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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 roles 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 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 are 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. However, 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 simple “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 the 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
1 Wentz, Elizabeth A. (2013) How to design, write, and present a successful dissertation
proposal. SAGE Publications.