students move from viewing knowledge as a collection of facts and truths to a critical process of evaluating information and creating reasoned arguments. This is especially cogent in graduate school. Having a higher degree does not only indicate that someone knows more in a content domain, but more importantly, that one can evaluate and produce knowledge in that domain. The focus is thus less on facts and data and more on the evaluation of information. This has always been true but especially today with technology providing instant access to a wealth of facts and data.
It becomes less important to have data easily retrievable in our memory but more crucial to learn and be able to evaluate and use these data. The goal of graduate school is to stimulate students so that they gain skills in this evaluation process. We focus on teaching students to think critically and use the various sources of data to create a reasoned argument. This creation of an individual skilled in reasoned arguments is the goal of all education but especially graduate education. I see this reasoned scholar as an appropriate model for all content domains. Clearly different areas focus on different data but more importantly they each have characteristic manners of evaluating such data. The teaching and learning of these content specific processes is the essence of graduate education. Coursework certainly helps in this process but I see most of this learning coming outside courses.
The goal is to move students from a receivers of information to contributors of knowledge. This is a difficult process and not all students embrace this goal. Some view education as a certification and seek to gain facts and a degree. All graduates have demonstrated via coursework and requirements at least a minimum understanding of a field. While this certification model is a common view, it is indicative of a wasted opportunity.
Graduate education is a time where one can spend extended time thinking about issues that are important to the individual with others who can help the student focus and learn. Graduate education is an opportunity unrivaled. Nowhere else do students get such extended time to ponder and pursue key issues of importance with mentors working closely with them. Students vary with respect to their desire to seize these opportunities. Those that do, have a quality of learning that far exceeds those that do not. This increased learning occurs outside of class in activities working closely with mentors.
Mentors are the providers of this learning. By working closely with one or more mentors do students learn the subtleties of this reasoning process. Students learn how to think like a scholar but also how this manifests itself in one’s life. Mentors serve as stimuli to prod students to move beyond viewing knowledge as something to be collected and gathered from others, to something that is active and created by oneself. The process of struggling with content together with a mentor is one of the most impactful experiences in life.
The mentor serves to help the student approach and engage in difficult processes but also supports the student in this process. I see quality mentorship as the skillful balance of challenge and support. Too much challenge or support results in no learning. The goal is to help students work with complex material. This can obviously be very difficult and threatening in some cases. The mentor’s job is to present material that is just a little out of the grasp of the student such that the student is motivated to struggle with it until it is understood. Too much challenge serves to stymie the student.
The mentor thus needs to balance the amount of challenge with an appropriate amount of support. This support can take the form of emotional support for the student but it does not have to be this alone. Support varies by student. Some students find working on a team supportive because they can share experiences while others find this more threatening. A key aspect of mentoring is thus to gain a good understanding of the student to know the unique challenges and supports for each. A common example is structure. Beginning students often require a good deal of structure in the tasks undertaken. This structure provides some support as it details what is to be done. If a task is well laid out for the beginning student, then he or she is more likely to be able to work it though. However, for an advanced student, structure may deter learning as there is not enough challenge to think differently and too much support in the familiar process.
I see my role as mentor as encompassing two components: assisting in goal selection and managing the relationship to attain it. Since graduate education is based on the students deciding where they wish to go, I look to them to determine goals and content. Certainly I help them focus their goals and refine them, but the specific goals are theirs and my job is to assist them in their attainment. I seek to provide opportunities for students to struggle to attain their goals. During this process, I assign experiences to seek the optimal balance of challenge and support. This means that I am doing very different tasks with different students.
With some my tasks are very structured and we meet regularly to go over small steps in the process. For others, the tasks are less structured and the student is given wider latitude to work on the task and report in only at major transitions. But in all, my goal is to help students struggle content that is a little ahead of where they are. These principles are certainly not new to education (cf., Vygotsky, Piaget, or Sanford). They are cornerstones of many pedagogy models and I find them very useful in my work with graduate students.
My specific area is counseling psychology, a field of applied psychology. Applied psychology is unique in that it is both a training for practice as well as research. The scientist practitioner is the model I endorse for our graduates. Each graduate should be skilled in applying the scientific approach to practice and also to using practice to enable better research. However, the pragmatics of the employment setting dictate that students must choose one of these two emphases. Students define themselves as primarily clinicians or a researchers and they often assume that the education process is different in these two tracks.
