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Dr. Karen A. Kainer

Associate Professor

UF Center for Latin American Studies

2010-2011 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner

During graduate school, students experience exhilarating professional and personal growth and unwavering critique and evaluation. Exposure to new ideas and the potential to make novel discoveries is thrilling, but expectations of quality, original work that advances science and society can be daunting, and even paralyzing. Addressing these two sides of the same coin is my greatest challenge as a graduate advisor and mentor – creating inspiring, practical conditions for generating new knowledge, while also recognizing that this intellectually intimidating environment can leave students feeling insecure and uncreative. Below, I outline my appreciation of student diversity and its importance in creating a supportive intellectual environment. I then discuss self-sufficiency and complementary professional competencies I foment, and finally, the feedback and learning strategies I embrace to help students excel in graduate school and beyond.

Diverse strengths, diverse needs. An appreciation of the diverse intellectual, experiential and social strengths students bring to their program is central to my mentoring approach. I advise a diversity of graduate students whose careers focus on advancing the science and practice of tropical forest conservation and development. To date, I have chaired or co-chaired 5 PhD and 8 MS/MA committees, and have served on over 20 additional committees across campus. Over half of my students are Latin American. Some arrive at UF with superior scholarly qualifications, while others have years of leadership experience in conservation projects. I initially work with my Latino students in either Portuguese or Spanish to smooth their adaptation and give them a reprieve from navigating graduate school in a new language. This inherent student diversity underscores that each is unique in terms of personal and professional history, academic goals, and skills. I encourage them to run with their strengths, while gently and consistently helping them self-identify their weaknesses. Validating their histories and acknowledging their unique abilities, individually and in groups, builds confidence and engenders an atmosphere of mutual respect. This process also keeps my own thinking fresh and leaves me inspired.

Self-sufficiency and professional skills. My advising approach also places the responsibility of the graduate school experience squarely on student shoulders. Guided responsibility leads to professional poise. With my support and encouragement, students take charge of their own learning – developing proposals, fostering collaborations, and building cvs. This self-sufficiency strengthens confidence and emotional resilience. It becomes clear to students that that they can and should take control of their own life-long learning and career advancement. Learning from colleagues, I provide a copy of Robert Peters’ “Getting what you came for” to incoming advisees to introduce the concept of self-sufficiency in their graduate programs. I request summaries of committee meetings for committee distribution to emphasize open communication and keeping careful records, and require titles and abstracts of expected publications (dissertation chapters) before students embark on their field studies, to retain focus as they collect data.

While each student follows a different path, be it an academic career or the practitioner world of conservation and development, I concentrate on cultivating a suite of professional skills that will serve them well during and after graduate school. These include traditionally-valued skills such as crafting competitive grant proposals, analytical and scholarly writing skills, and the ability to publish and present information orally to a scientific audience. Increasingly, however, students such as those I mentor are expected to engage civil society in the research process for more effective conservation and development results, and to link their findings to public policies and on-the-ground action. To this end, I place great emphasis on developing collaboration skills

From the moment they begin their graduate programs, I work closely with each student to cultivate good working relationships with overseas partners, often through institutions and/or individuals I have worked with. Students develop proposals in conjunction with partners, establish formal terms of agreement that outline student-partner responsibilities and rewards, often publish with partners, and are guided to return findings locally in appropriate formats such as workshops, seminars and translations of English-language publications. These partnership-building activities foment meaningful research that contributes to host country needs and are central to complying with host country laws which often and justifiably require close supervision of foreign research. Developing collaboration skills, attitudes, and confidence during formative graduate years is useful preparation for roles they later fill as experts and leaders in their fields.

My PhD students in particular have embraced these broader challenges of mutually beneficial partnerships. One led, and two co-authored an article in a high-impact tropical biology journal, outlining their preparation for and experiences in building capacity of local stakeholders and engaging them in the research process. Most have mentored foreign undergraduate and masters students in their field sites, and during Spring 2010 graduation, one was recognized by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for her success in publishing with a Brazilian undergraduate student. Perhaps most meaningful to me are the clear indications that they have learned how to make collaboration effective, enjoyable and productive for all involved, such that ongoing and new partners want to work with them. Job placement, to date, hasn’t been a challenge.

Strategies for feedback and learning. I have regular, individual meetings with each student. Encouraging them to schedule these meetings and prepare an agenda promotes autonomy, while the one-on-one discussions are important platforms for focused attention on developing research ideas, reviewing endless drafts of proposals and articles, and identifying their unique path to career success. I also believe fervently in cohort building. Bringing students together facilitates pragmatic student-to-student mentoring and learning — everything from deadlines for dissertation submission to identification of funding sources and tips for staying safe in the field. Cohort gatherings are critical for putting into perspective the seemingly endless challenges of research projects and for fomenting genuine camaraderie and a network of personal support.

Hosting “lab” meetings at my home has been a particularly effective cohort building strategy. Welcoming students into my personal space clarifies that I too struggle with negotiating family, career, and personal time — an important and comforting reality to share with students who are concerned about the exigent demands of academic life. Meeting off campus also provides a symbolic reprieve from the highly critical, scholarly environment students experience daily. The informal setting engenders a more relaxed atmosphere for openly exploring important, yet often neglected aspects of career success — themes that benefit from a wide diversity of perspectives and experience. Meeting topics have included cv preparation; publishing approaches; job search and interview tips, and negotiating strategies for job positions. We also use lab time to jointly review research ideas, proposal drafts and articles in preparation. Finally, lab gatherings are key moments to gain perspective, reflect broadly on career trajectories, and celebrate successes.

The next generation of leaders in tropical forest science and practice faces an increasingly complex, interconnected, and rapidly changing world. My mentoring strategy is to foment the skills set, confidence and creativity to innovate and collaborate to meet these challenges head on.