Dr. Douglas J. Levey


UF Department of Biology

2010-2011 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner

Mentoring graduate students has become my biggest challenge and most rewarding activity. It’s challenging because every student is unique and none comes with an instruction manual; what works for one doesn’t work for another. About the time I’ve figured out a technique that hits home for one student — first talk soccer, then science — they earn their degree and I start over with someone new. More than anything else I do at UF, however, it’s that cycle of cultivating unique partnerships with a wide diversity of enthusiastic mentees that I find rewarding. Research provides discoveries, typically of fleeting impact. Teaching opens eyes. Service gets stuff done. Mentoring changes lives.

What is my philosophy of mentoring? I consider the following practices as essential ingredients of mentoring:

Embrace students as colleagues, not as students. Students need to shed the mindset that their job is to learn, mine is to teach, and that I’m somehow smarter than they are. By working together we can make discoveries that neither of us can make on our own. Students must experience firsthand why science is inherently a collaborative process.

Encourage mentees to take risks and shoot high. Expect mistakes and don’t hide your own mistakes or disappointments. Convey that accomplishing anything important requires taking risks. At least try shooting for the moon.

Be accessible. This goes beyond an open-door policy, which some students interpret as “catch-me-if-you-can.” Schedule one-on-one time with each student, every week.

Strive for diversity. Don’t be surrounded with students who are mirror images of you or each other. Science is a dynamic and artistic process, thwarted by sameness.

Build mentor sandwiches. Mentees should have the opportunity to be mentors, themselves. Because graduate students are the heart and soul of any research-oriented department, they should be in the middle of a mentoring “sandwich,” guided by professors and guiding junior colleagues.

Open up. Demonstrate in obvious ways that you have a life outside academia — that you’ve attained a balance between your personal and professional lives. Talk about your dog. Talk about gardening. Talk about the arts. Most important, talk about your personal challenges and triumphs; all mentors and role models have both.

All my current graduate students have developed their own projects. They don’t work on “my” study systems or address “my” questions. They are working in Peru, Thailand, Suriname, Colombia, and Venezuela. Note that they take a big risk by establishing new projects in places where I have few connections and little experience. One of my major responsibilities as a mentor is to enable them to succeed in faraway places. Thus, I spend more time helping my students apply for funding than I do writing grant proposals for my own research. I’m proud of their success. Over 24 years, not one of my students has failed to attain sufficient funding to complete their project, and all but three have centered their field work abroad.

I also encourage risk-taking and provide much support when my students write and submit manuscripts. In particular, I push them to shoot for top-tier journals, and I push myself in the same way. Because the journals we target (Science, Nature,PNAS) reject >90% of manuscripts they receive, we’re typically unsuccessful. We discuss those “failures” a lot, growing in the process. On the flip side, we often find success.