I have an extensive history of supervising both clinicians and researchers. While the content is different, I do not see the process of knowledge generation as varying much. In each, the student needs to struggle to understand the subtleties and then work to resolve these. Both involve a good deal of anxiety over being right, correct or appropriate. A key learning task in each is to learn how to separate oneself from one’s behavior and ideas. To understand a client, a therapist needs to step back and look at how the client and therapist interact together in an objective manner. Personal feelings and reactions are key information to help understand how the client operates within the world but only when these are examined from a distance. The same process applies to research. In some ways research is even more threatening to the self than is clinical practice as it is more public. More people see the result and can evaluate it.
A key point that I highlight in my work with students is that their ideas, feelings, and behavior are not them. They may have “poor” ideas or “inappropriate” feelings but these are not a reflection of their worth as an individual. Only by separating ones feeling and ideas from one’s self-worth can a student learn to examine both feeling and ideas more closely. Many “poor” ideas then may prove to be very exciting and accurate. I work with students to prod them to be able to make reasoned arguments in all things professional, be it clinical practice or research.
Graduate education is an exciting time for students. There are a wealth of opportunities and the students that embrace these experience a learning that will form the basis of future thinking. It is a rare opportunity that we grant to a small number of students and I am honored to be a part of it.
Elly van Gelderen, Professor, English, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (2016).
I hope that my own expertise and commitment excites students and that their interests guide my explorations. I have encouraged knowledge of and enthusiasm for syntax (my own area) but have also been excited to work with students in areas that are not my own. The below points make some of my mentoring attempts more concrete.
1. Create a linguistic community at ASU
When I joined ASU in 1995, I started a syntax reading group which has had between 8-12 members each semester and which reads cutting-edge articles in the area and pre-publications. It has been active since 1995 with faculty and students from various departments/schools. Thanks partly to it, our students keep abreast of new developments, e.g., the Problems of Projection approach (Chomsky 2015)
This reading group is also a place for students and faculty to practice their conference publications or dissertation chapters. The last few years, it has been on Wednesday from 11-1 so everyone can organize classes and other commitments around it.
2. Assess students’ needs
I (mainly) serve as chair for students in formal syntax, English historical linguistics, Arabic syntax, and applied linguistics. The first two are my areas of expertise; the latter two are areas that I have to work on, e.g., reading up on Arabic syntax and on statistics and pedagogy. I have also been mentoring students in philosophy and this has made me investigate first language acquisition and philosophy of language and these have been mutually beneficial.
We have “traditional” students, i.e. those aiming for a career in academics in linguistics, those who would like to teach English at a community college or ASU, and those going into Artificial Intelligence or another applied area. I try to encourage each student to achieve the best for the goals the student has set.
3. Professionalizing graduate students in linguistics
I organize workshops, e.g., Cycles I in 2008, the 2009 Workshop on Parameters and Typology, and Cycles II in 2014, and conferences, e.g. WECOL in 2013, WCCFL in 2013, and the Arabic Linguistics Symposium in 2018. I involve students in inviting keynote speakers, judging abstracts, and other issues.
I make sure that students are aware of the linguistic corpora that are available and other methodologies that are relevant.
4. Encouraging research in many languages
Apart from the Arabic mentioned above, I have (from 1995 on) conducted reading courses in Dutch, Yiddish and Swedish, where we read texts in these languages and discuss the grammar. I have also had students who wanted to study O’odham, Navajo and recently the Mayan languages.
In short, I try to encourage students to pursue topics that they are interested in while keeping them informed of the most recent developments in the field of linguistics, in particular syntax.
Elizabeth A. Wentz, Professor, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (2016).
The professor’s role is defined by impact. We shape student lives through instructing, evaluating, advising, and mentoring in the classroom and beyond. In the highly intimate role as a PhD advisor, this level of influence goes both broader and deeper than what is often experienced with undergraduate students. It is broader because these relationships extend for many years, rather than over the course of a semester or two. It is deeper in the sense that we chiefly oversee the production of independent scholarship requiring repetitive and extensive interaction.
