Wolfgang M. Sigmund
UF Department of Materials Science and Engineering
2007-2008 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
Successful and happy students are the most important commodity a university produces, and doctoral students in the UF Materials Science and Engineering Department are among the very best in the world. It is truly a joy to work with such bright students in this top-ranked program. Seriousness of purpose, commitment to hard work, and an inquisitive spirit are very much alive and well in materials sciences in Gainesville, Florida, and I am pleased to be associated with this distinct program and its commitment to graduate education.
Since joining UF as an assistant professor in 1999, I have chaired 15 PhD students’ committees at UF. In addition, I have graduated seven PhD students at the Max-Planck-Institute of Metals Research in Germany, served on more than 66 PhD committees at UF, and mentored 16 MS students. Currently, I chair six PhD students’ committees and actively serve on 36 others. All of this is made possible by the outstanding conditions at UF, as well as substantial funding from government agencies, foundations, and industries in the United States, Germany, and Japan.
Though my mentoring style is unique to each individual, some general themes seem to emerge. First, I recognize the importance of individual differences. Each student is an individual, is unique, has different talents, and needs development in different areas. I mentor each one with these things in mind. Within this learner-centered framework, I polish a student’s strengths and guide her/him to improve on the weaknesses. For example, if a student is very bright but needs to learn to structure their thinking and work, I subtly encourage the student in a prescribed direction, and the student is able to solve the problem on their own. For another student, perhaps several previous attempts have been unsuccessful. I will then fully demonstrate one-on-one how to solve a particular problem and its relatives. The student must then repeat this process on new problems.
Creativity in the individual is enhanced by the way the dissertation topic is assigned. The student and I jointly determine a direction the dissertation will take in the beginning, but the specific topic needs to be selected by the student within the first few semesters. I guide and counsel them during this time, ensuring that the student finds his or her calling. I determine whether they are deeply interested in their problem, want to know the solution, and that the project is scientifically feasible. This develops motivational impetus early in the dissertation process, and the student accepts responsibility for their projects. The outcome of this process is manifold — the student learns to be in charge of a project, learns how to plan a project, and learns how to run a project that will lead to success. I encourage the students to be daring in their thinking based on their investigations and to challenge currently accepted knowledge. The student learns to set appropriate goals, and he or she finds creative ways to achieve them. The research process naturally becomes faster as a student sees stepwise success with smaller accomplishments while working towards the overall goal. This self-check and self-improvement system fostered by my approach makes the student more independent and mature.
A second theme that emerges in my mentoring style is providing students with the opportunity to learn in a group setting. Knowledge of group dynamics is important to success in the scientific community, and students need to be prepared with good social skills, teamwork abilities, and leadership expertise. Though my students work on individual research projects, we all meet regularly for open discussion of the research, and students often have to work together on a project. The most exciting times are not when we showcase our successes, but rather when we discuss those things that failed. We love to posit novel solutions or approaches, to learn from each other, and to determine directions for future research. Overall, the purpose is to mimic the open scientific community.
By recognizing each student’s uniqueness, I show respect for them as persons. This promotes an atmosphere welcoming diversity of ethnic and social heritages. Within a group setting, each student contributes in their own way, and they mature as individuals and as team-players. At the end of their graduate career, creative minds highly trained in critical thinking processes, independent thinkers, and effective leaders leave UF, ready and able to contribute to industry, government, and academia.