phd mentoring techniques
When it comes to doctoral students, there are two issues for faculty: 1. Should you agree to be an adviser? and 2. How should you train people?
Agreeing to be an adviser: Overall, my opinion is that every student who can demonstrate that they can finish a dissertation should have an adviser. The student needs to show an ability to independently generate competent work. If the student can’t do that, the department needs some clear signals early on – a failed qualifying exam, strong criticism of the master’s thesis, and so forth.
If a student is in good standing, then you should accept a student as long as you aren’t overburdened. Even though I am still early in my career, I feel no problem accepting any student who asks for help. My belief is that as long as I am qualified and not overextended, I have an obligation to help a student complete their degree.
Even though I have an open policy, that doesn’t mean that just anyone can sign up. I expect students to treat their doctoral dissertation seriously. So I usually make most students do some task, like a literature review, or prepare some of their own data for analysis before I officially sign up. My experience is that if you can’t do that simple task in a timely fashion, it’s unlikely that you can finish the degree.
Technique: I train graduate students in the way that we would train anyone else: repetition. I encourage frequent meetings that are focused on doing specific tasks, like prepping data, making a table, or writing up field notes. I also encourage the completion of concrete tasks like preparing a paper for journal submission.
Philosophically, I believe that a lot of doctoral training is ritualistic. The real test of academia is blind peer review. The faster you get to it, the better. The implication is that I place little weight on proposals, defenses, and so forth. If a student can push a paper through the arduous publication process, the dissertation and its rituals will take care of themselves. This doesn’t mean that I’ll accept a junky dissertation. What it does mean is that I encourage publication first because it is the core skill of the academic profession.
Finally, I make sure to have a constant, non-stop, conversation with students about their career goals. If they are interested in a teaching intensive career, then I don’t worry too much about journal placement. If they want to compete for research or elite liberal arts positions, they’ll need to focus early and hard on publication.
That’s my formula: focus on publication quality research from the get go; constant interaction; and pegging outputs to career goals.
Experienced advisers are encouraged to relate their training strategies in the comments.