Constance L. Shehan
Professor and Chair
UF Department of Sociology
2007-2008 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
My philosophy and strategies of graduate mentoring are closely tied to my understanding of human development and the intersection of work and family life, two areas that I’ve studied throughout my career. Many of the graduate students I’ve worked with over the years have been young adults, entering the graduate program just a few months after finishing their undergraduate degrees. Often they have not had a meaningful relationship with adults other than their parents. Their relationships with professors during their undergraduate years may have been distant and formal or perhaps even hierarchical, compartmentalized, and intimidating. Yet their success in graduate programs depends very heavily on the relationships they cultivate with faculty mentors. The first challenge we face as mentors, then, is to demonstrate to our students that we can develop mutually enriching and respectful relationships even though we may be of different generations, genders, races, nationalities, and/or statuses.
I’ve also worked with graduate students who have already assumed career and family roles but who are augmenting or suspending them temporarily to pursue a doctoral degree. As a mentor to these “older” students, I have learned to recognize that while term papers and conference presentations can’t always take the highest priority in their lives, a strong commitment to the pursuit of an advanced degree can still be present. I firmly believe that mentors must be flexible enough to develop models of collaboration with students who don’t fit into the “traditional” demographics.
For all students, the graduate school years are a time of personal growth as well as intellectual challenge. Their growth comes from the demands associated with “proving” themselves and from the discovery of new talents and interests. For the students who enter graduate school as young adults, the pursuit of the higher degree often coincides with the assumption of other important social roles and responsibilities, for instance, the development of long term intimate partnerships, the birth of children, and the pursuit of economic independence. For the “established” adults who enter graduate programs, the extracurricular challenges they encounter involve altering existing life roles to make room for the demands of graduate work. Over the five years or so that students are in the graduate program, as they develop their self-confidence, their knowledge base, and their critical thinking skills, we must adapt our mentoring styles accordingly. The ultimate goal, of course, is to launch our students into independent careers, “packing their parachutes” (to use a phrase from social psychological studies of the transition to adulthood) to help give them flight but cushion their landings. The parachute, of course, includes introduction into national and international networks of scholars, proactive assistance in the job search, and continuing guidance once they’ve secured a position.
I would describe my mentoring style, then, as developmental (i.e., recognizing that students enter the graduate program at critical life stages, adding family and work roles and intellectual skills as they progress through the program) and holistic (i.e., honoring all the various facets of students’ lives that are intertwined with their academic selves). I have discussed the developmental aspect of my mentoring philosophy above. I would like to describe its holistic nature before closing.
In my field, as in many others, completion of the dissertation is an integral part of the graduate program. Indeed, it is the culmination of years of study. But excellent graduate mentoring extends beyond the important and exacting responsibility of enforcing the disciplinary standards for research. It involves preparation for the larger career (i.e., teaching and service along with research) and for a full life beyond graduate school (i.e., family and community as well as career). In some cases, faculty members who serve as supervisors of dissertation projects also fill these broader mentoring roles; in other cases, they don’t — or can’t — for various reasons. The fortunate student is actually one who is able to develop effective mentoring relationships with more than one professor.
In my department, doctoral mentoring is a highly individualized process. We typically do not have teams of faculty, post-docs, and grad students working together on large projects. We tend to work one-on-one with doctoral students, encouraging and enabling them to design and pursue dissertation projects that may be independent of our own work. We also often serve as teaching mentors for our doctoral students who have responsibility for their own undergraduate courses. As a consequence, we have the opportunity to — and face the challenges of — developing a relationship with our students that encompasses a broader segment of our own and our students’ selves. My own approach to these relationships is to do my best to provide them with unconditional support and ongoing affirmation as they progress through our program. I firmly believe that reward and recognition are the most effective motivators for extraordinary effort and achievement. This belief has been validated repeatedly over the years as I have gotten to know some incredibly gifted human beings who have taught me much about myself and my work. I truly find graduate mentoring one of the most rewarding aspects of my career; and it becomes more so with every passing year.
As I’ve thought about my philosophy of mentoring over the past few years, I’ve searched for a quotation or two that might eloquently capture my beliefs in a few words. I’ve actually found several, so I will leave you with two. The first is from Charles Schwab: “I have yet to find a (person), however exalted his (her) station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.” And the second, by Leo Buscaglia: “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
In closing, I view my mentoring role as that of a guardian. To me, this means that I am entrusted with the responsibility and the privilege of nurturing new scholars, in all their glorious humanness, as they pursue the career and the discipline I value so highly.