Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Graduate student researchers explore uncharted territory, but they don’t do it alone. Faculty mentors help guide their progress. Here’s one student’s story:

I am in my lab late in the evening, working hard to solve a problem. The emerging data do not match my initial hypothesis, and I am looking for ways to redefine the parameters of my research.

My mentor appears in the doorway, on his way out for the weekend. I seize the opportunity to talk through my situation. As I explain the problem, I follow him down the hall to the elevator. When the elevator arrives, I find that I am nearly holding my breath as I ask, “So what should I do?” At that moment, I am hoping that he is about to offer a simple, easy solution.

He boards the elevator in silence and turns to look at me. As the doors of the elevator close, he says, “Keep working on it. See you next week.” The doors thud as they close, and the elevator takes my mentor to the parking lot. Resolution seems out of reach, and I stand there stunned. This is not what I had expected.

I have no choice but to take his advice, so I return to the lab. The reality is this: I must find a new way to look at the problem at hand. There is no shortcut.

Over the course of the weekend, I work on the problem, too driven to go home, too tired to think straight. Somehow, my mentor must know that something will materialize. Finally, I am able to make a breakthrough that leads to a new perspective on my research.

I believe that I am able to find the tenacity to continue with my research because of my mentor. I am lucky to have a mentor who understands how to support my efforts in ways that challenge me to keep working even when it doesn’t feel like progress.

This scenario is repeated daily in research labs and scholarly settings the world over. The best mentors give students enough direction to ensure that they do not drift off course, but allow students enough freedom to develop independent research skills. Graduate students learn to navigate unrecognizable territory, and effective mentors provide balanced guidance during the toughest moments.

I hope you’ve read the stories in this newsletter about our most recent winners of the Graduate College Outstanding Mentor Award. I commend Iowa’s graduate faculty for their work as mentors, and I hope that as alumni, you will consider supporting our commitment to mentoring by volunteering your time or contributing to the Graduate College General Fund.

John C. Keller
Associate Provost for Graduate Education
Dean, Graduate College