Dr. Marianne Schmink
UF Center for Latin American Studies
2001-2002 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
Serving as a mentor for graduate students is the most rewarding aspect of my work at UF. Since 1987, I have chaired the supervisory committees of sixteen doctoral students who have completed their degrees. Seven of these students received their PhDs in the past five years, and I currently chair the committees of seven more doctoral students. Several principles guide my mentoring approach:
The key to successful mentoring is helping students to develop their own interests and skills. Rather than directing them to specific research topics and styles, I draw on my own excitement and commitment to research, and provide thoughtful feedback to the interests the students articulate as they develop their research focus and areas of expertise for the qualifying examination. This allows students to grow intellectually in their own way: in her dissertation acknowledgements, one student thanked me for “letting her make mistakes.” Nurturing requires solid encouragement and support, and constructive feedback — I never make a critical remark without suggesting possible corrections. Doctoral students immersed in the difficult task of developing ideas, carrying out research, and analyzing and writing up their results suffer from many crises of confidence inherent in the creative process. My most important job is to bolster their self-assurance.
The most important analytical skill required by doctoral students is critical thinking: applied to scholarly writings, to research, and to their own role as academics. In my teaching, students are encouraged to examine the contributions and limitations of key concepts and approaches, avoiding clever and facile conclusions. About ten years ago I abandoned lecturing as my principal teaching tool, and since then I have developed a wide array of techniques that provide opportunities for students to apply and discuss the ideas that they are learning. A primary activity in my mentoring work is to review endless drafts of student research proposals. Typically we focus first on developing an interesting and feasible set of research questions, the most difficult task, then find connections to the relevant literature, and design appropriate methods to address these questions in the field. The many months spent developing a coherent and consistent research proposal pay off in successfully-funded, useful and innovative research.
In addition to their academic training, doctoral students need to learn communication skills and self-reflection in order to work effectively with other people in their future work. Ethics and empathy are crucial even in initial fieldwork situations, in order to act responsibly with local host organizations and people who are the “objects” of anthropological research. My students are given opportunities to develop their ability to work in teams, to negotiate their research interests, and to analyze how their research fits into a broader framework of real-world problems and solutions. These skills serve them well in their post-PhD employment.
I have been very successful in raising grant funds to support graduate student fellowships and research support – over $9 million in the past 20 years. These funds are tied to ongoing projects in conservation and development where students are challenged to develop research that can contribute to our understanding of real world problems, in settings where UF has long-term collaborative research ties (primarily Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and other Latin American countries). In every instance, students are required to develop their own research proposals and compete for funding. A small grants fund that my Tropical Conservation and Development program has administered since 1980 has supported over 100 graduate student projects, both Master’s research and preliminary PhD research. All of my PhD students have been successful in securing sufficient funding for their field research: in the past five years four of them have had NSF funding for their projects. In addition to research support, I have been able to provide fellowship support to most of my PhD students from various grants.
I place great value on maintaining my relationships with doctoral students after they have finished their academic training. This begins with support for their career directions after finishing the PhD All of my PhD students have found good jobs in their fields after completing their degrees, many of them (by choice) in innovative non-academic positions. Of the sixteen PhD students who have finished under my direction, four have tenure-track academic teaching positions, one has a post-doc at Stanford, and one has a research and adjunct teaching position at UF. Eight more have non-academic positions, some research-oriented and others with important policy impact. One former student worked for several years developing a model program with Conservation International-Peru before being recruited as a program officer at the MacArthur Foundation. Other students work for the German bilateral aid agency (GTZ), as Social Policy Analyst at the World Conservation Union in Switzerland, and as Community Conservation Program Manager at the World Wildlife Fund-US. Keeping in contact with these students, as well as others on whose committees I have served over the years, keeps expanding the professional network within which training of UF graduate students continues. I work closely with these alumni to develop collaborative research and training projects, internships, and other opportunities for our current students.
In February of 2002, I organized a conference to bring alumni of the Tropical Conservation and Development program back to Gainesville, where they interacted with UF faculty and current graduate students to consider the future of the field and how it can be shaped by our network of collaboration. A highlight of this conference was a student poster competition, which was judged by prominent UF alumni and former colleagues.