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Faculty hone mentoring skills to benefit graduate students

By Dave Jones on July 28, 2011 in University News

From recruiting Puerto Rican students to building cohesion in a graduate group spread across the Davis and Sacramento campuses, a yearlong program focused on mentoring and fostering inclusiveness for graduate students is already spawning new efforts.

Called Mentoring at Critical Transitions, the program used a $20,000 award from the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service for two retreats and a series of workshops on how faculty mentors and departments can better help students successfully navigate the stages of their graduate careers.

Now the participating groups for 2010-11 — three academic programs and one that fosters interdisciplinary training for graduate students — are using an additional $16,500 in funding to put that learning into practice.

"We're hoping to spread the gospel beyond those of us who attended," said Pam Lein, chair of the participating Pharmacology and Toxicology Graduate Group and a professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine's Department of Molecular Biosciences.

Involving more faculty and now students, the participating programs will survey faculty and graduate students, hold workshops on topics from mentoring challenges to nonacademic career options for doctoral students, increase faculty contact with first-year graduate students, and recruit students from two campuses of the University of Puerto Rico.

Graduate Studies offered the mentoring program after winning the $20,000 grant in a competition for innovative proposals to enhance graduate student success and degree completion.

Only about 60 percent complete degrees

Good mentoring is critical to helping graduate students complete their educations, said Lenora Timm, associate dean of Graduate Studies. "They're investing in themselves, and the faculty invest time," she said. "When people walk away without a degree, it's a lose-lose situation."

At UC Davis, only about 60 percent of doctoral students complete their degrees, Timm said. This is consistent with the national completion rate.

The mentoring program addressed findings from a 2009 survey of UC Davis doctoral students, Timm said. Twenty percent of the 1,827 respondents indicated that insufficient or inadequate mentoring or advising had hindered their ability to complete their degrees, and 80 percent of that group indicated that better research guidance would have improved their satisfaction with their mentors.

While UC Davis offers professional development programs for graduate students, Timm said, the mentoring program was a first because it provided training for graduate faculty. "We are looking at these transitions from the faculty perspective," she said.

Among the 35 faculty members and academic administrators in the 2010-11 program was Karen McDonald, associate dean of Graduate Studies and Research in the College of Engineering. McDonald is a professor chemical engineering and materials science, and she directs CREATE-IGERT, an interdisciplinary training program funded by the National Science Foundation, for graduate students in agricultural technologies and engineering.

"I think this mentoring program has been useful in trying to understand students’ needs as they go through various phases of their programs," McDonald said.

3 critical transitions

The mentoring program identified three critical transitions for the doctoral student: adjusting to graduate studies and graduate course load, preparing for the qualifying exam that demonstrates breadth of knowledge in the chosen field, and working on the dissertation and entering the professional world.

Mentoring program participants were drawn from CREATE-IGERT, the Department of Physics, and two graduate groups: Agriculture and Environmental Chemistry, and Pharmacology and Toxicology.

The mentoring program held a retreat in the fall and workshops every six weeks on issues in graduate education, including mentoring underrepresented and disabled students as well as those who have children, dissertation writing, conflict resolution, preparing for qualifying exams, and career options beyond academia.

Toward the end of the program, the participating graduate programs submitted proposals to improve the recruitment, training or retention of their graduate students, and Graduate Studies awarded $16,500 to fund the proposals:

CREATE-IGERT will send a faculty member and graduate student to recruit students from the Mayaguez and Rio Piedras campuses of the University of Puerto Rico, which McDonald said has high-quality programs in engineering and agricultural sciences as well as a diverse student population. The effort will tap as an ambassador Lucas Arzola, a doctoral student and CREATE-IGERT trainee at UC Davis who graduated from UPR.

CREATE-IGERT also plans to hold a faculty workshop to discuss case studies on mentoring challenges and best practices.

Agriculture and Environmental Chemistry will survey students and faculty members about mentoring. Guided by the survey results, the graduate program will hold workshops or a retreat on the transition areas as well as a symposium or panel discussions on careers for its graduates, including those in nonacademic fields.

Pharmacology and Toxicology held a retreat in June to strengthen cohesion, communication and cooperation among about 85 affiliated faculty spread over the Davis and Sacramento campuses. In addition, the program is planning an event for graduate students to discuss the role of the mentor, the benefits of having more than one mentor, and the student's responsibility in a mentor relationship.

Physics will invite four additional students from underrepresented groups and first-generation college students to attend its annual open house for admitted students, foster interactions among faculty and first-year graduate students, and bring additional speakers to campus for its career seminars.

Variety of career paths

McDonald, who has seven graduate and three undergraduate students working in her lab, said she wanted to improve her own mentoring skills and involve as many faculty trainers as she could from CREATE-IGERT.

"It’s good because faculty often start serving as mentors without any training or understanding of best practices," the professor said.

McDonald said she found out how important it is to expose graduate students to a variety of career paths. "Many of our doctoral students are not going into academic tenure-track positions," she said. McDonald and her colleagues have included speakers from nontraditional doctoral careers, such as a patent agent, in the seminar course required for the CREATE-IGERT students.

Lein said she has mentored about 25 students since becoming chair of the Pharmacology and Toxicology Graduate Group about a year ago. She also serves on dissertation committees and advises students.

"Students are coming in with new expectations," Lein said. "It is important for faculty to develop open and trustworthy relationships. You actually have to know something about your students."

Lein said the program provided advice on how to help students with writing and oral presentations and even on resolving conflicts. "These are things we all need to learn but aren’t necessarily trained in," she said. "I learned a lot about resources to help students and faculty."

Even though the original grant support has ended, Timm said Graduate Studies aims to continue the program on a smaller scale and apply for other external grants. "We would like to get this type of program institutionalized on this campus," she said. "It is an incredibly important development tool for our graduate faculty."

Media contact(s)

Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,