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10 tips for effective management and mentorship – a discussion with Dr. Ellen Wohl

By Rosemary Records and Ellen Wohl

Five of Graduate Women in Science's mentors at a panel event, November 2014. Left to right, professors from CSU Dr. Sara Rathburn, Dr. Gillian Bowser, Dr. Ellen Wohl, Dr. Emily Fischer, and from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science Dr. Paula Cushing.
Five of Graduate Women in Science’s mentors at a panel event, November 2014. Left to right, professors from CSU Dr. Sara Rathburn, Dr. Gillian Bowser, Dr. Ellen Wohl, Dr. Emily Fischer, and from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science Dr. Paula Cushing.

Last year, a group of female graduate students at Colorado State University (CSU) co-founded a local chapter of the national non-profit Graduate Women In Science. This fall, they organized a series of casual lunchtime discussions with successful scientists at Colorado State University, based on pressing questions from their members: How do I start and grow a research lab, and how can I transition from successful graduate student to successful mentor? What is the balance I want to strike in my career as a scientist and my work as an advocate? What works (and what doesn’t) when I try to communicate science with people of non-scientific backgrounds?

In the first of this three-part series, we discussed with Dr. Ellen Wohl how to become an effective mentor. Dr. Wohl has mentored scores of graduate students (including Rosemary Records) since she began research on fluvial geomorphology at CSU. We were curious how she developed a mentoring style that has been so successful—according to students’ personal accounts as well as high recognition from the university. The following points are drawn from an outline Dr. Wohl provided, and ensuing discussion with attendees.

  1. Transitions matter. There are at least two big transitions in academia: moving from undergraduate to graduate work, and then from graduate work to a faculty position (another transition we weren’t able to discuss during the talk is that from graduate student to post-doctoral researcher). The first transition can be a critical aspect of the success of your mentees (see below), while the second transition puts you on the other side of the desk for the first time—suddenly, you are a mentor.
  2. Learn from experience. You will learn by doing, and from both positive and negative experiences you have had with your own mentors in the past. Pick and choose what you like—or turn away from what wasn’t effective for you as a mentee.  When students do not meet your expectations in one way or another, try to learn from the experience and don’t beat yourself up too much. Some students struggle with the undergraduate to graduate school transition and the self-discipline of long deadlines and necessary creativity of graduate work is hard for them to meet; it can be difficult to predict ahead of time who will make the transition well.
  3. Pay attention to time management and effort distribution. Most academic positions balance three categories of work: research, teaching and service. Learn right away what the expectations are for how to allocate your time, and the culture in your department (for example, what is the typical number of graduate students)—even if you don’t always follow these “rules”. Identify what kind of a program you want to develop, how much time you can realistically give, the number of students and the amount of oversight you are willing or able to provide—and be careful with how you commit your time.
  4. Know the support, requirements, and culture. Know what kind of support is available for students and what are the associated expectations (for example, does offering a teaching assistantship guarantee a full two years of support to the student?). What support is available to faculty members—financial support, access to important equipment, office space? It trickles down to the students. What are requirements and the culture for faculty (academic performance of students admitted, duration of support for advisees) and students in your program (courses, residency, seminar attendance, etc.)?
  5. Manage your investments wisely: students coming and going. The advising connection is a two-way, potentially life-long relationship, particularly if you have students who go on in academia. Students’ actions positively and negatively affect advisers, and what “counts” for your career as faculty is graduated students, publications, and awards or recognitions your students garner. Take time to select a student carefully, and when evaluating a new student consider aspects in addition to the standard academic credentials—work experience and letters of reference as well as GPA and GRE—that may give insight into whether the student will make the transition to graduate work well. Follow up with a phone call if letters of reference hint at potential issues or weaknesses—this may be very informative. Conferences are great opportunities to chat with potential students; meet one-on-one to see what kind of a “tone” the students set and if it fits in with the group “tone” you try to maintain. Once MS students in particular are wrapping up, be cautious of students leaving (e.g., for a job) without defending—unfinished degrees are common and don’t “count” toward your career even if they may be okay for the student.
  6. Keep expectations flexible and troubleshoot. Your expectations may vary for students with different goals for their career and what they hope to get from their graduate program (e.g., if students want an academic career, expect different engagement with the research). The amount of structure may depend on the student and where they are at on their degree trajectory. Some students may progress well and need less frequent guidance, others may fail to make progress, making weekly meetings necessary; those finishing a thesis or dissertation may need to meet more frequently. Of course, expectations need to reflect your own career needs as well. Students may have personal difficulties (such as mental health issues)—explore (don’t ignore) the resources you have available to address these issues.
  7. Be clear on expectations with students (such as amount/duration of support, expected number of publications) and be open to negotiating.
  8. Set the tone (and it varies over time). Ideally, a research group is a mutually respectful partnership among colleagues, and advisers set the tone to some extent. If you set up a collegial or very competitive environment, students will tend to reflect that tone. Think carefully about what relationship you want to have when you’re supervising. What’s your style—more distant, more casual? Remember that you still need to maintain some distance because your position requires you to judge their performance. This is particularly the case for new faculty who are close in age to their students—you might choose to do small things to separate yourself, like dressing a little more professionally (if you’re a woman, you might even wear a skirt!).
  9. Maintain patience and professionalism. Remember that students should not be expected to learn everything on their own—you are a mentor and they are students. Things that may seem self-evident to you (like setting up effective work habits or hypotheses) may not yet be obvious to them, and impatience usually isn’t helpful (blow off any steam in private!). Campus politics can be a hornet’s nest or a hive of busy bees—in any case, don’t involve your students in the local politics.
  10. Be a “fairy godparent”, and don’t be afraid to show you’re having fun! When GWIS Brown Bag-2you’re in a faculty position, you are more likely to be aware of opportunities and resources that might not be apparent to students. Keep your students informed of these opportunities and resources, do what you can to help the students attain them, and generally enjoy being a “fairy godparent” who makes nice things happen. Remember that advising can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of being an academic research scientist, and you will learn from your students and mentees in many different ways—don’t be afraid to show you’re having fun!

This post is being simultaneously cross-posted with CSU’s EcoPress blog and a members’ newsletter for Graduate Women In Science. Look for posts in November and December on parts two and three of our discussion series on balancing advocacy with a career in science, and science communication.

Missed the first professional development talk? Don’t miss another! You can still catch Dr. Scott Denning for his brownbag on advocacy in science Wednesday November 11, at 12 noon in LSC 140. Interested in how to frame your science and research? Join us on December 2, at 12 noon in LSC 300 for a mini-workshop on science communication led by Dr. Meena Balgopal.