Pamela Swan

2014 ODM Pamela Swan
Pamela Swan
Associate Professor, Exercise and Wellness, School of Nutrition and Health Promotion

Reflecting on my 20 plus years in academe I realize that I have come to view the PhD educational experience as a kind of Apprenticeship and my role as the Master who uses her expertise to guide those who have entered the “guild” of scholars. Successful mentoring, in my view, involves creating a learning environment that is non-threatening, encourages risk-taking, and focuses on providing students necessary opportunities for developing the tacit knowledge (Polanyi, 1966) required for the thinking and practice of meaningful scholarship.

Often students enter the doctoral program with great “knowledge-telling strategies” (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1987) but little ability to integrate the processes that experts engage in and use to carry out complex tasks. Students may have learned large amounts of conceptual and factual knowledge prior to entry in the doctoral program, but they are still apprentices when it comes to mastering more reflective, constructed ways of thinking and praxis (Belenky et al, 1986; King & Kitchener, 2004; Perry, 1970). I believe that the hallmark of graduate education is the provision of a learning context that enables students to shift their cognitive development toward the increasingly complex stages of more reflective and constructed ways of understanding and processing information and experiences. I truly expect my students to be transformed through the PhD process and my core mentoring values and strategies are focused on this goal.

My overall mentoring philosophy aligns strongly with an apprenticeship philosophy (Collins et al, 1987). When working with students at the beginning of their doctoral program, my goal is to initially model the kind of rigorous, critical thinking and analysis needed for meaningfully reading and questioning a body of knowledge while providing an environment in which students are given a bit of freedom to explore before settling on a research direction. I meet weekly with students I am mentoring and through questions and dialogue encourage students to think aloud as they work to revise and refine their content knowledge and scholarly interests and focus. My role is primarily to provide corrective feedback and pointers for successfully solving problems and completing tasks while providing the scaffolding needed to help students integrate the knowledge, skills and expertise they are gaining. Additionally, I provide multiple opportunities for students to move from a reliance on me or others in authority toward trusting their own voice and expertise through more independent practice, reflection, and exploration. By gradually withdrawing or withholding some support or solutions to problems, students are encouraged to develop a greater capacity to respond to the ambiguities and uncertainties that can accompany more independent work. Providing the structure to move toward more independent work is, I believe, an essential aspect of mentoring students who will become the next generation of leaders in the fields of physical activity, nutrition, and wellness.

Secondly, I believe that developing individual relationships with each of my students is critically important to successful mentorship. I have had the opportunity to work with, advance to candidacy and graduate 15 PhD students in my 19 years at ASU. Each student brings different backgrounds, levels of expertise and unique interests to our work together. For example, I have had a student with a background in elementary education, a student who was a nurse, a student who was in the Army, a student whose parents were physicians and a student who was the first in her family to have a college degree. While most of my students had scholarly interests that were similar to my own, I have also successfully worked with several students who did not have matching interests. Some students I “inherited” because their original mentor left the program and others simply found themselves changing direction. Since I encourage all my students to explore a diversity of research opportunities, it was possible for me to work effectively even with those students whose interests were not aligned perfectly with mine. Although I was not their primary content expert, I was able to support their work as a result of my core mentoring values and strategies and because we mutually decided that we were willing to learn from each other.

The willingness to allow students to explore various interests is one of my strengths as a mentor. PhD students are typically instructed to tightly focus their work. While I completely agree that this is a necessary end result, I also find that giving students (especially those in their first year) freedom to explore before they settle in on a topic genuinely helps them appreciate the bigger picture and helps them put their research in appropriate context. Encouraging exploration, while simultaneously modeling rigorous scholarship and providing effective feedback and structure, enables students to not only find worthy questions but also to find questions worthy of support. This aspect of my mentoring has resulted in my students consistently procuring funding to support their research and academic travel. Importantly, two students received prestigious national student research grants from the American College of Sports Medicine to support their dissertation work. Additionally, a third of my former students have been successful in receiving post-doctoral research positions upon graduation indicating that their research skills and knowledge are of high quality.

Regardless of the content of students’ research, my goals are to provide a model for creative problem solving and ethical decision-making and be an enthusiastic supporter and advocate through the academic process. As Director of the Interdisciplinary PhD Program in Physical Activity Nutrition and Wellness for the last 14 years, I have a role in mentoring all of the students in the program to some degree. I provide the bulk of the pre-admission advising to potential applicants and help match students with faculty mentors. I actively work to recruit, find financial support for, and sustain underrepresented students in our program because I believe that diversity enriches the lives of our students and faculty and is a key to our program’s excellence. Since I am often the final signatory on letters of recommendation and requests for grants and fellowships, I desire to know each doctoral student in our program well beyond their name and number. I strive to meet with each student individually at least two times a year to discuss their progress in the program and provide some guidance for their success.

Lastly, I believe that mentoring is not limited to the formal instructional environment, thus I encourage students to participate in both formal academic as well as social opportunities that are available. Becoming a full member of the community of scholars involves establishing social connections and networks. I encourage my students to not only present at professional meetings but to also attend social events so that I can help make introductions. And we all occasionally need to be reminded about the value of just relaxing and having fun. To this end, for a number of years I have hosted a celebratory graduation event/party for students and faculty as a way to recognize the accomplishments of our graduating PhD students and encourage collegial relationships between students and faculty. These students will very soon become colleagues and I want them to be recognized appropriately.

My father was a professor and he continually inspired me with his passion for learning and the relationships I saw him cultivate with his students. With my mentoring, I have had the opportunity to “pay it forward” by serving and influencing an outstanding range of scholars. I am very proud to know that my former students continue the process as they inspire the next generation. I believe that being a PhD mentor is the most rewarding position available to ASU faculty and I am profoundly honored to be considered a finalist for the 2014 Outstanding Mentor Award.



Belenky, M.F., Clinchy, B.M., Goldberger, N.R. and Tarule, J.M. (1986). Women's Ways of Knowing. New York: Basic Books.

Bereiter, C. and Scardamalia, M. (1987). The Psychology of Written Composition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1987). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing and mathematics (Technical Report No. 403). BBN Laboratories, Cambridge, MA; Centre for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois, January.

King, P.M., & Kitchener, K.S. (2004). Reflective judgment: Theory and research on the development of epistemic assumptions through adulthood. Educational Psychologist, 39(1), 5-18.

Perry, William G., Jr. (1970). Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Polanyi, M. (1966). The Tacit Dimension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.