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Talk About Teaching and Learning
April 20, 2010, Volume 56, No. 30

Award winning mentors Phyllis Solomon and Kathleen Hall each wrote a short essay about helping doctoral students develop as scholars. They focused on different aspects of that challenge; Dr. Hall wrote about mentoring the students and Dr. Solomon about guiding doctoral research. Together these two essays discuss two fundamental questions about how to work with PhD students.

Teaching Doctoral Research: Not Training Technicians

Phyllis Solomon

Upon coming to Penn fifteen years ago, I was asked to teach the doctoral research methods course. In order to familiarize myself with the course content, I requested the course syllabus. It reminded me of the syllabi for every research methods course I had ever taken in my bachelors, masters, and doctoral programs. However, I had my own ideas of what a doctoral research methods course should look like. Luckily, I was given carte blanche in designing the course.

So what is different about my research methods course? In every research course I had ever taken whether in sociology or social welfare, professors always stated “theory is related to research and theory is essential to sound research,” but that is where the discussion ended. Unfortunately, the texts did not do any better job in addressing this important topic. But as a doctoral student, I had the opportunity to take a course in theory construction. I found this course to be the most exciting one I had ever taken as it taught me a new way of thinking—with greater clarity, precision of concepts, and a means to integrating the extant literature within a well-conceptualized framework. These conceptual skills proved to be invaluable in my career as an applied researcher and professor.  

To this day, my doctoral students are assigned the same text by Paul Reynolds1 that I used in which he delineates “the causal process form of theory.” This logical process of thinking and writing has been the most difficult for students to grasp. I have found that if students have the opportunity to re-do the assignments provided in the text, with a great deal of very specific and critical feedback from me, and without grading the assignment until they truly understand the conceptual process, most students can master it. I try to demonstrate with both written feedback and individual meetings with students how each logical link in the process needs to be thought carefully through and articulated, without missing an important conceptual step. I have them outline the logical process with a series of relationship statements and existence statements, using the logic of A is related to B, B is related to C, and therefore, A is related to C. Furthermore, each concept (A, B, and C) needs to be well-defined and specific, so there is no ambiguity as to what the construct means in its context. I point out how a concept, when it is unclear, can have many different meanings. Until students achieve these fundamental requirements they can not begin to write.

Even my strongest students have taken as many as three or four assignment re-submissions to learn this logical, deductive process. However, once they learn this new way of thinking, they report that it drastically changes the way in which they think and write their assignments across all their coursework. Students cannot move forward to the next assignment until the previous one is completed correctly; otherwise, they will not succeed at the next one. Each written requirement is a step in an iterative process that leads to the final research proposal.

The first assignment for proposal development requires students to justify the importance of answering the research question. Students must answer the “so what question”? They cannot resort to “it has never been done before” as an answer to the significance of the question. My response is “there may be a reason for that—no one may care about the answer!” They are directed to think about who cares about the answer to the question and what the answer will do for practice, policy, and/or programs.

My goal in teaching research is to train creative and critical thinkers—not technicians. I am reminded of my high school chemistry teacher who once said, “I do not train plumbers.” My students are taught to take into consideration the environmental context and realistic constraints in designing their research studies. A study that is technically well-designed, but cannot practically be implemented is not worth the effort. Students learn to creatively use the rules of the scientific enterprise to fit the realities of community-based service environments. Often students want formulaic answers to design research. I clearly communicate to them that those who do research in this manner are mere technicians and not scientists. The sound scientist is one who not only knows the rules of logic and science, but also applies them with the highest degree of rigor possible given the environmental constraints. My students leave my course with an abiding understanding of this process.

1 Reynolds, P. (1971). A primer in theory construction, Boston, Allyn and Bacon.

The Elusive Art of Mentoring

Kathleen Hall

When the Graduate School of Education faculty considers ways to improve our doctoral program, conversations tend to focus on core and research methodology courses, professional development workshops, and research experiences. What is less often discussed is doctoral student mentoring. Yet as survey data from the PhD Completion Project suggests, while every doctoral student has a dissertation advisor, “not every student has access in their doctoral program to someone they consider a mentor.” 1 Mentoring, the report concludes, is practiced and valued unevenly in doctoral programs.

Acquiring content knowledge and methodological skills is clearly a central aspect of doctoral education; but the more intangible lessons learned through mentoring relationships, I believe, are equally if not more fundamental to effective professional socialization. Individual mentoring can encourage students to develop a sense of purpose in their work and confidence in their own insights so they can pursue and express their ideas as engaged scholars. Just what enables a faculty mentor to guide students in that development, however, is difficult to explain and nearly impossible to model in any generalized way.

It seems clear that effective mentoring involves developing personal, respectful, and trusting relationships, which in turn requires people skills, an open mind, and a willingness to dedicate a great deal of time to one’s students over the course of many years. Mentors provide a window to a desired professional role, and, more significantly, perhaps, reflect back to students their potential and support them in realizing it. As counselors and coaches, mentors must strike a fragile balance between providing support and maintaining high expectations as they guide students through each step in the dissertation process. Yet, what is less clear is how good mentoring relations are formed and maintained.

The art of mentoring is elusive in part, perhaps, due to the unique qualities and characteristics of individual faculty members and students. Our differences as individuals lie not merely in our personalities, social skills, and interactional-communication styles, but also in what we each bring to the mentoring relationship. Students come to graduate school with unique professional aims, from different educational, social and cultural backgrounds, and having enjoyed, or not, varying types of support systems. These influences and many others shape the divergent ways that students experience and work within the social context of particular doctoral programs, and, in turn, what they look to a mentor to provide.

During the nearly fifteen years I have been teaching at Penn, I have continued to be fascinated by how greatly students differ in what they need from me as their mentor. It is impossible to predict how a mentoring relationship will evolve. This is, in part, why mentoring is so difficult as well as so fulfilling. Learning to work well with a student, and being responsive to how their needs change at different stages in their professional socialization demands much more than academic expertise and intellectual skills. It requires empathy, intuition, and an ability to listen carefully to what a student tells me—directly as well as in what he or she will not or cannot say. These skills are necessary to what I believe is the most important part of mentoring, drawing out from students what they want to achieve in conducting research, writing a dissertation, and in their future careers. Good mentoring, in my view, does not involve self-replication or a simple process of academic “acculturation.”   What my students seem to need most is someone who will help them gain the confidence to articulate their own vision of and purpose for their work and to find a career path that allows them to pursue this vision.

Learning to mentor, then, in my experience, is a humbling process. With each new student there are new things to learn. I have learned and continue to learn a great deal from my remarkable mentees as I try my best to mentor at least half as well as my remarkable mentors mentored me.  

1 Council of Graduate Schools. 2004. PhD Completion and Attrition: Numbers, Leadership, and Next Steps, Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools. Cited in Council of Graduate Schools, PhD Completion Project website, “Promising Practices: Mentoring and Advising,” http://www.phdcompletion.org/promising/mentoring.asp, accessed July 28, 2009.

Dr. Phyllis Solomon is a professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice and Dr. Kathleen Hall is an associate professor of education in GSE with a secondary appointment in the department of anthropology in SAS and is director of the South Asia Center.
Both won the 2009 Provost’s Award for Distinguished PhD Teaching and Mentoring.


This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.

Almanac - April 20, 2010, Volume 56, No. 30