Dr. Russell M. Bauer
UF Department of Clinical and Health Psychology
2003-2004 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
As I have reflected on my approach and philosophy to dissertation mentoring, I have become more keenly aware of the truth of old adage that the key to success is to surround yourself with good people. I feel particularly fortunate to have worked with a group of outstanding young clinical psychology students who have made significant contributions not only to the culture of research in the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology and beyond, but also to my own research program. I know that I have learned as much from them as they have learned from me. Indeed, one key reason I chose an academic career was so that I could participate in the kind of mutual learning and development that exists only within the individual mentor-mentee relationship.
What are my goals in mentoring dissertation research? A primary goal is to help the student learn how to ask meaningful research questions that make a difference in our understanding of a clinical phenomenon or in our ability to apply what we know to health-related assessments or interventions. Also, the dissertation mentor must assist the student in developing the ability to conduct an independent research investigation from start to finish. The student needs to learn how experimental design translates to laboratory practice, and how results can be effectively communicated so they will have impact on the scientific community. Another goal is to enable the student to learn how to effectively use the physical and intellectual resources of the laboratory and University to perform the “nuts and bolts” of the research project. Third, the student needs to learn how to critically evaluate available research in order to develop a view of the “big picture.” Perhaps most importantly, the student needs to develop a personal identity as a researcher and to begin to see him- or herself as someone who creates new knowledge through original research, rather than as someone who just consumes existing knowledge through reading and study. This, I think, is learned primarily through personal modeling. One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of dissertation mentorship is to provide a learning experience in which the student develops self-efficacy as a researcher and goes on to make meaningful scientific and academic contributions after graduation. In my view, successful mentors don’t just help students develop and execute good dissertations. They help students develop an inclination to think of the dissertation as the prologue to a career in science.
As in other disciplines, clinical psychology has witnessed a contemporary move toward defining “competencies,” or areas of knowledge that graduates of PhD programs should master as a condition of readiness to engage in independent research, practice, or educational activities. Competencies define what individuals know or are able to do in terms of knowledge, skills, and attitude. Certainly, the complex conceptual and behavioral activities involved in performing dissertation work build identifiable and measurable competencies in the fledgling researcher. I believe, however, that the real goal of dissertation work involves much more.
Philosophically, I am sold on the notion that dissertation mentoring strives to build capability. Capability defines the extent to which individuals can adapt to change, generate new knowledge, and continue to improve their performance in a changing world or in response to evolving professional demands. I have explicitly tried to build capability in my students by providing a supportive, feedback-rich environment in which they learn to construct their own goals, perform relatively unfamiliar (to them) tasks, and solve ambiguous problems. All along the way, the emphasis is on the process of learning and on drawing connections between concepts, practices, and interpretations of data.
I have chaired 17 dissertations during my tenure at UF; 12 of my Ph.D. students have graduated, one will graduate in Fall 2003, and four are “in progress”. Eight have gone on to pursue academic careers in clinical neuropsychology, and seven have successfully obtained federal extramural funding after graduate school as a principal investigator. Nine have published empirical work after graduation that involved novel contributions beyond the dissertation. These outstanding student researchers have received local, national, and international recognition for their dissertation work. Two (Schramke, Leritz) have obtain prestigious National Research Service Awards (one from the National Institute of Aging, the other from the National Institute of Mental Health). Two (McDonald, Frakey) obtained competitive Dissertation Research Fellowship awards from the Epilepsy Foundation of America. My students have won departmental research awards (the Robert & Phillis Levitt Award for Excellence in Clinical Neuropsychology Research or the UF Department of Clinical and Health Psychology Research Award) seven times (Greve, White, Zuffante, Kortenkamp, McDonald, Leritz [twice]). Two (Grande, McDonald) won Dissertation Research Awards from the American Psychological Association. Two (Grande, Leritz) have been awarded the American Psychological Foundation/American Psychological Association Henry Hecaen Scholarship (2001, 2003), a national award given each year to an individual graduate students who shows “great promise or achievement in their graduate studies, as signified by scholarly and/or research activity”. One (McDonald) was awarded the Laird Cermak Prize, given each year to the best student paper in memory disorders by the International Neuropsychological Society.
Of course, I am not responsible for all of these success stories, since the involved students are ultimately responsible for what they have achieved and for “walking the walk” they have learned. I would like to think that the process of working with these students on their dissertations helped facilitate or actualize the potential that lay within them. It has been particularly gratifying to follow career trajectories of all of my former students, who now occupy professional positions as diverse as staff neuropsychologist for a rural health group in northern Wisconsin to associate chair of a psychology department at the University of New Orleans, to associate professor and director of internship training at the University of Rochester. It is especially pleasing to know that some of my students have gone on to be mentors and educators themselves. I think of them as an extended family, and I look forward to the day that my academic “children” and “grandchildren” make enduring contributions to the science and profession of psychology.