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Steven L. Neuberg

2012 ODM Steven L. Neuberg
Steven L. Neuberg
Foundation Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychology (Social), The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Graduate Mentoring Philosophy

On most work days, I get to play. I refer here not to simple recreations and amusements, but rather to disciplined play. Disciplined play? The very juxtaposition appears a sadistic oxymoron, in which ‘disciplined’ destroys the joyful essence of ‘play.’ It is, however, neither oxymoronic nor joyless. Rather, disciplined play is creativity directed, a process central to success in the sciences, arts, and all transformative endeavors. Disciplined play pushes against existing boundaries, generates innovative ideas and discoveries, and enlightens. Disciplined play is fun.

Disciplined play also inevitably generates failures. In fact, much of becoming a good scientist involves failure. For a beginning graduate student facing such challenges, it’s all too easy to imagine highly successful scholars as being somehow different—as having exited the womb with a silver CV in hand. We know better, of course, being aware of our own misguided hypotheses, failed experiments, rejected manuscripts, and unfunded grant proposals. The job of a mentor is not to protect graduate students from experiencing failure, but to teach them how to make the most of their failures when they arrive. In this vein, two features of my mentoring philosophy are central: I encourage my students to take risks with their ideas (thereby inviting some degree of failure) and I hold them to very high expectations (to facilitate their successes beyond these failures).

I want my doctoral students to take risks with their ideas. Granted, it’s critically important for them to learn foundational theories, facts, and basic conceptual and methodological skills, and I engage them immediately upon their arrival in a line or two of ongoing—and thus, less risky—research to facilitate that kind of learning. However, if they’re to make substantial contributions to their science, they eventually will also need to generate innovative ideas that are more than just minor extensions of my own.

For most early-stage students, insecure in their place, this is a bit unnerving. “What if my ideas are wrong?” “Will my advisor believe I’m not cut out for this?” No! What students need—what we all benefit greatly from, whether we’re starting off or well-established in the field—is constructive feedback. I don’t want my students so concerned with being wrong that they spend months fully baking an idea until they finally think it’s good enough to place before me. I want them serving their ideas to me right away: Partially baked ideas are welcome! If a student begins generating an idea during a meeting, I want her to pitch it to me then and there. If the idea has promise, the student receives guidance that will help move the idea forward. If the idea is less than exciting to me, that’s O.K. The student can take my feedback and either work on the idea more or focus on something else. In both cases, the student is learning, and speeding up the process of doing so.

I greatly respect students for offering their partially-baked ideas for constructive feedback, and I encourage them to do this not only with me but also with one another. I actively model this process, by seeking early feedback on my own ideas from students and faculty colleagues—often by thinking aloud and developing the ideas “live”—and by engaging the feedback I receive. By showing that I’m willing to be wrong—by daring failure to darken my door—I encourage them to do the same. Together, our willingness to take risks with ideas creates an exciting and adventurous intellectual environment—a playground for discovery.

Graduate Students Deserve to be Held to High Expectations

Early in my career I researched the power of interpersonal expectations, and I’ve applied the lessons of that research to my mentoring of graduate students. The simple version of the philosophy is this: hold high expectations for your students, because what you expect is very often what you get. This is too simple, however. If implemented poorly, a philosophy of high expectations can do more harm than good, frustrating even the most talented students. Translating this potentially powerful teaching philosophy into an actually powerful teaching approach requires a mentor to go well beyond expecting great things. My approach to high expectations is, instead, influenced by a research- based revision of that general philosophy: Hold high expectations, because what you expect is very often what you get...if you do it correctly.

First, I communicate high expectations early and often. My students understand that I will challenge them. They also quickly come to understand that I hold high expectations for their graduate colleagues as well, and even higher expectations for myself. As a researcher of the pernicious, “subterranean” effects of stereotype-based expectations, I am conscious not to compromise my high expectations on the basis of a student’s background, gender, ethnicity, or class. No student deserves to be hampered by expectations of mediocrity.

Second, I work to convince students that my high expectations are credible and reachable. It helps that I am able to attract and successfully recruit extremely talented students. Even they, however, observe accomplished senior students and wonder whether or how they’ll get to that point themselves. I need to gain their trust in this, and I do my best to communicate how the mentor-mentee relationship, and the trajectory of our plans, can help them meet the challenges awaiting them.

Most important, I put my money where my mouth is. High expectations themselves are cheap: Anyone can hold them. For high expectations to have positive effects, students must be provided with the opportunities and resources to meet them. This means making myself available to my students not only during weekly meeting times—I meet individually with each of my doctoral students for 90 minutes per week, as well as in group lab sessions—but also outside of regularly scheduled meetings when needed. It means adapting mentoring tactics and techniques for different students with different strengths at different stages of their development—but doing so without lowering expectations. It means working patiently with students as they learn and master the complex methods and ideas of the discipline. It means doing my best to fund them on grants instead of teaching assistantships to provide them with more time to dedicate to research. It means challenging their ideas with straight talk and pushing them to dig deeper. It means trusting them with lead authorship positions on collaborative research projects and then devoting the time and effort needed to mentor them through the challenges of first-author responsibilities. It means providing them with many rounds of explicit writing feedback, accompanied by discussions about the communication principles underlying my suggestions. It means encouraging them when they believe they’ve hit a wall and can no longer improve their work. It means preparing them to succeed in their public research presentations. It means teaching them how to teach undergraduates, and having them co-mentor honors students with me. It means working with them as they take larger steps, whether they are competing for grants or fellowships or entering into the highly competitive job market. It means dedicating time to discuss issues of professional socialization so they’re better prepared for their lives after graduate school. And it means remaining a mentor long after they’ve left and begun their own careers—to be there for them as they face new challenges and opportunities. By investing in my students at a level commensurate to the high expectations I hold for them, not only do I increase the likelihood that they’ll meet those expectations but I also communicate to them a fundamental respect—for their intellectual capacities, natural curiosities, and desires to be active agents in their own life story.

Play Revisited

Marrying my approach to high expectations with encouragements to take intellectual risks, I work to instill in my graduate students an orientation towards the disciplined play so important to scientific discovery. It’s gratifying that my students have accomplished so much of value during their time here and, more important, since. Moreover, I believe they’ve appreciated and enjoyed the intellectually energetic—and, yes, playful—environment we’ve created together. I know I have.