Thesis / Dissertation Mentorship: A Faux Syllabus
Melanie M. Domenech Rodríguez, Ph.D.
Mentoring is a generative activity in which an “older” and “more experienced” professional provides guidance and support to a trainee seeking to enter fully into a given profession. I highly value mentoring both as someone who has received significant nurturing mentorship as well as someone who has developed life-long meaningful relationships with current and former students. I deeply value these relationships. My mentoring activities are predicated on the belief that mentors provide responsive guidance across multiple areas of professional, and sometimes personal, development. I use a “near-peer” lens; that is, I approach mentoring as training my future colleagues. I have met my mentoring goals most completely when my students/mentees surpass my achievements and competencies.
In the mentoring relationship, I highly value autonomy and self-determination. Students set their professional goals and take steps to achieve those goals. I also highly value interdependence and cooperation. Student are members of a “lab” community and as such, students cooperate with each other in supporting the goals of other members of the lab (e.g., helping with data collection). While students are not obligated to cooperate with each other, the expectation is that everyone will make a concerted effort to support other members of the lab. This is considered part of professional socialization. This cooperation is considered essential to the continue success of the lab and all the individuals that compose it. Any access to resources that I have access to are made available to all students in the lab, and resources are shared in a transparent manner.
In my mentoring interactions I am structured. Students can expect me to take notes and track outcomes. I clearly state expectations based on individualized plans (e.g., our three goals for the week). I strive to provide feedback in a supportive yet clear manner. Students in the Culture & Mental Health Lab quickly learn to recognize my “feedback sandwich.” Focusing on strengths before providing constructive feedback allows me and students to have a growth mindset where I honor and recognize strengths and assume my responsibility to guide students in their growth and development. In addition, helping students recognize their strengths allows for an intentional and deliberate growth in those areas of strength. I attempt to provide guidance that leads students to arrive at their own best answers rather than “tell you what to do.” The former allows for a greater universe of possibilities, and ones that will be more accurately applicable to you. It also grows students’ self-efficacy in professional decision-making. That said, I do adjust the level of structured guidance according to student needs and developmental stage so that students should not feel like they are “floundering” or aimless.
- To be reasonably accessible for ongoing or as-needed consultation (e.g., at least within a week of a request for a meeting, unless I’m out of town). Typically my students have relatively immediate access to me. It is typical for students in our lab to have my cel phone number and use it to text or call. It is also typical for meetings to occur at my USU office. But if I am unable to travel to USU for family or other work commitments (e.g., out of town travel), I may have students come to my house or meet over Skype/Zoom. Where topics are sensitive and students feel more comfortable, we sometimes meet at off campus locations (e.g., Café Ibis, Starbucks). All of these points of access are “normal” for our lab community.
- To provide timely feedback on drafts of work (i.e., within two weeks of receipt), including IRB submission. When I know in advance I will not be able to provide timely feedback, I will communicate this clearly and problem solve (e.g., perhaps asking a committee member to step in and provide feedback on a specific section).
- To know my strengths and limitations in terms of content area knowledge, methods, data analyses strategies, and write-up for final document and/or publication. Where my competence is limited, I will be clear about limits and problem-solve with my mentee to ensure a well-rounded experience (e.g., include a member on the committee with needed expertise, seek consultation)
- There is an inherent power differential in a mentorship relationship. You have the right to mentorship free from exploitation or harm (e.g., sexual advances, inappropriate remarks, humiliation, appropriation of your work). I have the responsibility to provide that. Keep in mind that there is a difference between exploitation and harm and the regular ups and downs of working together. At some point, you will be frustrated with me and it is possible that I will be frustrated with you and express that frustration (in a professional, productive manner; e.g., clearly label the problematic behavior and clarify my expectations for corrective action). Part of moving ahead involves genuine, frank communication between us! I welcome and appreciate dialogue. It is typical for my relationships with mentees to be life-long and such committed relationships require the ability to enjoy good times and work through difficult ones. Together.
- Good mentorship relationships often include multiple relationships. I will work to keep appropriate boundaries. I also believe that certain overlapping boundaries can be important and productive (e.g., celebrating special events, engaging self-care together). We may overlap in roles (e.g., you can take a class from me, be my RA, and my clinical supervisee). When this happens, we will work together to build appropriate boundaries across roles. My responsibility is to be aware of these multiple roles and provide ample opportunities to discuss any concerns in this area.
- Become IRB certified. Give a copy of your certification to me. Keep in mind that on any student project, the faculty mentor is the listed PI in the IRB forms. This means the faculty mentor needs to (1) review IRB forms before they are submitted, (2) sign the assurance form, (3) be kept informed of any changes in the status of the project that might affect IRB approval (e.g., changes in procedures that require an amendment be submitted to IRB). If there is an unanticipated event in your research, I expect you to notify me immediately. Most ethical issues are easily and uneventfully resolved with an immediate, clear, and humble approach to the problem. I strive to be level-headed and non-judgmental when problems arise. They are often learning opportunities and, albeit unpleasant in the moment, they are to be embraced.
- Organize collaborative structure
- Open a DropBox or Box folder for us to share so we can have shared access to your thesis/dissertation drafts and other important documents.
- In order to be able to fully collaborate, please keep all of your references in a DropBox or Box folder where I can locate them so that I can check your sources (e.g., for accuracy if something looks funny in your narrative)
- Become intimately familiar with APA ethics code, especially research portions, and carry yourself and your affairs in a professional and ethical manner.
- Assert your need for mentorship (e.g., if you have been progressing on as-needed basis and feel that must shift to scheduled/ongoing, please tell me).
