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Dr. Luecken’s exemplary record of mentoring students is evident in so many different ways. She supports her students in pursuing their own funding and fellowship opportunities and has a track record of successfully mentoring applications for prestigious national fellowships. What stands out most about Dr. Luecken’s mentorship style isn’t just this, but the fact that she supports students in pursuing their own independent lines of research. She supports her students in discovering their own interests and connects them with opportunities to pursue these interests.”
– Jennifer Somers, Doctoral student
When I began my career, I thought mentoring would be easy — simply do what my mentors did that I thought was good. I quickly learned the naiveté of that approach. It might work if every student were exactly like me, but, of course, every student is different and has different needs. Each arrives with a unique history, values, talents, personality, goals and expectations.
Learning to mentor has been a journey and I am thankful to have had many talented, creative and dedicated students as my inspiration. I have mentored 16 doctoral students and served on 43 doctoral committees. They are an impressive group of students, with prestigious fellowships, awards, faculty jobs, professional positions and many publications.
I am a professor of clinical psychology with research focused on biological and environmental influences on the health of impoverished Hispanic children. In our “Scientist Practitioner” doctoral
program, students learn scientific (“hard”) skills at the same time as clinical and professional (“soft”) skills. Training is rigorous — ten to twenty weekly hours of clinical work, a full course load and research, followed by a one-year full-time internship. It is rare for a student to complete all degree requirements in less than six years. I spend a lot of time with each student and we get to know each other well.
My job as a mentor is first and foremost to understand and be sensitive to the past and current life experiences of my students. Some face cultural, religious, or family norms and pressures that make academic life challenging and confusing. Several have juggled caring for a new baby while trying to complete a dissertation. Women and students of color encounter explicit or implicit biases. Without mentors, too many promising students, especially those from underrepresented groups, drop off the academic track after repeatedly encountering such barriers.
A good mentor-mentee relationship provides a safe, supportive place to voice frustrations and brainstorm solutions for clearing obstacles in ways that keep mentees on track without compromising personal or professional values and goals.
In practical terms, each student starts at a different place with regard to writing, analytical and professional skills. At each stage of training, I aim to provide challenges that are just within their reach, with increasing complexity as they develop proficiency. In the first two years, we meet weekly and work closely together. As they advance, I become more “hands-off,” functioning primarily as a safety net in the final dissertation year. Throughout, I pause before automatically providing answers to questions, instead guiding them to figure out the answer themselves. In reality, I don’t always have the answers — that is part of what makes research fun. But, the goal is that they leave ASU with the skills to be independent scholars and clinicians, which requires the ability to solve problems and the confidence that they will be able to figure out anything they encounter in the future.
A good mentor needs to be flexible. Some students work best with structured meetings and explicit deadlines for each stage of a project to keep them accountable and productive. For others, the best thing I can do is provide resources and stay out of the way, available on an “as needed” basis. I strive to respect their autonomy and choices and be flexible in response. If we have developed the open, trusting mentor-mentee relationship I aim for, they will give me feedback on what is working and what might be more helpful.
Teamwork is essential. Many papers are a team product with a student as
lead author. I promote students by making sure they get credit for work on which they take the lead (e.g., asunow.asu.edu/20180703-asu-researchers-find-heart-rate-variability-children-affects long-term-effects-maternal). Natural collaborations arise between students with common interests, some of which last long past graduation day. Like a ladder, more experienced students help mentor newer students. In weekly lab meetings, students learn to be unafraid of sharing their work and to accept feedback in a non-
defensive manner. I teach the acronym “+THINK+” for providing feedback: Start with a positive, then provide comments that are Thoughtful, Honest, Intelligent, Necessary and Kind. End with a positive.
Even the best scientist occasionally has a paper rejected or a study that doesn’t work as hypothesized. These are normative experiences in academia, but can be heartbreaking, nonetheless. I remind students that cream always rises to the top, eventually. Good work will get noticed, but it has to find the right audience. Persistence with students not performing to expectations also pays off. They may only need a sympathetic ear, reassurance that they are on the right track, or permission to switch tracks. Some students take longer than others to find their passion, but it is fantastic to be a witness when they do.
Graduate school is tough. Much as I promote achievement, a good mentor notices when a student is working too many hours or is experiencing distress. Graduate students can be so conscientious that they set unrealistic standards of perfection. Many experience “imposter syndrome,” i.e., the belief that others will realize that they don’t belong. I make sure students know that I believe in their capabilities, especially when they doubt themselves. I help them see a big picture perspective of life, health, and happiness. Self-care is critical.
In developmental psychology, “generativity” describes the phase in adult life focused on cultivating the next generation and making a difference in society. It also describes the role of a mentor. I take this responsibility seriously, and it gives me purpose. I benefit professionally from their creative ideas and questions, and personally from the close bonds we develop. Every time they send pictures of their children, call when they are in town, or reach out for advice years later, I am reminded of how great it is to have this job.