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A Series: Evolving from Student to Colleague, Thanks to Faculty Mentors

April 13, 2015

Having been a graduate student at Yale (in the 1970s) and now a professor who has taught here for over 20 years, I think the hallmark of our program is the close, supportive rapport that faculty build with graduate students, while also respecting the close intellectual relationships they build with one another,” says Gilbert Joseph, the Farnam Professor of History and International Studies.

Mentors know how to ask a question that they don't know the answer to,” says recent graduate Oana Luca (PhD 2013, Chemistry). “There's something thrilling about a mentor relinquishing some of their authority and acknowledging that they don't have all the answers — I guess that's the whole purpose of research,” she says. Luca now works as a Research Associate at the Scripps Research Institute. She still corresponds with her graduate adviser, Robert Crabtree, the Conkey P. Whitehead Professor of Chemistry, exchanging “an average of 10-15 emails a week with Bob, almost two years after graduation. I consult him about science and about mentoring challenges of my own, and he always has excellent advice and is willing to share it with me.”

The Graduate School prizes mentors who support the professional, scholarly, and personal development of the students they advise. At Commencement each year, three faculty members are honored for outstanding mentorship, chosen from the many professors who have been nominated for the award. GSAS News asked a number of students and their advisers to share their thoughts about mentorship. This series explores a sampling of what we learned.

Erika Helgen (History) is doing research on religious violence in Brazil, advised by Gilbert Joseph, the Farnam Professor of History and International Studies. 

Erika says: Having a supportive adviser has been crucial to my success and well-being as a graduate student. In academia, you often feel as though you are being pulled in one thousand different directions — you are researching, teaching, presenting at conferences, applying for fellowships, etc. — and it is often difficult to take a step back and think holistically about your goals as a graduate student. A good adviser not only prepares you for the individual challenges of graduate school, but s/he also keeps pushing you to think about the bigger picture. That is what my adviser has always done, and I think that I have benefited greatly from it! 

Gil Joseph has gone above and beyond to help me out many, many times over the past years….  I especially remember when I was doing research in a small town in rural Brazil, and I was having a tough time gaining access to three important archives. When I wrote to Gil about the problem, he immediately wrote me three different letters of introduction that were tailored to each archive, so I was able to gain access the very same day. It was a crucial moment for my research, and I was so fortunate to have Gil's support.

Her adviser, Gil Joseph: I had a superb mentor of my own while doing my PhD at Yale: one of Brazil's leading historians, Emilia Viotti da Costa, who was forced to go into US exile during the Cold and Dirty Wars that wrought havoc in Brazil in the 1970s and 80s. The memories I nurture of her sitting down with me to go over each of my dissertation chapters almost page by page, for hours at a time — not always 'easy' encounters — impressed upon me the labor of love (sometimes tough love) that good graduate mentoring is all about.

We develop intellectual bonds with our graduate students that last a lifetime.  In some sense, our students become members of our extended families and representatives of an intellectual lineage at Yale and in the larger profession that spans generations.

In fact, the only drawback about an abiding commitment to graduate mentoring is the realization every winter that it is my former doctoral students — now mainstays of the best Latin American history programs at places like Harvard, Duke, NYU, Texas, Georgetown, and the California campuses — whom we must increasingly compete with for the cream of each year's new crop of graduate students!  A small price to pay for the intellectual fellowship and deepening friendship that serious mentoring epitomizes.