Dr. Christopher M. Janelle
UF Department of Applied Physiology and Kinesiology
2007-2008 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
I am honored and humbled to be nominated for the 2008 University of Florida Doctoral Dissertation Advisor/Mentoring award, particularly when considering the highly prestigious past award winners. Mentorship of PhD students is a primary distinguishing characteristic of successful Research I institutions such as the University of Florida. The unique relationship that evolves over the course of the doctoral student’s career mandates mutual respect and understanding, and grows as a direct consequence of intense academic challenge. Mentorship involves sharing ideas, skills, knowledge, and experiences, which by definition warrants a relationship between mentor and mentee. My mentoring philosophy continues to emerge from my own experiences, extensive reading on the topic, and active consultation with eminent colleagues. I am pleased to present what I view as the critical characteristics of the mentor, the mentee, and most importantly, the mentoring relationship.
The modern day term “mentor” is derived from the proper name of the Greek friend of Odysseus (Mentōr) who was entrusted with the education of his son, Telemachus. Though semantics vary, a mentor is consistently defined as someone who serves as “a trusted counselor or guide.” The Greek roots of the word highlight the enormous responsibility harbored by members of the academic community who serve as doctoral mentors. Aside from the bonds that exist among family members, I would argue that few exceed the strength of the attachment that forms between advisor and student. Not unlike familial ties, the core of a strong and meaningful mentoring relationship is trust.
As a mentor, I am trusted, and it is therefore my responsibility to ensure that my students develop the three primary areas that they will be required to perform upon leaving the University of Florida. They aspire to leave UF as highly competent teachers, researchers, and service providers. I have found that the best way to train these three domains is to involve them in each from the outset of their doctoral work. My students teach, mentor junior lab members, lead lab meetings, review papers, present at national and international meetings, and are involved in every facet of project conceptualization including data collection, reduction, analysis, and interpretation. They meaningfully participate in the writing of grant proposals and manuscripts, and they serve on departmental, college, University, and professional committees. I do everything possible to ensure that when they leave UF, they are rarely caught off guard or ill-prepared to deal with situations that arise as a young post-doc or assistant professor.
To achieve success in the mission of doctoral training, the mentor must be firm yet adaptive to the individual needs, abilities, aptitudes, and limitations of each student. Success in academia has one absolute requirement: self-motivation. The requisite long hours of dedicated research in an academic career is sustainable only by a truly intrinsic passion for what one studies. Given the necessity for autonomy and self-motivation that is so foundational to success as an academic scientist, my philosophy for advising is one that recognizes and provides a structure for its development. I am not a micromanager, and never will be. I firmly believe that one of the primary reasons for my students’ success is that along with the skills they develop working in the lab, they have, above all, learned how to be self-sufficient. I create an environment for them to be successful but they create the success through their willingness to be involved, and their genuine interest in making a difference through their efforts.
A clear measure of a mentor’s success is the success of her/his mentee(s). Webster defines a “mentee” simply as “one who is mentored.” Though accurate, I would argue that this definition implies a very passive role for the mentee. Indeed, without the active efforts of the mentee, many mentoring relationships would never begin. Moreover without the mentee’s continued effort, the relationship will certainly not be sustained. For most students, it takes tremendous courage to begin doctoral work. I always keep in mind my own experience as a wide-eyed PhD student who arrived in Gainesville from Cincinnati with hope, desire, a firm academic background, but (in hindsight) not much of a clue! I trusted that my mentor would see me through, a role he certainly fulfilled. Several of my former and current students have ventured to UF from the west coast, Canada, and overseas. Firsthand knowledge of the sacrifice needed to survive doctoral work at UF has solidified my resolve to see them through to the completion of their degree, and they have successfully matriculated to academic, private practice, and government careers.
Wise colleagues have shared with me the perception that university professors lead a privileged life. Indeed, mentoring PhD students is a privilege, mandating that we embrace the responsibility of educating the next generation of scholars. As advisors of doctoral students, we are accountable for helping them to find clarity in their mission as the next generation of scholars who are faced with solving the most pressing needs of our state, our nation, and the world. I firmly believe that we should not mold this next generation of scholars but rather, provide them with the opportunity to take ownership of their development through a learning environment that is founded on mutual respect, admiration, and interdependence. As such, my students realize that they have the autonomy to explore our field, and lead projects that (while within the scope of the lab’s mission) permit them ownership of a unique direction that fuels their personal enthusiasm for research.
One of the greatest responsibilities of the mentor is to help the student realize the importance of a body of work, not a single project (including the dissertation). I emphasize to my students that I have learned much more from papers that were rejected and grant proposals that were not funded than many of those that were accepted or funded. Through our collaborative work, we inevitably learn these lessons together in many cases. One of our critical roles as mentors is to use these “rejections” as opportunities that will eventually build tenacity, the insight to resolve potential mistakes before they occur, and the confidence needed to finish projects that make a difference in the health and well-being of others.
In conclusion, anyone who advises PhD students knows that the relationship between mentor and student is unquestionably challenging, yet incredibly rewarding. The most successful mentors train a legacy of students who far exceed the mentor’s skills and contributions. Ideally, this pattern continues with future generations of mentoring relationships. As such, the mentor provides the critical role of not only advancing the careers of their students, but also advancing science itself. This is the noble responsibility that we as members of the academy should be aspiring toward in our roles as PhD mentors. As graduate coordinator for the Department of Applied Physiology and Kinesiology, I always advise prospective students that “all other things considered, the single most important question to answer when choosing where to do your doctoral work is with whom you hope to work.” In short, I advise them to “choose a person, not a program.” I am fortunate to have benefited from the incredibly gifted past and current students who have provided me with the opportunity to develop successful mentoring relationships. I am truly honored to be nominated for an award that recognizes such contributions, and sincerely appreciate the committee’s time in reviewing my application materials.