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May 29, 2008

Mentors, mentees tell what works

Who better to offer advice on mentoring than those who’ve already walked in those shoes, either as a mentor or as a mentee?

Participants in the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education’s Summer Instructional Development Institute (SIDI), “Mentoring Student Research,” on May 8 received advice not only from experienced mentors, but also from a panel of undergraduate and graduate students who had been mentored.

Vice Provost for Graduate and Undergraduate Studies Patricia Beeson stressed the importance of mentoring — not only for the benefit of students, but also for the success of the University and of the academy in general.

The goal, she said, is to learn how to help a student progress from being a receiver of information to being a contributor. While mentoring is a common process, “It’s something we do all the time but we don’t talk about it.”

In spite of differences in mentoring graduate versus undergraduate students and variations in individual styles and the norms of various disciplines, Beeson told the audience there is plenty to be learned from one another about mentoring.

To illustrate the impact of mentors on students’ lives, Beeson noted that the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring received approximately 70 nominations — about 15 percent of Pitt’s graduate faculty — in 2006, the first year the doctoral mentoring award was given.

The nominations, which came mainly from graduate students or former graduate students, showed how many of them “thought their mentor was the very best mentor in the University,” Beeson said.

“I think that’s really saying something about the quality of mentoring here,” she said, adding that in reading the nomination dossiers, she could see in each case why those students thought their mentor was the University’s best. “So many faculty have found so many different ways of working effectively with their students to be not just good mentors, but to be great mentors,” she said.

Advice from students

Shruthi Vembar, a graduate student in the molecular, cell and developmental biology PhD program; recent Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) graduate Neko Salera, and undergraduates Jennifer Kirk and Brandon Mills presented observations on the mentoring experience from a student’s point of view.

Good communication, availability and reinforcement of good methodology and skills are among the qualities the students appreciated in their mentors.

They also shared negative experiences, which included poor communication, overcontrolling mentors and the pain of being forced as a teaching assistant to mediate between dissatisfied students and a faculty member.

Vembar, who works in the lab of biological science professor Jeffrey Brodsky, said being mentored by him has helped her as a graduate assistant teacher and as a mentor to other students in the lab.

She said Brodsky emphasized good lab methodology, a practice she’s also stressed as she mentors others. She also commended Brodsky’s open-door policy. “We can just barge in and ask him any question we want,” she said, although she noted students have been encouraged to collaborate and resolve questions or problems by first seeking out other lab members with expertise.

Vembar also noted Brodsky’s practice of helping his mentees establish collaborations with researchers at other universities, which is helpful in her long-term career plans. “It makes us really visible in the field,” she said.

Chemistry and economics major Brandon Mills praised his mentor, Lillian Chong of chemistry, for teaching him that almost as important as the research itself is the ability to present it clearly and effectively.

Chong, he said, excels at building students’ confidence in making presentations. She taught him the importance of developing the short-and-to-the-point “elevator talk” summary of his work, and advised him never to underestimate how much people love to hear really good explanations of things they already know. Chong also stressed that in writing or presenting, “You’re telling a story and you want your audience to be with you the whole time,” he said.

Mills urged faculty to know their students, admitting that the task can be difficult since many students don’t yet know themselves.

He pointed out that a first research experience might be the biggest challenge a young student has undertaken, reminding faculty that it can be a daunting experience.

To help, he advised that mentors learn students’ personalities and styles of work; reminded them to help new student researchers to understand the way things work, and to “Be up front with them what the work is going to be like.”

GSPIA graduate Neko Salera, who was mentored by William Keller in his capstone course “Anatomy of a Terrorist Attack,” said the class gave him experience in leadership and conflict resolution as his team developed a paper analyzing a specific event that he was able to show while interviewing for jobs in security analysis.

He labeled the experience in teamwork and research “invaluable.”

History major Jennifer Kirk collaborated with Gordon Mitchell of the Department of Communication on an admittedly quirky research topic — analysis of presidential library dedication speeches.

Kirk said Mitchell’s mentoring strengths were in guiding her and collaborating with her, noting that he allowed her to take ownership of the research and that he led her step by step without overwhelming her. “It didn’t really hit me until part way through the research that he had a plan,” she said. He didn’t overwhelm her with the start-to-finish timeline all at once, but led her by presenting shorter tasks such as two-page writing assignments on various aspects of the research, which, eventually became the bulk of her final research presentation.

“Telling the grand scheme of the research is important to set up goals and get you motivated. Planting it all at one time is not the way to do it,” Kirk advised.

