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My approach to mentoring doctoral students is one of engagement, encouragement, and embodiment.
Preparing for a successful academic career requires doctoral students to learn far more than the theories and methods of their discipline. It demands that they hone a range of skill sets, so they can productively manage the intellectual, political, pedagogical, financial, and public aspects of their careers. Whereas their classes and seminars provide students much of the content they need to achieve expertise in their field, working with a mentor who engages their participation in professional development exposes them to the various other demands and decision points that professors must navigate.
Graduate school is a unique stage in the intellectual developmental process because it is the only period during which we require people simultaneously to be teachers and students. For many, it is also the first time when original thought is required. Although doctoral programs invariably draw from the most academically gifted cadres of students, even those who are most mature can find the intellectual, professional, and practical demands of graduate school daunting. When I was one of those students, I found tremendous strength in the encouragement I received from my own mentor and determined that I would provide the same encouragement to the students I trained. I do not believe in raising false hopes, rewarding mediocre work, or giving doctoral students an “A” simply for trying. I believe in helping them develop the self-efficacy to function as active members of the discipline.
How I operationalize my philosophy
During my first year of graduate school, I received what proved to be among the most helpful pieces of guidance in my career, and it informs how I operationalize my mentoring philosophy to this day. After reading a journal article for a seminar, I went to my professor to opine that the results of the study would have been different had the researcher posed his question differently to his participants. But, I asked my professor, “Who am I? This is a published research article; who am I to say its conclusions are wrong?” My professor’s response to me: “Who you are is a member of the discipline, just like that author is. In research, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a distinguished professor or a first-year masters student—a good idea is a good idea, and if you’re right, you’re right.” From that day, I stopped thinking of myself as someone preparing to work in academia and started thinking of myself as someone working in academia. I frame my advisees’ experiences similarly. I teach them that, as academics—not just academics-to-be—they need to be involved and invested in the practices of the academy. I expect and encourage them to develop independent lines of research, and I facilitate that by providing initially resources (in the form of money, equipment, and personnel) that their research requires. Once they begin doing their own work, I require that they procure their own resources (via internal grants), and that they assist other grad students as they themselves have been assisted.
All of my advisees review for academic journals, so they contribute to the discipline while gaining important insight into the publishing process. I frequently ask my best doctoral students to accompany me to meetings—or, on occasion, even to participate in them in my place—so they can experience how academics and administrators negotiate day-to-day logistical issues.
Another way in which I operationalize my mentoring philosophy is by reaching out to doctoral students at other institutions whose work I find promising. For the last eight years or so, I have invited one doctoral student (or, on occasion, a new assistant professor) from another university to visit ASU, present a departmental colloquium, spend time with my advisees, and share research ideas and conversations with me. I pay the person’s expenses, almost always on my own dime, so I can get to know that person’s work better and give him or her the opportunity to share that work with my colleagues and me. (I am, in fact, a day late turning in this mentoring statement because I have been hosting a doctoral student from the University of Denver this weekend.) Those visits have been wonderful opportunities for conversation and collaboration, both for the student who visits and for my own advisees and me. When they graduate, I frequently write letters of recommendation for those students who have visited, and remain highly involved in their careers. What I ask in return from each of those students is that they look for ways to provide opportunities to younger scholars in the future, so they can help others the way I helped them.
My graduates’ accomplishments
The most tangible way in which my mentoring philosophy translates into my graduates’ accomplishments is in their professional productivity. Most of my PhD students leave ASU with multiple publications—some written with me and others written alone or with each other. I co-authored my first two textbooks with doctoral students, as well, the first with two doctoral students who were not even my own advisees.
My students also leave with a rounded collection of professional experiences, such as reviewing for journals, reviewing conference papers, serving as editorial assistants for journals, writing grant applications, and serving in elected capacities in the professional associations. Even more important to me, they leave with an ethic of collaboration and service to their peers and to younger scholars. That ethic is evidenced most directly in the fact that my PhD graduates invite the participation of my current PhD students in their own research, providing opportunities for scholarship and publication even beyond what I offer them. That process began with my second doctoral graduate and it continues today with each new student who leaves my lab. Parenting is probably a tired metaphor for mentoring, but it contains some truth. A mentor “raises” his or her students intellectually; provides guidance, encouragement, and discipline as needed; then sends them into the academic world to work. Like a parent, I know I have done my job well when I see my graduates producing high-quality scholarship, serving their universities and the discipline, and—most of all—mentoring their own students with engagement, encouragement, and embodiment.