From the Issues in Graduate Eduation column of the November 2007 Perspectives

Graduate Student Mentoring

Ronald Walters, November 2007

When I began teaching in my first real job, the two things about which I was most apprehensive were lecturing and training graduate students. In the end, I came to love doing both, although I eventually decided that liking to lecture might be a character flaw. Teaching graduate students, however, means seeing young men and women develop an independent scholarly voice. I am grateful for having been able to watch that happen.

Thinking systematically about what I've been doing on an ad hoc basis while teaching students, I came to some conclusions, including ones I hadn't anticipated. They are set out below.

There is no one-size-fits-all formula. Graduate students and faculty vary enormously on such crucial matters as: (1) how to do research and to write; (2) how much structure they need, and how much freedom; (3) how to respond to criticism and how much positive reinforcement they need; and (4) what type of a relationship they want—some graduate students want the mentor to be a buddy and others are understandably horrified at the thought. On the matter of positive reinforcement, I reexamined my own practices several years ago when a student said, in the nicest possible way, that she appreciated critical comments on her manuscript, but would occasionally like to know what she did right. My assumption had been that she knew she was smart and doing good work, because I would have told her otherwise. That episode made me aware of the importance of balancing criticism with praise and of considering what mentor and student each need to hear, something that requires a good deal of openness on both sides.

Thesis topics. When I began my career there were dissertation directors who regarded graduate training as a form of cloning themselves, down to assigning thesis topics. If a mentor doesn't do that—and my guess is that very few of us now do so—what are the ground rules for selecting a dissertation topic? The most helpful criteria for me are: (1) it has to be something I know enough about to be helpful; (2) it has to promise to make a contribution a body of scholarship, or, more rarely, to create or reshape a field; (3) it has to match the strengths and intellectual resources available in the graduate program; and above all, (4) it has to address a question about which the student cares deeply. Without that kind of passion it is tough to make it through to a PhD or convince a potential employer that you would be a stimulating colleague. At Johns Hopkins University, we talk about needing to answer the "so what?" question, a code for always being able to tell someone in another field why what you're doing matters.

Teaching general skills. It is obvious early in the process that graduate students know far more about their topic than I do. At that point I see my role as one of an honest, sympathetic critic. But I also hope to help them hone general skills that apply beyond the dissertation—skills such as how to ask questions of unfamiliar data; how to assess different types of arguments; how to respond to questions in seminars, conferences, and the classroom; and how to edit one's own writing (a skill I myself have yet to master).

Be communal. When I began my own thesis, the friendship and generosity of other young scholars working on American abolitionism was exhilarating at a time (a bad job market) that could have inspired selfishness and back-biting. Similarly, because my department is relatively small and has a strong tradition of departmental seminars, we do a great deal of sharing work across fields and across disciplinary lines. That has been very fruitful and I encourage students not to be shy about doing the same thing among themselves and with faculty, including at other institutions. Competition is great in some realms, but community—broadly defined—probably produces more creative scholarship.

Look different. In both intellectual and practical terms it is crucial for a graduate student to "look" different from other job applicants in positive ways. The best thing you can do to look different, of course, is to produce outstanding work. Beyond that, having outside validation—whether in terms of publications, grants, or conference appearances—helps demonstrate that you have impressed someone other than your dissertation advisers. It is also useful to have special skills or experiences. These come in many varieties—working with visual materials, being computer savvy, having museum or archive internships, and participating in public history programs, to name a few. Such experiences demonstrate range and versatility, as well as a desire to be an effective teacher and an ambassador from academia to the public.

Consider all options. In history departments heavily oriented toward teaching graduate students (like mine) the implicit assumption is that everyone's goal is a PhD followed by a faculty position. The academic life, however, is not for everyone and there are exciting alternatives to it—in public history, foundations, archives, and publishing, for example. Discussing those alternatives with mentors can be awkward. Unfortunately, I have no insightful advice on how to make such conversations more comfortable, other than to suggest that students and faculty keep the focus on the primary issue—finding the best fit with the student's strengths and interests.

Although I've had a lot of on-the-job training in directing dissertations, and learned an enormous amount about doing it from graduate students, my models remain my teachers, Winthrop Jordan and Leon Litwack, who taught by example that flexibility, intellectual engagement, support, and constructive criticism go a long way toward making the journey to a PhD a positive one. Make that "mostly positive."

—Ronald Walters is professor of history at Johns Hopkins University.