Dr. Lynn Sollenberger


UF Department of Agronomy

2013-2014 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner

Mentoring Style

In the book “Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend” (National Academy of Sciences, 1997), a mentor is defined as one who takes a special interest in helping another person develop into a successful professional. Apart from the student, who more than the mentor determines the quality of the graduate experience, the likelihood of career success after degree completion, and the student’s lasting impression of the lab group, department, and university? Thus it is imperative that exceptional mentoring be a core value of the graduate education mission.

On personal and professional levels, my role as mentor provides some of the greatest joys and most satisfying experiences of academic life. It is extremely gratifying to observe the growth and maturation of an advisee during their graduate program and to chronicle their achievements as they follow various career paths in the discipline. Graduate student mentoring is not a casual task, and like being a parent, it should not be treated casually. Acceptance of the role of mentor implies significant commitment of time, creative energy, and enthusiasm to ensure a successful program. Effective leaders delegate, but effective mentors are hands on, interactive, and engaged with their students, recognizing that although maximizing efficiency is critical to many areas of their job, it is not an effective mentoring style. Few things are more demoralizing to a student than a mentor who fails to find time for them, does not share ownership of the student’s program, or does not follow through with commitments that are critical to the student’s progress.

Most of my students go on to a scholarly career with research as an important component of their job description. Thus at the heart of the graduate program is the scientific method, and I try to model for my students the excitement of defining a problem, developing and testing hypotheses, and delivering real-world solutions that impact people’s lives. As a mentor, I also seek to model behaviors that equip students for success in their future careers including always “showing up”, enjoying both the process and the product, demonstrating unwavering commitment to colleagues and each task that I have accepted, consistently working hard and to the best of my ability, and being willing to reach beyond my comfort zone to learn new things and engage new areas of science. Experience suggests that enthusiasm, camaraderie, and hard work are contagious, and a lab group that exemplifies these traits is very productive and great fun to associate with.

I have learned that effective mentoring is advisee specific. It depends upon their personality, motivation, maturity, and experience. Thus, critical early steps in effective mentoring are learning as much as possible about how to motivate each advisee and defining where they are on their path of professional development. Once these are defined, an effective mentor can institute strategies to maximize an advisee’s potential by sharpening existing strengths and implementing a plan to address areas of weakness. My ultimate goal for the advising process is to graduate capable, independent, and productive scientists, who are excited about what they do, who have the experience and demonstrated accomplishments to qualify for the life’s work to which they aspire, and who are equipped to carry out that work successfully.

Mentoring Effectiveness

Various metrics can be used to assess mentoring effectiveness. The following narrative lists metrics that I value, with each followed by selected examples from my mentoring experience.

1. Effective mentoring is evidenced by students being attracted to a mentor and by mentor-advisee interaction that leads to successful graduate program completion.

I have been a sought-after mentor, having served on 119 graduate committees. I have chaired or co-chaired the committees of 48 graduate students, including 26 doctoral students, and served on the supervisory committee of an additional 71 students (47 Ph.D.). Of the 26 doctoral students for whom I chaired or co-chaired their committee, 25 of 26 have completed or are on track to complete their degree program. My doctoral mentoring extends beyond UF. During 2013 alone I served as mentor to six Ph.D. students from other institutions, each at UF for six months of specialized training in my lab.

2. Effective mentoring is evidenced by advisees receiving awards and recognition during their graduate training.

My four most recent Ph.D. students were recipients of the UF Graduate School Fellowship. Dr. Miguel Castillo was one of three graduate students at UF to receive the 2011 Alec Courtelis Award for Outstanding International Student, the highest award given by the UF International Center. During the nine years of existence of a graduate student oral paper contest at the pre-eminent national meeting in my discipline, my students (Dubeux, Castillo twice, and Mullenix) have won first prize four times.

3. Effective mentoring is evidenced by students demonstrating skills that will be critical for success in their future careers.

Recent graduate student Castillo and current student Mullenix wrote successful grants supported by NSF and USDA, respectively, to support their Ph.D. research. Students for which I was primary mentor and who have received their Ph.D. since 2005 have averaged five refereed journal articles per student from their dissertation research.

4. Effective mentoring is evidenced by students who demonstrate lasting enthusiasm for their career path and are equipped to succeed in the job market.

Every former Ph.D. student for which I served as chair or co-chair is working in the discipline of their training. Recent/pending graduates Castillo, Mullenix, Dubeux, and Liu started/accepted tenure track positions in 2013 at North Carolina State University, Auburn University, University of Florida, and China Agricultural University, respectively. In total, 12 students for whom I served as chair or co-chair occupy tenure track positions in the US. In addition to the three listed above, the other nine are located at Univ. of Missouri, Virginia Tech., Univ. of Georgia, University of Florida (two), Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Univ. of Hawaii, and Univ. of Puerto Rico. Other former students are working in eleven countries at major universities, federal research centers, research foundations, and for NGOs.

5. Effective mentoring is evidenced when students sustain personal and professional contact with their mentor and seek opportunities for subsequent collaboration._\

My former students and I have participated in numerous multi-institutional grants, presented workshops, and wrote book chapters. Several have returned to UF for sabbatical leave. Each year at the national meeting, my group, now extending to several academic generations, goes to dinner to renew relationships and enjoy each other’s company, and occasionally to plan a few experiments.