Professors Discuss Mentoring Grad Students

It’s usually not a challenge to get someone to share the name of a person who mentored them in school or professionally. But how do you become the kind of mentor that people fondly remember as someone who made a difference in their lives?            

This was a topic of conversation at a Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CETL) seminar on mentoring graduate students, which was held as part of the center’s teaching kickoff event in mid-August. 

It featured a panel of Georgia Tech faculty and staff members who shared some of the challenges they face in mentoring graduate students, as well as advice on how to be a successful mentor. Read on for thoughts from some of the panelists.

Dennis Hess, Professor, School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
YEARS TEACHING: 35
CHALLENGE: Since graduate school can be frustrating at times, it can be difficult for students to establish and maintain motivation over a four- to five-year period. So I involve them in decision making on project directions and approaches from the beginning. I also send them to conferences and have them meet with visitors to Tech. This allows them to hear views distinct from mine on the work that they are doing. Often students feel their work is significant only to their thesis director; after they realize this is not the case, their motivation increases.
ADVICE: Listen to students and offer
encouragement and constructive feedback on their concerns and performance. This includes showing respect for their opinions and concerns. This offers an opportunity to show professionalism and demonstrate how to deal with disagreement and conflict. Remind them that all of us make mistakes in judgment — both personally and professionally.

Laura Hollengreen, associate professor, School of Architecture
YEARS TEACHING: 17
CHALLENGE: It would be working with students who don’t begin as particularly critical thinkers or articulate writers. I address this head-on in the kinds of comments, directions and framework I provide for their work, nudging them in
the direction I want them to go, regardless of their point of
departure.  
ADVICE: Meet your students. The time you invest up front can be significant but the long-term benefits are substantial. Students who’ve gotten to know you a bit will feel more confident approaching you for help when they need it. Consider how you want students to grow over the trajectory of whole courses and design your assignments to facilitate and reward that growth, while minimizing the penalties for early mistakes.  

John Krige, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, School of History, Technology and Society
YEARS TEACHING: 15
CHALLENGE: It would have to be dealing with bad writing, disorganized arguments when students have no understanding of the professional norms that go with being a researcher. To remedy this, I insist that students take all the relevant CETL classes they can.   
ADVICE: Get the student to plan his or her intellectual trajectory through the program from the get-go. Define milestones and deliverables with the student, and ensure that they are kept. If there is slippage — there always is — try to understand why, and redefine more realistic milestones and deliverables with the student.

Carrie Shepler, Director of Freshman Chemistry, School of Chemistry and Biochemistry
YEARS TEACHING: 7
CHALLENGE: When I first started working with graduate students, I avoided conflict if at all possible. Now, I make a conscious effort to provide feedback early and in smaller doses. I approach it from the perspective of making things better for all parties involved, and I try to help students embrace evaluation as a positive thing.  
ADVICE: Make your expectations as clear as possible, and don’t be afraid to give constructive feedback when those expectations aren’t being met. Share your passion and excitement for the discipline with your students. If they understand what makes you tick, then your decisions and perspectives make more sense. This makes creating a teamwork environment easier.

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  • Dennis Hess

  • Laura Hollengreen

  • John Krige

  • Carrie Shepler

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