Advice from mentors

Four Pitt faculty members shared their experience and insights in mentoring.

William Keller of GSPIA outlined the use of mentoring in course design and in a capstone course; Joseph Grabowski of chemistry discussed undergraduate research; Kathleen Blee of sociology shared expertise she has garnered over years of mentoring graduate students, and Janelle Greenberg of history showed mentoring in action as she shared her time at the podium with mentee Michael Sechler.

Mentoring in course development

Keller noted that it can be difficult to find ways to involve students in projects that align with his research. Asking questions to discover students’ area of interest and then suggesting areas in which their interests might intersect with his own can lead to positive collaborations, he said. “It’s a time-consuming business,” he acknowledged.

Keller has begun developing courses using students as part of the design. For instance, he provided the framework and students contributed the legwork in developing a new course on internal security and counter-terrorism. The semester before the course was to be launched, Keller set up a “parallel student research group” in which each member was assigned to complete a case study on a specific country’s internal security regimes. That work forms the basis of the course. Keller noted that when the course is implemented, perhaps half of the research group students participate. “What that effectively does is bumps the seminar way up,” he said. By the end of the course, students have become part of an integrated research team, he said.

Likewise, in mentoring a capstone course, Keller manages students’ research. In his class Anatomy of a Terrorist Attack, the students’ goal is to produce a research report on a terror event that would be suitable for publication. The papers appear on the Ridgway Center for Human Security web page (

By managing their team projects, students gain skills in leadership and in conducting investigations, leaving the class with a document that can show a potential employer evidence of their skills. “Being able to write a five-page paper which is discursive and tells the boss everything he needs to know on a topic” is a key skill for students at GSPIA, he said.

The process requires a great deal of interaction with and without the professor present as the research is completed and drafts of the report are crafted.

While Keller makes himself available throughout the semester, he intentionally makes himself completely unavailable just before the paper is due. “It makes them really own the whole process. They’re on their own,” he said.

Mentoring undergraduate research

Mentoring undergraduate research presents different challenges, chemistry professor Joseph Grabowski said.

Undergraduates are less prepared and have less of an idea of their future path than do graduate students, he said, adding that mentors should expect undergraduates’ skills and motivation to vary widely and that mentors must be ready to deal with those individual differences. Mentors also need to understand that students from the millennial generation (born 1977-1995) often have ambitions but lack plans (or have unrealistic plans) to achieve them.

Younger students may benefit by working in teams, and may benefit from having a contract outlining expectations drawn up as part of the experience, he said.

Grabowski emphasized the importance of spending time with mentees, knowing them as individuals and being approachable and encouraging as well as providing continued mentorship. Researchers who asked students about their ideal mentor found they valued project guidance, career guidance and individual guidance most, he said.

Plenty of opportunity exists for faculty who wish to become mentors, Grabowski said, noting that freshmen seeking placement in Pitt’s first experiences in research program outnumber the available opportunities. Faculty often are pleasantly surprised to find freshmen whom they believed couldn’t do research turn out to be a valuable resource, Grabowski said.

Research opportunities, which often are a student’s first “close encounter” with a professor, serve to change students’ ideas about faculty. They find that researchers aren’t eccentric white-haired men in lab coats who have superhuman powers that enable them to make discoveries with ease. Instead, they discover researchers are human, work hard and make mistakes as they work to find answers to their research questions.

Among the most important differences students discover in the lab is that, in the classroom, the work is focused on the answers. In the lab, the reverse is true — the work is focused on the questions.

Grabowski said among the biggest things the students discover is that while they’re very interested in knowing the answer, faculty are okay with uncertainty, understanding that discovering answers to their questions often leads to more questions.

Mentoring graduate student research

“I grew up in a pre-mentoring culture,” Kathleen Blee of sociology admitted, noting that at one time people who needed mentoring were stigmatized as the ones deemed most at risk of failing.

“That’s all changed,” she said, emphasizing that everyone needs mentoring of some sort throughout life.

Blee condensed basic principles of mentoring she has garnered while guiding doctoral students over the years.

She places value on encouraging students to work collaboratively, noting that students need to be helped out of the narrow box that graduate programs squeeze them into.

She pushes her mentees to read and learn outside their area of expertise, encouraging them to attend presentations in disciplines remote from their own and to read novels and other materials that go beyond their schoolwork. “Some great ideas come out of serendipitous places,” she said, stressing that she wants students to learn from a variety of people and to appreciate the differences.

