Graduate College

Elizabeth A. Segal

Professor of Social Work, College of Public Programs

My Mentoring Philosophy

When I began teaching as an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois in 1986, my senior colleagues emphasized making connections between faculty and doctoral students. I was strongly encouraged to work with doctoral students. While so many of my colleagues were already comfortable in their roles as mentors, I felt less prepared to take on such a significant role. I had barely left the ranks of being a doctoral student and was in the earliest stages of understanding my new role in academics and as a scholar. What I found was that many of the doctoral students were struggling with issues that I had just recently faced. How could I serve as a mentor? So, at that time I found it was more natural to serve as a sounding board, a supporter and even a learner, rather than what I thought of as a “mentor.” I decided that an honest approach was the best way to tackle the mentoring relationship, particularly given that many of the doctoral students were older than me. I could not pretend to know what my senior colleagues knew, so I asked questions and was open to learn from my students. What I could offer were my insights into how to navigate the transition from student to scholar.

Over the years, I became more seasoned and senior. Rather than step into a new mentoring model, I continued this approach to working with doctoral students. Mentoring as a collaborative process where both mentor and mentee can learn from and teach each other evolved into the model I use today. Some years ago, I found literature to support this approach, and that has helped me to refine and articulate my mentoring philosophy. 

The model for mentorship that I have used to support doctoral training is one of “vertical and horizontal mentorship” (Keinänen & Gardner, 2004).  I found that this model was first developed within the performing arts to promote creativity. The model includes traditional forms of mentoring that involve an advanced, seasoned expert to guide a new person training in the same area, which is vertical mentorship. The teaching and learning of newer methods that engage those being mentored to also teach and guide others, including their formal mentors, is considered horizontal mentorship. I have been following this model of mixed format for mentoring for many years, and have found it to be particularly helpful in guiding doctoral students and when studying complex and dynamic social issues.

Doctoral students, as emerging scholars, are often trained in the latest statistical techniques and familiar with the most recent research findings. Senior scholars are wise in the ways of academia, deeply grounded in their discipline and their specialized fields of study. By combining the skills of both mentor and student in a horizontal exchange, at times mentees become mentors and a synergy is developed that can create innovative ways to approach and analyze social issues. The occasional switching of roles also helps to break down hierarchies, promoting new scholars who are able to more easily express themselves and contribute to dialogues, while senior scholars have an opportunity to be trained in new modes of inquiry in a tutorial fashion. The process also evolves over time, so that by the time the doctoral student is ready to graduate, the relationship between mentor and mentee can move more easily to one of colleague and collaborator.

How that philosophy is operationalized in my work with doctoral students

There are numerous definitions and synonyms for mentor. I have made sure to be available as “an experienced and trusted advisor” who is a “guide,” “supporter,” and “teacher,” as well as a participant in the student’s work. That is not to say that I am responsible for the students’ outcomes – the data gathering, analysis, and written compilation are theirs. However, I am engaged with them throughout the process in a form of on-going dialogue. I emphasize regular face-to-face meetings to discuss students’ progress. Our conversations include both philosophical inquiries, as well as coverage of details involved in carrying out the research.

Over the years, I like to think I have been able to teach my students much about the content of their work and the process of conducting research, but mastering the deep knowledge of the topic is theirs to accomplish. What I am sure of is that I have learned much from my students. I have been introduced to new research methodologies, pushed to understand and apply theories and philosophical approaches to interesting areas of inquiry, and learned about emerging issues in our field. One of the most exhilarating points in my work is when one of my doctoral students challenges my thinking, and we debate multiple sides of an issue. I try very hard to hold to the standard that there is no “right way” to approach an issue, but I expect my students to be prepared to defend their position or approach, and do so with scholarly evidence and critical thinking. It is this process that often leads to horizontal mentoring and a sharing of ideas that results in collaborative outcomes – for the student that outcome is a well-developed and thorough dissertation, and for me I am afforded the opportunity to gain new knowledge and insights.  

Ways that my philosophy translates into my doctoral students’ accomplishments

I believe that using vertical and horizontal mentoring leads to doctoral students trying new and creative approaches that reflect their own thinking, even taking risks by including emerging techniques and tackling social issues that are under-studied. One of the most important accomplishments I set for my students is the dissemination of their work through scholarly publications. While in the doctoral program, I have helped students publish and present at professional conferences. However, I do not publish with my students from their dissertations. While I respect this practice for others, I have always felt strongly that each student should take ownership of his or her work and publish as the sole author, without my co-authorship. I believe that one’s dissertation is the culmination and measure of one’s work through the doctoral years. As such, it should serve as the foundation of the doctoral graduate’s academic journey. I strongly encourage (and some of my students may tell you that I insist) that at least two or three manuscripts go out sole-authored as soon as the defense is completed. This is my way of encouraging a strong beginning for tenure track employment, and positions the graduate to be seen as an independent scholar. I am happy to serve as a reader and guide in this process, but not as a co-author. Once this step is taken, we can begin to work collaboratively and horizontally.

Collaborative projects following graduation that I have with former students are accomplishments that I am proud to be a part of and demonstrate the creativity that can evolve from a blend of vertical and horizontal mentoring. For example, with a team that included three former doctoral students following their graduation, the Southwest Collaborative on Immigration, Inequality and Poverty was created in 2009. This research group has developed several research projects that have resulted in numerous scholarly publications, professional presentations and collaborations with scholars in Mexico. The group has grown and involved additional emerging scholars from several universities, including other former doctoral students of mine. My role until this past year has been as a facilitator using horizontal mentorship. Now the group is going to be facilitated by former mentees, and I am moving to the role of participant. This transition also reflects the horizontal nature of leadership that can grow from this model.  

Concluding remarks

Serving as a mentor to doctoral students has been a central part of my service in academia. While I have focused in this essay on my formal position as dissertation chair, I have been honored to serve as a member of another twenty doctoral committees over the years. I have also provided informal guidance and mentorship to numerous other doctoral students, including while serving on several occasions as our doctoral program coordinator. As trite as it sounds, it truly has been a labor of love. Sharing the process of learning and discovery is intellectually stimulating and creates a very special connection between mentor and mentee. I feel extremely honored to have shared this journey with numerous students, and I hope the process has been as fulfilling for them as it has been for me.        

Keinänen, M. & Gardner, H. (2004). Vertical and horizontal mentoring for creativity. In R.J. Sternberg & E.L. Grgorenkon, Eds., Creativity: From Potential to Realization, pp. 169-193. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association


Current and Past Outstanding Doctoral Mentors