Creating Choice, Building Skill, Instilling Confidence and Integrity
Mentoring should provide a structure to develop a career (and a life) that allow the mentee to create choices to pursue their personal interests and goals. This requires that I get to know my students (or early career scientists such as postdocs) and understand their goals. Conversely, I allow my students to get to know me so that I can act as a useful, and hopefully inspiring, role model. To enable this two-way relationship, I listen, show them respect, and expect the same behavior from them. In addition, students are at the beginning of a career and thus lack context for their decisions and the potential ramifications. In many cases they are not even aware of the choices open to them. Once I have a rapport with them, I try to provide this context from my own experience or direct them to alternative resources. The final element in mentoring is to help them develop a framework of skills and confidence to enable them to achieve their goals. Then my role is to step back to allow the students to make choices for themselves.
By working with students I have developed a set of principles to successfully mentor undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral students. These principles are summarized as follows:
- My Time. Time is necessary for mutual understanding. In addition, my willingness to spend time with my mentee affirms my respect and the value of their effort.
- The same conversation can have startlingly different meaning to a student and a mentor because of differences in their backgrounds and how they think through problems. Listening to a student, their ideas, and their responses to my statements and asking questions are critical to establishing mutual understanding. My attentive silence is as much, if not more use than my advice.
- Giving advice. Instead of general advice, it is critical to give them an example to work from and some of my own insight about how that example was constructed.
- Define attainable goals. As students learn more about their discipline, a wider array of topics become “relevant,” making any research seem hopelessly tangled. My role is to reduce the scope of a project to essential elements and remind them that progress in an investigation is typically incremental.
- Projects have many elements and include the compilation of data and analyses over a long period of time. Organization, such as in how to keep a formal laboratory notebook, is necessary to efficiently complete a project.
- Time management. Making progress requires effective use of limited periods of time. I facilitate this by setting a weekly work schedule, regular meetings to assess progress, and having students set incremental deadlines through a project timeline.
- In science good ideas sometimes fail. Students sometimes have to fail to learn. As a mentor, I allow for such failure as part of the incremental progress to an ultimately successful project.
- The success of their research results from their effort and insight, an ownership that I explicitly acknowledge. No independent work occurs without such personal responsibility. Early in the process I will likely provide more direction, later in the process as independence grows my role is to help retain focus and deliver results.
- Trying out new ideas, offering their own thoughts and solutions even though they might be “wrong,” or sharing problems and conversely, allowing students to pursue these ideas on their own all requires integrity, mutual trust, and respect between mentor and mentee.
- They will teach me something new. I expect that the students I work with will teach me something new or reveal an idea I never considered. This is a goal I explicitly ask of them.
That said, mentoring really combines several different roles including direction in how to develop a career or conduct scientific investigation, building a network peers at a range of career stages, as well as aspects of how well-rounded life and family inevitably fit into these endeavors.
To support building a career, I share insight into the impact of career choices I have gleaned from my own career and the experience of my colleagues. These discussions often reveal that students are simply un-aware of the choices open to them or how to evaluate the potential impact of a decision. Another way to broaden their perspective, and at the same time help them practice professional behavior, is provided by requiring students to present at professional meetings or conduct research meetings. In these interactions I ensure they meet established colleagues to develop a network of contacts. At the same time, we do not live and work in a vacuum. Family life and personal interests need to be included in the discussion of a successful career. As scientists we must be aware of how scientific investigation is seen politically and in a diverse and changing work and cultural landscape, without allowing it to alter our research.
To support developing as a scientist, I demonstrate that the application of the scientific method is a creative process. Such an open-ended process often makes students uncomfortable. My role is to help them learn to define a solvable problem that includes a testable relationship and a defensible method to gather the evidence to conduct the test. To inspire such creativity, my feedback to the student is often in the form of questions that help narrow and focus the topic. By using questions, they are required to defend or alter their approach, implicitly taking responsibility for it and developing independence. By developing their own research strategy, I also reinforce the value of their insights. This framework is formalized by maintaining a formal laboratory notebook that emphasizes constant evaluation of a working hypothesis. This continuous re-evaluation acknowledges that not everything we try in the lab works and mistakes are part of learning. Acknowledging those mistakes and correcting them promotes scientific integrity and resilience.
Beyond these various roles, a key goal of my mentoring is to foster the confidence that allows a particular student to develop informed, defensible opinions that are the basis of the independent thinking that can result in new solutions. Thus, I attentively listen to the students express their own ideas and analyses without interruption. That description initiates a discussion that identifies un-resolved questions, over-looked issues or unnecessary elements, and offers resources. Such a dialogue values the student and preserves their creativity as well as exploration of new, possibly incomplete, ideas common to students at the cusp of a discovery. At the end, enthusiasm for the discussion and respectful exchange enable the research to continue.
My mentoring philosophy emphasizes helping the student develop a framework of skills, knowledge, and confidence that enable them to successfully pursue interests of their choice. Through project work they gain useful experience in the application of their developing skills – they learn best by doing. My expectation is to learn something new from them, just as they are learning from me. My expectation is that we both grow as scientists from working together.
- Earth and Environmental Science (EES)
- EES Graduate Program
- How to apply to the graduate program in EES
- College of Science and Technology
v2016-12-12, © Nicholas C. Davatzes, 2016