Dr. Allan F. Burns


UF Department of Anthropology

2010-2011 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner

This nomination for an advising and mentoring award is in itself an honor that humbles me, but it also provides the opportunity to think about and express my philosophy and values. I came to the University of Florida with an interest in and commitment to graduate education, and as a result, I have mentored 39 students to their Ph.D., with two more graduating this fall, 2010. Mentoring takes place on the individual student level, but also on a department and university level. Mentoring is helping a student become a professional researcher and scholar, but I think of advising and mentoring to also include program building and securing resources that help all students.

Mentoring and advising starts with recruitment and then goes on to helping them in a journey through classes and the development of research skills and finally graduation and a career. Working with graduate students includes understanding the differences in their personalities and learning rhythms, and also includes recognizing that students need different kinds of mentoring at these different stages of their careers.

Recruitment: Recruiting the best students takes financial resources, but more importantly it takes interest in seeing the potential of students. Recruitment takes active interest and sometimes good fortune. It includes encouraging the best students to apply, finding funding for them, and balancing their creativity with a commitment of support. One way I have enhanced recruitment has been to establish agreements with Universities in Latin America and Europe and then encouraged students from them to apply for graduate study at UF. A case in point is one of the most successful graduate students in our program, David Garcia, who just took a high ranking position at the United Nations General Secretariat as he writes his dissertation. David’s recruitment began when I met his parents in a small restaurant in the mountains of Central America. His family, sitting at the next table, asked what I did for a living. When they heard I was an anthropologist, they said that their son was studying anthropology as an undergraduate. He was at a university that has an agreement with UF. I gave them my card and told them to have their son get in touch with me if he was interested in Florida. He did so, and applied for and won an award from his country to study here. David’s graduate work included learning GIS and other techniques in order to better understand conservation programs in Latin America. He secured five different research awards for his Ph.D. research, including from the National Science Foundation, Organization of American States, and several other agencies. Now that David is finishing his dissertation, we now talk about how to integrate his work as a UN official with his doctorate.

The Graduate Experience: Cultural Anthropology is world-wide in its scope and close professional relationships with colleagues in other countries is both welcomed and necessary. An important part of mentoring of students is to help with international connections giving them the opportunity to do so themselves, develop the value of working with colleagues in other countries, and carry out their research with sensitivity and ethical concerns for international scholarship. I had the good fortune to meet William Fulbright when I held a Fulbright award in Denmark. He said he created the program to create academic “ambassadors,” but to also strengthen science and scholarship by creating a network of scholars and researchers around the world no matter what the political views of different countries. Fulbright’s philosophy verbalized what I have had as a value in mentoring. For example, I regularly employ graduate students as assistants on my summer study abroad program in Mexico to learn about working with universities in other countries. I also have mentored students from very diverse academic and social backgrounds. One of my Ph.D. students was a playwright from Zimbabwe, another was a linguist from Ghana, several have come from Mexico, others have come from other disciplines and underrepresented groups in academia. Fifteen of the students I have mentored came from other countries.

Although I have mentored many international students, students from the U.S. make up the majority of my mentees. One of the goals I have had for my own career and for Anthropology in general is to further minority presence in the field. One way I facilitated that was as one of the founders of the Zora Neale Hurston graduate studies scholarship for students who are inspired by Hurston’s own background as a writer and African American anthropologist. The award has been a successful recruiting tool for minority students to our program. The award also serves as a public statement of the commitment of the department to diversity. Our department is now recognized as having one of the highest numbers of minority students in the College, the University, and the discipline of Anthropology. I have been fortunate to advise many of them. One is now a Provost at a small college in Charleston, South Carolina. Another is the director of a museum in Baltimore. Still another is working in a non-government organization in Washington. Two more minority Ph.D. students will graduate under my direction this fall, 2010.

Graduate advising and mentoring is a process of transforming students into scholars and colleagues. Some of the ways this I engage in this include discussing and inviting students to participate in my own research projects to give them a more realistic appreciation for developing their own research topics, I also stress that presentations at national and international meetings (including those held in other languages) is expected as is publishing while a graduate student. Field research is central to our discipline, and so I invite students to go on short term field visits, meet with government and academic officials in other countries, and to learn about pre-dissertation funding opportunities. I have also developed three different funding sources in the Department to help graduate students with their research. One of these is a student research support fund that my wife and I are endowing, another is a fund that a local business leader helped begin for student travel to professional meetings, and a third is a dissertation writing award program that provides tuition and stipends for students in the final phase of their dissertations. These opportunities are open to all students in the department, and reflect my philosophy that mentoring is also done at the programmatic level. I am presently the chair of the department, and so I carefully charge committees that review applications not to show any preference towards my own students. I regularly organize panels at national and international meetings along with students. I make a point to invite alumni from our program to be part of these panels, and in that way give current students the chance to talk and compare notes with students who are now in successful careers.

Advising and Mentoring Beyond the Ph.D.: Mentorship continues beyond receiving a Ph.D. International students often find it very difficult to return to their home countries as academic positions are given to locally trained scholars and they may have lost important connections after being away for many years. I have found it very important to help with the transition to student’s home countries through corresponding with university officials and encouraging students to find non-academic positions as they transition back to their home countries. The difficult employment market makes placement a priority for all students. One way I focus on that is by making sure my students give papers at more applied conferences where they can learn about positions outside of the academy. I also ensure that students think of their entire careers while doing a Ph.D. Obtaining a Ph.D. is only half of the equation: creating a career is the other half. Students see that my own career includes teaching, research, applied service, and administration, and that all of these are important. I always stress that colleagueship and giving back after graduation is as important as writing a good dissertation.

Final Thoughts: While I have recruited and mentor minority and international students, all of the students who I mentor have much in common. They are aware that I value the independence of their thinking above all else, that I expect their research, critical edge to their thinking and writing to give them skills to succeed.

The intellectual diversity and “multiple intelligences” (Gardner 1993) of students mean that mentoring is a constant process of learning and emphasizing characteristics that bring out the best in each student. Mentoring each student is like twisting a kaleidoscope so that different parts of mentorship are lined up to match the different needs and circumstances. Mentoring graduate students to become confident researchers is central to advising, but mentoring them to be sure that their degrees mean something to them is also important. Without the inspiration, intellectual satisfaction, and confidence to succeed, goals are too easily lost. And finally, a Ph.D. has to mean something to the wider world as well, whether in the academic community, employment, or other communities.