The time spent as a PhD student is, in many cases, a form of an apprenticeship for becoming a faculty member. Because many PhD students take this career path, the knowledge, philosophy, and attitude is shared with future generations of undergraduate and graduate students. In this essay, I describe my philosophy of mentoring PhD students, which is based on guiding intelligent, motivated, and inspired individuals toward a career path of independence.
The role of independence sits at the core of my mentoring philosophy. My goal is to have students graduate from ASU who freely define their own professional goals and objectives. The alternative to this is not exactly subjugation but rather organizing students into a research group and direct student research so that it is aligned with the research agenda of the faculty member. While I admire this approach because it is a highly productive mechanism for faculty members to create a lengthy publication record with student collaborators, this approach may or may not serve students in the search for their own passion and the development of an independent research career.
Instead of forming a tight cluster of research projects, I encourage my students to develop their own path and to identify research questions that are of their own interest. The outcome for me personally has been a disjointed publication record with student co-authors but really the opportunity for me to remain a life-long learner and explorer of new research topics.
This approach of independence is further illustrated by how I label my PhD students. Once upon a time, in the days when I was a PhD student myself, one of the professors in the unit described my cohort as “junior colleagues.” At this time, I appreciated this level of confidence in me. I was pleased to become more than a student. Since then, however, I have not just adopted this attitude but rather adapted in such a way to recognize my PhD students as simply “colleagues” rather than “junior colleagues.”
This is because a colleague is a long-term collaborator and partner, suggesting that I intend to maintain my relationships for a lifetime. Furthermore, it suggests that the partnership is two-way because there are many instances and opportunities for collective and joint learning. While a professor is expected to be the one who “professes” knowledge, professors are also in a position to learn from and become motivated by the experience and skills of those around him or her. My advisor when I was a master’s student suggested to me that I surround myself with people whom I perceive to be smarter than me – and this is advice I have taken to heart with my students.
The benefit of fostering independence also includes accepting disappointing news of one’s choices and actions, whether that is in the form of critical feedback on a manuscript, an unfunded grant, or rejection from a job application. Turning that sinking feeling and sense of desperation into accepting failure and moving on is often touted as a key to success. Turning those emotions into a process to understand what led to the failure, to identify what part of it is within individual control, and how to use these insights to try again creates a stronger self-image. I remind students that critical feedback and rejection occurs at all career stages - even to the most seasoned and successful scholars. They possess however the tools to view these as opportunities to try again and improve the chances of a different outcome.
In 2014, I published a book inspired by working closely with hundreds of PhD students at ASU in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. I taught the required course on designing, writing, and presenting a research proposal, GCU 585. My interaction with students from across the multifaceted disciplines of geography and urban planning taught me how to effectively teach them to find their own voice in developing their own scholarship and responding to the scholarship of others.
Writing the literature review, one assignment in the course, was often the biggest hurdle because few students understood how to convert the vast amount of information from a “let me show you all I know” to “let me explain to you what you need to know.” This transition from repeating all that is known about a topic to isolating the key concepts in the literature under a single voice is critical for becoming a successful scholar. Helping students understand this distinction and use it to their advantage in their work.
Second, students are often unaccustomed to providing substantive critical feedback on the work of others. Using the course as a safe venue, I allowed students to read, listen, and respond to the research plans from people outside of their core area. Peer evaluation became as much of the work in the class as was the development of the research proposal itself. It taught students professional conduct and the opportunity to think and learn in new ways.
In the end, I remind my students that it’s business – not personal. This philosophy is true regardless of whether it applies to selecting (or un-selecting) committee members, reviewing manuscripts, conducting oneself at a conference, responding to feedback on manuscripts, or negotiating a job offer. For example, PhD committee composition may need to change over the course of degree completion.
This means that committee members need to be added or subtracted due to focus of the thesis or the arrival/departure of committee members. In the process of reassigning these roles, students often worry that they will hurt someone’s feelings if they are not initially included or they are eventually removed. Instead of worrying about committee members’ feelings on inclusion, I recommend that my PhD students treat the situation with respect by setting an in-person meeting and explaining the rationale for the decision. They describe the process as a “break up” and hence the fear of the conversation. More often than not, however, ex-committee members respond favorably and understand (or are relieved) that such a shift has occurred. Conducting oneself professionally – recognizing that negotiations associated with publishing, conferences, and job offers.
It is indeed an honor to be trusted by individuals with this important step in their professional and personal lives.