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Dr. James Shepperd

Professor

UF Department of Psychology

2009-2010 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner

When students arrive to graduate school, they often depend on their advisor for direction and guidance. A good mentor not only supplies this guidance but also provides students with the tools to become independent scholars. But how does one transform graduate students into autonomous, self-sufficient researchers? I believe a good mentor can accomplish this transformation in several ways.

First, a good mentor works closely with students, particularly in the students’ initial years of study. For example, I meet often with my graduate students discussing ideas, important directions for research, and how to conduct science. I help them design their first studies, and I sit side-by-side with them as they conduct their first statistical analyses. As they gain more confidence and experience, I instruct them how to supervise studies and analyze data, and carefully monitor their progress.

Second, a good mentor gives students a lot of responsibility and sets high standards for performance. When students face high standards and expectations, they rise to the occasion. For my part, I put new students in charge of a research project the moment they step on campus. This experience gives them responsibility as well as a measure of ownership over that particular project. As students advance, I gradually give them more responsibility. By the time they become advanced graduate students, they share in the responsibility of running my research lab and in the training of new graduate students. Indeed, I treat my advanced graduate students as junior faculty and find that they a quick to act the part.

Third, as a faculty member in the sciences, I believe that a good mentor should help students develop an independent program of research that, although building on work of the advisor, represents ideas of their own that they can pursue after they leave graduate school. I believe my graduate students should develop and articulate succinctly a broad research question and to defend why the question is important. Although this is a difficult task, they recognize the importance of developing a program of research that is exciting, and has important implications. My area of research attempts to address real world problems and over the years my students have developed important questions such as, Why do people avoid medical attention?, How do people respond to challenges to their self-views?, and How should people communicate bad news? Moreover, many of my former students continue to work on questions they developed in graduate school as they pursue their own careers as faculty members.

Fourth, I believe that a good mentor should create an atmosphere where graduate students feel that their contributions are valued and important. I accomplish this goal by prompting my graduate students to voice their thoughts in our group meetings. I often purposely keep quiet during our group meetings and let the graduate students talk, interjecting only to keep the discussion on track, to move the discussion along, or summarize points. Although new graduate are sometimes timid at first, they typically become active, engaged participants in discussion within a few weeks. I encourage graduate students to develop skills in formulating, arguing and defending their own ideas, rather than rely on me for the answers. Moreover, I fully recognize that students often generate novel ideas or solutions to problems, and that I can learn from them just as they learn from me. As such, I have come to place tremendous value in ideas and opinions of my graduate students.

In sum, being a good mentor entails a) investing considerable time and energy in students, b) giving them responsibility and ownership over collaborative work, c) pushing them to develop their own lines of research, and d) encouraging them to express their ideas. I have attempted to pursue these goals in training graduate students and the result has been quite gratifying. I have chaired ten students through their dissertations in the past ten years. Being a mentor is challenging but it is also among the most rewarding aspects of being a faculty member.