Sara Mitchell believes good mentors are candid with their students. She chooses to tell her students what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear.
This straightforward approach has earned Mitchell the respect of her students, as well as top recognition from the University of Iowa Graduate College for excellence in mentoring graduate students.
Mitchell received the 2012 Graduate College Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award in social sciences. She is professor of political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
“When a student does something well, I tell them that. When they do something that is not very good, I try to be honest with them,” says Mitchell, a UI professor since 2004. “I would say honesty is the best policy, which, amazingly in our field is kind of rare.”
Mitchell was nominated for the award by her students and colleagues and honored during a ceremony Nov. 27, at the Levitt Center for University Advancement.
Clayton Thyne, who earned his doctorate at the UI in 2007, illustrated Mitchell’s tough-love philosophy in the nomination letter he wrote on his mentor’s behalf.
Thyne recalls his lackluster effort in helping out with a conference that Mitchell held at the UI.
“Sara sent early and consistent signals that she would accept nothing but excellence in all facets of my development, and this is what she eventually got,” says Thyne, associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky. “Regarding the ‘love’ part, Sara is quick to give credit where credit is due, though she will never give praise when it is not fully warranted. This means that one can take her praise to heart, knowing that it is completely genuine.
“Put simply, when Sara speaks, people listen, and her tough-love approach is well known beyond Iowa.”
Mitchell has advised 19 doctoral students during her academic career—12 scholars at the UI and seven at Florida State University.
As a female scholar, Mitchell is passionate about providing mentoring opportunities to underrepresented groups, especially female scholars in her research area of international conflict—traditionally a male dominated field. In 2001, Mitchell helped create an informal mentoring group for Women in Conflict Studies (WICS). Starting with just four faculty members, the national group has grown to over 90 faculty and 100 students.
The primary goal of WICS is to help integrate women into the profession early, providing them with an additional source of contacts working in the same general research area with whom they can collaborate and exchange feedback on their work. In addition, women can receive advice on professional matters, both gender related and non-gender related. Since 2001, WICS has hosted gatherings at major conferences at least twice per year.
In 2004, Mitchell and fellow UI faculty member Kelly Kadera created the Journeys in World Politics Workshop, designed for mentoring female scholars in their field. The workshop is highlighted by research presentations by junior scholars, feedback on research from conference participants, sessions on career and gender topics (networking, mentoring, balancing family and work, women in the classroom, negotiations), and oral autobiographies by senior scholars.
“We work in a field that is pretty male dominated. The basic idea is to create a network for women,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell appreciates receiving the mentor award and credits her students for her selection.
“Teaching, researching, and mentoring are all integrated processes,” Mitchell says. “Your research is better when you integrate it to your classroom and have students involved in your projects. They push you in directions that you didn’t anticipate.”
Mitchell’s students feel the same about her.
“Sara has been a great mentor to me and my fellow graduate students, always willing to listen to problems and offer advice,” writes doctoral student Mark Nieman in his nomination letter on Mitchell’s behalf. “She provides guidance through the sometimes uncertain waters of academe. Sara is an outstanding scholar and an even better mentor.”