Dr. Anthony Oliver-Smith


UF Department of Anthropology

2006-2007 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner

I regard the mentoring of graduate students as one of the most consistently interesting and satisfying of the many activities of a university professor. In the most fundamental sense, mentor-student relationships are based on the mutually rewarding goals of scholarly achievement. In my experience, there is no one effective style or technique of mentoring. The substance and essence of this relationship are ultimately as individual as the professor and the student are. In general, as a mentor, I take my cues from the student. Some students want considerable contact and interaction with mentors while others prefer to work more independently, seeking advice only at crucial points in the process. However, I make it clear to all that I am available for consultation whenever they need it. Generally, if not sought out by students, I check informally with them to monitor their progress.

The mentor-student relationship, based on the mutual expectations, rights and obligations of each party, must be nourished through the collaborative, interactive nature of graduate education. Both mentor and student meet with the understanding that each succeeds when the other succeeds. The mentor must develop a relationship with the student that is based on support, trust and confidence. The mentor must nourish the student’s interests and achievements, but must take care not to create a context of dependency. As mentors we should not seek to create disciples, but should nourish independent thinking in our students as maturing scholars. If we are not alert to the possibility, the line between meeting academic standards and imposing conformity can sometimes be blurred. Our goals should be the quality of scholarship, not the theoretical or methodological reproduction of our own perspectives. In that regard, the 18 PhDs I have mentored and the seven doctoral students I am currently working with represent both varying approaches in qualitative and quantitative methodologies and a wide variety of thematic issues and theoretical perspectives.

The tasks and responsibilities associated with mentoring students toward their advanced degrees are quite varied. Some are fairly straightforward. That is, there are the various requirements of the department, college, graduate school and university, which although ultimately the responsibility of the student, often necessitate a measure of coaching or advice in the appropriate manner to meet. Some of these are formal, such as the preparation of IRB protocols or grant proposal writing, and others take place in context of personal guidance as in how to study for qualifying exams or the preparation of conference presentations. Such requirements also include the guidelines, the mechanics, of producing a dissertation that conforms to the standards of the discipline and the university. There are as well the skills, often particular to the discipline, that are associated with entering the profession, such as assembling an appropriate resume or curriculum vitae, developing effective interview and job presentations, networking, and the various forms and styles of academic publication. In some sense, these are largely in the realm of technical advice and knowledge.

There is as well another array of issues that mentors must address that are far less technical and much more individually oriented that involve helping the student find at the particular stage in their development the path of study and research, in essence the professional identity, that best suits their skills and interests. I think that for many individuals being a graduate student is a difficult status to occupy. Graduate students are adults and maintain fully adult responsibilities and statuses. Some have families they must support. Some have had careers outside of academia, but on entering graduate school they enter a kind of liminal domain and assume a status that is largely defined as dependent. As a mentor I try to communicate to my students my recognition and respect for the professional commitment they have made to their path of study. As a mentor I encourage and support the student to define and articulate a professional identity that reflects both personal meaning and scholarly significance.

In the initial stages, helping the student chart an appropriate set of courses that will both meet departmental requirements and nourish the student’s own interests and gifts is important. Since students arrive in graduate school at various levels of academic development, some with lengthy preparation and very precise goals or foci, and others with far more general preparation and broader interests, the task of the advisor or mentor requires guiding the student toward a course of study that will combine attention to the standards and breadth of the discipline with nourishing the authentic direction of the student’s interests. By the same token, as the student progresses through the program, the mentor should also assist the student in designing an exam process and delineating a master’s degree thesis or a doctoral dissertation that effectively combines the student’s interests and skills with an academically significant question or issue. In that regard, my own research has also on occasion contributed directly to my mentoring responsibilities. For example, since one of my areas of specialization is the social impact of natural hazards, I organized after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 an informal seminar that met regularly to formulate grant proposals for graduate students to study post disaster issues. Four students acquired funding for research on post-Mitch reconstruction in Honduras that eventually produced an MA degree and three PhDs.

In summary, my philosophy of mentoring is aimed at nourishing a student’s academic and professional development in a way that expresses the highest academic quality, and supports both the individual voice of the scholar and the standards of the discipline.