She said she wants her students to take intellectual risks and assures them “if it doesn’t work out I’ll back them up.” In short, she teaches them how to fail and get back up. “It’s often the students who know how to fail who do the best in the long term.”

Blee also encourages students to view mentoring as a lifelong practice and to see themselves in the dual role of mentor and mentee early on. She sees value in creating a culture of student co-mentoring — having students invest in one another’s success rather than pitting them against each other.

“As they become faculty they have a sense of collaboration and respect for what you can learn from people in other areas,” she pointed out.

Another benefit of mentoring is that it serves to demystify the academy, Blee said, making students familiar with the norms and practices of graduate school and academic life.

Job interviews and conference presentations are among the areas in which faculty may forget how little they knew at the outset — and either don’t remember how they learned, or learned by making mistakes along the way.

“The more you make the implicit rules explicit, the more academics becomes accessible to all students,” she said. Among the most valuable insights is letting students go “backstage” to see the messy process that precedes a finished work of scholarship — showing them copy-edited versions of manuscripts, for instance.

Blee also noted that mentoring serves as a means of emotional support for students, recalling grad school as a grueling time during which she often felt emotionally beaten up and unhappy. “I want my students not to have that experience,” she said, adding that it’s not necessarily the smartest students who get their PhD, “It’s the students who have perseverance.”

Mentors need to show students what lies beneath the polished surface of scholarship, Blee noted, adding that she often talks about her own scholarly missteps. “Students often don’t get that faculty make a lot of mistakes,” she said, and frequently don’t see the many missteps made even by those with successful careers.

Blee said part of her duty as a mentor is to help students think about how they plan to live as scholars: “How do I have a life that’s both happy and productive?”

She advises mentors to spend time talking about things unrelated to the student’s dissertation and to talk about the rewards and difficulties of academic life as well as how to balance it with other aspects of their lives.

Their goal is not simply to produce a dissertation but to produce a life that will work for them, she said.

Mentoring in action

History professor Janelle Greenberg demonstrated one of the tenets of good mentorship by sharing her time at the podium with Michael Sechler, whom she mentored as he completed a BPhil degree and with whom she has conducted history research.

Greenberg sees mentoring taking various forms, viewing herself as a potential mentor to all her students, many of whom welcome the opportunity to have a more personal and professional relationship with a faculty member.

“I find myself able to be empathic with these students,” she said, often sharing talk that stretches beyond the subject matter of her classes to touch on students’ career plans or family matters.

Greenberg said she is blessed and cursed with an ability to like her students. “I do like them,” she said. “But it’s worse than that, I fall in love with them, not all of them to the same degree, but with an unusually large number of them, because they are lovable. … I think of them always as the sons and daughters of a mother and a father. That’s the perspective with which I view these students and that motivates my commitment to them, to their personal lives as well as to their professional lives.”

A problematic aspect of such caring is that she’s needed to develop balance and a realization that “I cannot rescue all of my students,” especially those with problems that require professional help.

“I’ve learned over the years there is a time when I can’t help,” she said, noting that finding that balance has taken time.

Another form of mentoring comes with a smaller group of students — those pursuing independent studies, honors theses in history and BPhil degrees.

As Sechler tells it, their collaboration began when he visited Greenberg’s office as a sophomore in her honors history class. He feared he was failing, only to discover that she considered him among her best students.

The simple beginning grew into a deep mutual respect between student and professor, one that has influenced Sechler’s career path. Their collaboration grew beyond a single project to a field of research he intends to continue to pursue and eventually make a career of, he said.

“I always introduce Janelle as my mentor, my colleague and my friend,” he said.

Greenberg encouraged him to pursue a BPhil that sparked in him a passion for research. Sechler became one of her undergraduate teaching fellows and garnered several grants that enabled him to conduct research in libraries in London on 13th century English legal scholar Henry de Bracton. He completed his BPhil in 2006 under Greenberg’s guidance and later presented the work at a national conference. Sechler expanded his BPhil thesis for submission to a political history journal.

“She has cultured within me this passion for research,” he said, describing the time they spent together thumbing through documents in a London research library and how he was influenced not only by the experience of discovering how the research is done, but also by the time spent sightseeing and discussing their experiences after the library closed for the day.

Sitting on a small bench in a garden not far from the library, Sechler said Greenberg revealed to him that many years ago she’d sat on that same bench with her mentor.

“It was at that moment that I understood perfectly what I was doing,” he said, recognizing that what had been passed on to her was now being passed on to him, perhaps to be passed on to students of his own someday. “It’s something to have and something to look forward to,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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