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October 1, 2002

Community Essay

By Robert Deluty, Associate Professor of Psychology and Presidential Teaching Professor (2002-2005)

Much has been written recently about the role of the mentor in graduate studies. The importance of having an advisor to assist the student in the process of professional socialization (e.g., grant writing, colloquium preparation, job interviewing) is undeniable. An ideal mentor, however, goes beyond serving merely as a professional socializing agent. A wise and dedicated advisor can also assist the student in the pursuit of balance.

There are at least three major "balances" with which graduate students oftenstruggle:

(1) the balance between coursework and research (and fieldwork, for studentsin applied programs)

(2) the balance among the reading, writing, and conducting of research

(3) the balance between a personal life and a professional life

Many students begin their graduate studies after having performed brilliantly asundergraduates. Now, as graduate students with far greater workloads and heightened expectations, they typically find that it is much harder to be at the top of every class. In addition to more difficult coursework and more gifted classmates, graduate students also have research and/or fieldwork requirements demanding their time and attention.

Mentors can play a critical role in helping their students maintain a healthyperspective regarding grades (e.g., by challenging their irrational "need" for "A's" and their "catastrophizing" regarding "B's"); and in helping them achieve a professionally growth-promoting balance of academic, research, and/or applied training and experience.

For many graduate students, the most stressful aspects of their studies revolve around their master's and dissertation research -- reading (the relevant literatures); writing (e.g., one's proposal or final document); and conducting (e.g., running subjects, collecting and analyzing data). "I just have a few more articles to read and then I'll be ready to start writing." "My thesis proposal is not yet ready to defend; I've got another chapter to write before it's ready to go to my committee." Mentors hear remarks like these far more often than they'd like (and, undoubtedly, students utter them far more often than they'd like).

A mentor needs to be able to differentiate between a student who is making slow but steady progress toward the successful completion of her research, and one who is "stuck" or "near-stuck." A successful intervention by the mentor will have to take into consideration many factors, including

(1) the personality of the student (e.g., level of anxiety, perfectionism, hopelessness)

(2) the research skills of the student (e.g. conceptual, methodological, and/or data analytic sophistication)

(3) external factors (e.g., familial or financial pressures)

(4) where in the research process has the student become "stuck."

Regarding the latter, it is not sufficient to ascertain that a student is having problems with "the writing." It is critical to determine where, specifically, is the area of difficulty (e.g., the interpretation of unexpected findings in the "Discussion" section) before a mentor can offer meaningful assistance.

The third major "balance," the one between a personal life and a professional life,is perhaps the most difficult one to manage. Given the myriad demands of graduate school, it is often the case that students claim no (or very little) time for friends, family, outside reading, and physical activity. Mentors can be very helpful in reminding students that there is life beyond graduate school -- not only post-graduation, but also right now.

Assuming that they themselves have cultivated a personal life, mentors candemonstrate the physical and mental health benefits of outside activities and interests, and of maintaining friendships and close family ties. The costs of working single-mindedly towards a degree at the expense of their personal and social well-being also need to be addressed. Students would do well to take to heart the words of the academician who once remarked that he didn't want to be the sort of person who spent Thanksgiving and Christmas alone with his reprints.

Mentors must be mindful that balance is highly idiosyncratic, that the proper balance for some students may be improper for others (including the mentors themselves). The psychologist Abraham Maslow once noted that, "If all you have is a hammer, then you treat everyone like a nail." Since students have different personalities, abilities, obstacles and goals, they must be treated, and mentored, as individuals. Extending Maslow's metaphor, the mentor must employ a variety of "tools" (including sensitivity, insight, patience, judgment, flexibility and challenge) in helping the student find balances that are personally and professionally enriching and satisfying.

Robert Deluty recently spoke about graduate student mentoring and the search for balance at an OIT Brown Bag Seminar. A longer version of this essay appeared in The Retriever Weekly.

Posted by dwinds1 at October 1, 2002 12:00 AM