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Careers Café

Hangin’ with the students

BY NICOLA KOPER | MAY 15 2012

Funnily enough, despite the decades I spent as a student, it has been the informal mentoring that I’ve received from my colleagues and supervisors that has helped me to become the kind of graduate student supervisor that I am today… a good one, I hope. FS taught me to be passionate, RB taught me to enjoy my student’s ideas, MM taught me to bring together the best in the field so that we can mentor each student as a team. But today I want to talk about just one of the many intangible, valuable things that I’ve learned from one of my all-time favourite mentors… let’s call her “LF” (you know who you are).

LF is one of the most important leaders in her field. She has quite literally shifted paradigms. Her research group is extremely prolific and publishes in the best journals in our field. But get this: she hangs out with her grad students at lunch. Every day! For an hour! When I first started to collaborate with LF, starry-eyed from meeting the author of my favourite papers, this is what blew me away. She is a leader in her field, but still makes this kind of commitment to spend time with her students. As I worked in her lab, it quickly became clear that this informal activity has been notably influential in the success of her students.

This daily, unstructured availability of LF to her students has numerous positive consequences. Naturally, there are daily informal, pleasant discussions about everything from where to go camping, to music and literature. This helps students to realize that university professors are human, and don’t need to be intimidating in order to be helpful guides on the road to discovery. But these lunches are also opportunities for unstructured academic discussions. Students who need help or want to bounce ideas off other people get timely feedback, and everyone learns what constructive criticism and the challenging of ideas looks like, in a non-threatening environment. You just can’t schedule this stuff.

I’ve come to think of this as the “driving your teenager to band practice” method of supervision. No, wait, hang in there … I’ll explain. If you sit your kids down to a formal dinner once a month, you can’t expect to find out the truth about their inner lives. The way you find out what’s really going on is when … you got it… you drive them and their friends to band practice. Then you’re just hanging out in the front seat, minding your own business, and eavesdropping. The truth comes out: who likes who, which teachers suck, and which parties are going to be “awesome” (adult translation: “trouble”).

It’s kind of the same with supervising graduate students. You need to be there, on a regular basis, so that you build trust, students relax around you as you become less intimidating, and you are there when they need you … not a week later, at 3:30 p.m., for half an hour. Does this take a real and meaningful time commitment? Absolutely. But it makes a real and meaningful difference to the success of students, too. And when students are successful, we all are.

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