Tag Archives: graduate

The value of mentoring


As I looked through the previous posts on the blog, the last few were a bit stressful so I thought I’d lighten it up with a less cynical post about something I really enjoy and have learned so much about over the past year: mentoring.  I have grown to see mentoring as a positive and very necessary thing for both undergraduate and graduate students.  From prior work in research to actual mentoring with both sectors of students, mentoring is something that is near and dear to my heart.  It helps my students understand themselves and what they want to be when they leave the comfortable walls of the university and it shows me what I am and reaffirms my passion for working with students.

Mentoring is truly a harmonious balance between people.  I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors throughout my life and career and have worked hard to model these people and find balance in that task.  I attended an all-day mentoring workshop a few weeks ago and the keynote speaker did an excellent job of working through the process of mentoring undergraduate and graduate students in the sciences.  He used a nice mix of humor throughout his presentation and I found myself nodding in agreement when he was speaking.  I was truly engaged in what he was saying, not just because I agreed with it, but because I knew how to implement the words of wisdom he was sharing.

As I stated earlier, I’ve had some great mentors and role models.  My first role models were my parents.  No two people could have given me a better combination of love and discipline.  My mom assumed the main role and my (step) dad was the supporting cast.  This taught me that in mentoring, you need balance.  Never being the ‘heavy’ all of the time and sometimes only speaking up when it most important is a tightrope walk in mentoring.  I have found myself holding back with my students to see how things play out and then choosing what is hopefully a key moment to speak up.

My former FFA Advisor taught me that sometimes speaking up is important and that confrontation is a necessary evil in life.  I reserve this as a last ditch effort and am working on the art of confrontation because it’s never fun and I have yet to meet anyone who thrives on it.  He also taught me the art of peanut M&M’s and a soda.  While food is not the way to fill an emotional void, there were times when it was a comfort to sit down and snack.  This also allowed us to be more informal.  Today, I try to take each of my students to lunch or coffee early on in our mentoring partnership.  It helps break the ice, chat about less formal things, and get to know each other.

Finally, my phd advisor.  I have known this woman since I was in high school and she showed me that it’s important to let people get to know you. This helps build rapport and sets the stage for expectations.  By showing others that you are indeed human and that every day might not be good but there is good in every day, you can be a better person.  My phd advisor also has a great amount of empathy towards others, something I hope to be able to find more of in the future.  The unique combination of care and support are necessary to the completion of any grad student.

As a new faculty, it’s tough to find students that are interested in your research, are willing to put in the time and work, and see a project through. A good mentoring relationship is an excellent way to recruit and retain students for the long haul.  As I have been taught, I try to balance my time with my students, form a good rapport with them, and am working to give that unique combination of support and care that they require.  Whether it’s an undergrad or a grad student, they each require a similar and different skill set.  How do you mentor students?

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The whimsy of an undergrad

I meet with students each week.  Some undergrad, some graduate, all checking in on projects, coursework, sometimes life in general.  I really enjoy my weekly meetings with students.  It might be one of my favorite parts of the week.  I enjoy hearing about what they think about life things, politics, and whatever else comes out of their mouth.  I also like to try and steer them to think bigger about issues, challenge them to think critically about the economy and state of work they’re trying to enter, and think realistically instead of being whimsical about things.

This week was not short of whimsy.  I have several undergrads who are working on a project for me.  They are super students and I am confident, each will do very well upon graduating.  I met one-on-one with one of them and after we finished discussing the project, I asked, “how’s your other stuff going?  Classes?  Job searching?” (student is graduating in May).  This student is a typical 22 year old–talented, smart, intelligent, with just enough common sense to help him out.  But as I was talking to him, one sentence stuck out: “after graduation, i think i’ll just travel for a while and tell whoever i get a job with that i’ll start later on in the fall.” Huh?

While I usually entertain all of my students thoughts and ideas, this one was too good to pass up.  On one hand I thought, “hey, i’m jealous, i’d love to just travel for a few months without a care and ‘check out new places’ (as he put it) for a while” while the other half of my brain screamed, “WHAT? you’d sacrifice a job just to travel with no income and no possibility of securing another position?”  Oh, the joys of being 22…..These are millennials.  I can’t forget this.  They think big, see the world as a big space, and have been raised to think that the world is their oyster.  I have to wonder: do they ever watch the news, look online, or wake up in the real world?   This student had forgotten that the economy still wasn’t strong, that unemployment was still rather high, and that his demographic was moving home without a job at a higher and higher rate.

Yes, you know which half of my brain won–the side screaming.  I pointed out that in this economy, waiting that long, if an offer was in hand, might not be the best course of action.  He asked me why–I told him that there were 100 others out there who could start tomorrow, that if he worked hard for a while, he could go on his trip using paid vacation days, that having a lapse in employment might not work in his favor, and about five other reasons.  He listened, which I appreciated, and then said, “you know, no one has ever talked to me about this stuff, you’ve got a point.”  I didn’t pat myself on the back, but instead thought: why isn’t anyone else coaching these seniors?  Where are their parents?  Their academic advisors? Their peers? Their senior seminar?

As a new faculty, I had to be mindful of my comments, but bold with them at the same time.  Since this student could not identify anyone else in his life that was helping him (I believe he has good people who are helping him though), I felt as though it was appropriate to shed some light for him.  The hour ended up being productive from a work standpoint and it helped me solidify my relationship with him.  I may have scared him to death, but I hope that I was able to give him some insight on what the real world is like and how to start in it upon graduation.

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