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

June 11, 2015

The Graduate School prizes mentors who support the professional, scholarly, and personal development of the students they advise. GSAS News asked a number of students and their advisers to share their thoughts about mentorship. Here’s a sampling of what we learned.

Adam Dynes (Political Science) is writing a dissertation about legislative tactics that elected officials can use to their electoral advantage. His adviser is Gregory Huber, professor of political science.

Adam: My success in graduate school is a direct result of the mentoring relationship I have with my adviser and another member of my dissertation committee. Both understand academia as an apprenticeship, and accordingly took the initiative to make sure I was involved in research projects with them early on in my training. Sometimes, this resulted in my working on projects that I didn't feel completely ready for, but that's how we learn and grow and come into our own as researchers. 

Greg Huber: You want to provide students with information that you know, by virtue of your experience, so that they can make choices to get where they want to be. To be clear, this means that you aren't trying to change what students want, but instead to help them make choices that will allow them to achieve what they are after. Everyone in graduate school is a good student or they wouldn’t be here. But that doesn't mean they have any idea about how to be an academic, because it has a whole lot less to do with being a good student than you could ever imagine. Faculty members have to help students make the transition from student to researcher and teacher. This is also true for fields outside the university setting. It is okay for them to decide they don't want to become an academic. By reminding students that they have the option to leave the university, you free them from the assumption that not wanting to be an academic is some sort of character flaw. Believe me, it isn’t.

Michael Zimm (Classics) knows that “Graduate school is not just a time to do research.”  It provides an “opportunity to foster a transitioning identity from student to professional.” His dissertation, “Constraints on Speech in Democratic Athens: 480 to 261 BCE,” considers “how the Athenian democracy, which on the surface valued political debate, determined what sort of speech was ‘out of bounds.’” His adviser is Victor Bers, professor of classics.

Michael: An outstanding adviser attends not just to the academic pursuits of a student, but also demonstrates concern for him/her as a human being. A good mentor gives honest feedback, always with the goal of helping, and never to put students down or wound their pride. If the mentor properly nurtures this relationship, the student will never feel ashamed to show his work to his mentor, and his creativity and intellectual thought process will not be dampened. Victor Bers has served as my role model for navigating the numerous and complex facets of life as an academic. When my beloved Newfoundland dog passed away unexpectedly, Victor and [my other adviser] Emily Greenwood expressed care, sensitivity, and flexibility that should be the model for any adviser who has a student navigating the unexpected hurdles that life can throw one’s way.” 

Victor Bers: Since the Classics PhD thesis is usually the student’s début in the scholarly world, the dissertation should not be immediately identifiable as coming straight from the workshop of the director. To that end, I strive to play both bad cop and good cop, never holding back in expressing any doubts, perplexity, or criticism of style; but at the same time, I concede — and congratulate — when the student has found relevant material I knew nothing about or has demonstrated that what I used to think was unlikely, or even impossible.