Dr. Martha C. Monroe
School of Forest Resources and Conservation
2019-2020 Faculty Doctoral Mentoring Award
I can remember the feeling of exhilaration when leaving my PhD mentor’s office as if it were yesterday. I often paused at the hallway window to capture a few more thoughts not yet in my notes, so quickly had our conversation moved across the landscape of interests. Those meetings engaged me in the excitement of scholarship—exploring research questions and strategies while grounding those ideas in practice and application. Together we went beyond what I could do alone. He carefully deflected my errant ideas and focused on the valuable essence. It is my great pleasure to generate the same feeling of excitement in my students. Successful mentoring prepares my students to become leaders in research and practice, with a critical yet visionary outlook, and with passion and focus to help bring our world closer to sustainability. I do this through a combination of guidance, quality control, community support and attention to individual needs.
Guidance. While my doctoral students tend to arrive with academic skills and practitioner experiences, most need assistance navigating the research process, honing their curiosity into researchable questions, and building their skills in critical, academic writing. I ask each student to present their ideas during weekly lab meetings and encourage everyone to offer suggestions, related questions, interesting references, and opportunities. We test out survey items and card-sorting prompts on each other, winnowing down the options, and including new ideas. We also critique our posters and conference presentations to improve flow, explanations, graphics, and impacts. After a few semesters, students offer excellent feedback to each other; we become a thoughtful and supportive community. I also regularly involve students in Extension projects and teaching opportunities in addition to their research, giving them an opportunity to provide leadership, gain skills, develop a publication, or earn additional income. Leading a workshop for practitioners, consulting on an evaluation project, and providing advice on a new program allows them to gain experience for professional and academic careers. Helping to design assignments, provide a lecture, and plan each class with me gives students important experience for a teaching career. Through avenues such as lab meetings, project work, and teaching, I provide guidance for my students, both collectively and individually, that helps direct their interests and skills.
Quality control. I challenge students, set high expectations, and provide support to excel. I provide feedback at every step along the way, from research brainstorming to conference proposals and ultimately, manuscripts. I edit dissertation chapter drafts at least three times, offering suggestions on structure, flow, and word choices. In addition to improving their writing skills, this degree of feedback helps them become more resilient to reviewer comments; they know how to revise and reframe their work by the time they graduate. My students also learn to both reconsider and defend their ideas, helping to strengthen their command of the literature, their proposals, and their confidence. Another strategy I use to help them improve their thinking and writing is reviewing journal manuscripts so they can practice critiquing and supporting others.
Community support. Although a PhD is a singular accomplishment, we are all members of communities and their support is critical to our success. My lab group reforms every fall as members graduate and new students join, and become a powerful network of course advice, friendships, and joy. We celebrate graduations with a meal or canoe trip and take time for learning new skills, such as bread or pie making. We make sure there is room for partners and babies at the table, and opportunities to laugh. Professional associations also are a community. All my students attend and present at national conferences; I introduce them to people whose work they’ve read and help them launch conversations into the intersection of their interests. The conference itself tends to be a bonding experience for students as well as an unparalleled exposure to the field. They also see me interact with colleagues and peers, give presentations, and note my service to professional organizations. They extend their community to these professionals and see ways in which they can both benefit and enhance the field. I look for opportunities to champion my students, such as converting an invitation to give a conference keynote into a coordinated panel of PhD students. They practiced, we anticipated questions, and the statewide audience is still talking about those fabulous grad students at UF!
Individual needs. Each student has unique needs, skills, and challenges. My mentoring style is flexible enough to accommodate health challenges, family additions, or the reality of being on the other side of the planet from everything they have known. I aim to empower students to make their own timelines, set their own expectations, and prioritize competing demands, and then help them stick to their goals and find success. By listening to students as they express their interests, I feed back to them suggestions for research directions that might be useful. They might think I’ve suggested something brilliant, but I’m usually only reframing what they’ve already mentioned.
One recent addition to my suite of mentoring strategies has been the development of a seminar for academically interested PhD students in human dimensions of natural resources. Our unit does not have common coursework for PhD students and I felt we were missing an opportunity to provide guidance on some components that are relevant to most students. Three colleagues (A. Adams, D. Adams, and T. Stein) and I pilot tested the concept, with discussions around developing a CV, surviving job interviews, using a conference to your advantage, and graduating with experiences that indicate the ability to earn tenure. This seminar has recently been accepted as a course in our unit, and I am co-teaching with B. Iannone and J. Hulcr. We believe one strength is our multi-disciplinary approach.
My mentoring style is effective when scored on the traditional metrics of PhD students graduated (11 of my own and 23 as committee member) and papers co-authored (36 in journals and 9 book chapters). The qualities I find even more rewarding, however, are the expressions of passion and dedication to the field, the research topics they tackle over time, and the confidence they bring to future endeavors. I continue to provide advice and support to former students, coauthoring books, and even exchanging students. My investment does not stop at graduation.
In a field as small as environmental education, I am cognizant that my work with graduate students has the potential to impact the profession. I currently have one of the most productive labs on the continent (with Stanford as my only competitor). It is not just what we work on and write about that has this potential to impact the field, however, but also how we work. I believe that how I mentor students is one way to model a professional work ethic and lifestyle that students may wish to emulate. As they send graduate students to conferences I see our relationships mirrored in the next academic generation, and for that I am grateful for the chance to have been their mentor. As a result of mentoring, I’ve built a community of students who are traveling together farther than any of us could go alone, and helping each other reach our goals.