- Be responsive to feedback provided by (a) making suggested changes, or (b) addressing why changes are not being made. You may do this in our regular meetings or by responding to comments in drafts. I expect that new drafts will be accompanied by the previous draft version with my comments on it so I can compare the documents. I reserve the right to hold off on reviewing a new draft until the old draft is in my possession for comparison-review.
- Seek alternative sources of information and support when necessary / relevant. I won’t know everything and other faculty and/or colleagues might be strong supports and allies. In graduate school, students typically have multiple mentors. Take initiative in identifying other sources to move along your program of research in a timely and competent manner. Students in the lab have done this in multiple ways, for example, by joining student organizations (e.g., Allies on Campus), by doing collaborative work with other faculty or attending their lab meetings, by taking specialized courses with faculty they wish to work more closely with. I celebrate your contact with multiple faculty. No one mentor can meet all of your needs. It’s good to have a variety of people with whom you can check in.
- Be mindful of timelines. Figure out when you want to graduate and then consider the time that some tasks take and plan accordingly (e.g., IRB review 6-8 weeks, data collection, receiving feedback @ about 2 weeks per version, drafts out to committee 2-4 weeks prior to proposal or defense). It is very stressful for both of us when you push deadlines in a way that puts the onus on others to be pressured to meet your deadline. A good friend of mine is fond of reminding others “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.” While I don’t personally operate with rigid adherence to these timelines, I do think this is a useful adage to keep in mind. Please expect that you will go through at least 6 full drafts (maybe more) before your document is ready for committee review. So, if you want to finish your degree by a set time, I highly recommend you do a “backward timeline” so you can estimate the times when you need to have specific tasks completed.
Important Points on Theses/Dissertations:
- The School of Graduate Studies has deadlines too and your ability to defend your thesis / dissertation does not solely rest on turning a proposal or final draft into your committee. You need paperwork before –e.g., supervisory committee form, program of study, appointment for examination-- *and* after –e.g., graduation forms—the actual meetings. Theses and dissertations undergo a final reading/approval by the School of Graduate Studies. You are responsible for knowing what these forms are and bringing them to your proposal/defense meetings as appropriate. In addition to grad school forms, there are also program forms that need to be attended to (e.g., research comp II) and sometimes that are best handled at proposal/defense meetings. See your Grad Student Handbook for the appropriate forms.
- Your thesis/dissertation is not done at the defense. The defense is “the beginning of the end.” Most students will have to make minor (e.g., editorial) changes to the final document. In more rare cases, students may have to engage major (e.g., new statistical analyses) revisions. Plan for a week of full time work on revisions following your defense. I recommend you spend the week immediately following your defense. The more time passes, the longer it will take to become reacquainted with your thesis or dissertation and the needed changes.
- I recommend you touch base (email or scheduled meeting) with each member of your committee approximately one week prior to your defense. This will allow you to check in with that committee member on any concerns they might have about your thesis/dissertation prior to the meeting. You can then address these concerns at your defense.
Statement on authorship:
- I assume that students are primary authors of publications resulting from their thesis projects. If students are not pursuing publication, then I will likely ask that I be given the opportunity to turn the thesis into a publishable article. If I do so, I would expect to be first author (unless the amount of work to turn it around is minimal).
- It is customary to include the thesis chair and, sometimes, other committee members as authors on publications resulting from thesis work. Thesis are the first major research projects that students engage in. It is unlikely that the project idea, conceptualization, and conduct are undertaken by the student researcher to the degree warranted by sole-authored works. When significant intellectual contributions have been made by others (even if they don’t write significant portions of the work), this may warrant authorship credit.
- I assume that students are primary authors of publications resulting from their dissertation projects. I assume that most, if not all, students will pursue publication of their dissertations as first authors. Dissertations may be completed more independently by student researchers and, as such, may warrant sole authorship. However, in many instances the chair and/or dissertation committee members have made significant intellectual and editorial contributions. In these cases, authorship credit may be warranted. I encourage you to engage discussion about authorship at all stages of your project. Decisions about authorship may shift as the project progresses. Clear communication leads to happy collaborators.
Statement on quality of work / plagiarism:
- A primary cause of unethical and/or unprofessional behavior on the part of psychologists is burnout. Writing a thesis and/or dissertation can intense and difficult, and is a risk factor for burnout. Burnout can lead to many oversights in attaining and maintaining quality of your written document, data collection, data analyses, and interpretation of results. Please check with me if you are feeling burnt out and be sure to engage self-care as needed to successfully get through this process.
- Remember there’s a difference between self-care and avoidance. The former allows you to keep a steady pace of engagement, the latter just makes a thesis/dissertation more painful to complete.
- Because of the evolution of electronic records, it has become increasingly easy to unintentionally engage in plagiarism. Please exercise good note-taking habits by writing notes in your own words from the get-go. It is difficult once you have a stack of notes to remember which segments of text were written by you and which you “copy and pasted” onto a document. Theses and dissertations will likely undergo plagiarism checks by me. After a few drafts, I learn the “voice” with which my students write and I can often recognize when text is written in a way that deviates from that “voice” or style.
What to do if there is a problem (i.e., you have a problem with me):
- Bring it up with me (as per informal resolutions of conflicts, see APA ethics code)
- If informal resolution is not a good option, speak to a trusted faculty member that may facilitate a productive discussion between you and me.
- If the problem is of sufficient magnitude that neither of the above seems appropriate, go to your program chair (e.g., Susan Crowley, Combined-Integrated), and up the ladder as appropriate: department head, college dean or dean of the grad school, etc. Keep in mind that you should start at the lowest possible level, because it is what is professionally appropriate and, if you skip steps you will likely be told by others to go back down the ladder (so you might as well use your time wisely).