Remarks of the 2014 Graduate Mentor Award Winners

Mary Lui, Professor of American Studies and History; Graduate Mentor Award in the Humanities

Thank you Dean Pollard, esteemed members of the Graduate School, and the amazing graduates of 2014 for this tremendous honor.  I am deeply humbled and appreciative to be receiving this year’s Graduate Mentoring Award along with Professors Huber and DuFresne. 

I feel that I share this award with my wonderful colleagues in the American Studies program and history department who have shown by their example their unwavering commitment to graduate teaching.

I owe this award to the incredible mentoring I received as a graduate student in Cornell’s history department.  I still remember my visit to the university after being accepted.  I took the long Greyhound bus trip to Ithaca from New York City.  My future advisor found time in his busy schedule to meet me at the bus station.  While driving to the campus, we talked about my research interests in Asian American history. 

Most of that day was a blur, but I still recall the moment when we drove by one of Ithaca’s famed gorges and he pointed out Carl Sagan’s house.  As a child of the 1980s – I was thrilled to see where the host of Cosmos lived.  And now as the parent of 10 and 7 year old boys, my husband and I have the fun of experiencing Cosmos anew and watching their faces glow with excitement and curiosity as they contemplate the physical world around them. 

If any of you are fans of the show, you might recall the series premier that employed the metaphor of the “cosmic calendar” to give viewers a sense of the vast scale of time in the creation of the universe.  At the episode’s conclusion, the current host, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, brought his discussion of cosmic time back to our scale on earth by surprising viewers with Carl Sagan’s date planner.  He turned to the entry for 12/20/1975.  There, the simple entry “Neil Tyson” appeared on the nearly blank page.  With genuine feeling, Tyson shared the ways in which the world renowned Sagan had shown his generosity and given his support to a young 17 year old Neil Tyson who was just about to embark on his own remarkable career as an astrophysicist.  Tyson didn’t end up at Cornell, but he said that the experience of meeting Sagan taught him about “the kind of person I wanted to become.  He reached out to me and to countless others.  Inspiring so many of us to study, teach, and do science.  Science is a cooperative enterprise, spanning the generations.”

Tyson’s sentiment echoes so much of my own feelings about teaching and mentoring graduate students. 

Particularly, in my work with graduate students I see them as future colleagues and possible collaborators who will surpass us in their teaching, research and writing.  We often cannot even begin to imagine their future accomplishments.  My role, as an advisor, is simply to remember their unlimited potential and stand ready to guide and support as my own advisors did.  And to offer kindness in times of need.  It is also my job to get out of the way –- so that they can find their own voice, make their own way in their fields, and truly come to OWN their own scholarship. 

As the Director of Graduate Studies in American Studies, my aim these last two years has been to make sure that we have a program that sets our students up for great success.  To this end we have established workshops to prepare for the academic job market as well as created opportunities to connect with our alumni who chose to pursue careers outside of academic teaching and research.

I have also aimed to build and maintain a strong graduate community.  In the humanities so much of our work is solitary.  When not in the classroom, we spend our time reading or researching in libraries and archives or writing in isolation.  At times, it may be difficult to gather as an intellectual community to share work and support one another.  The building of community is not to be taken for granted but takes commitment on the part of faculty and graduate students alike.   And we build that community through our generosity as scholars by providing critical feedback while also professing our admiration for new ideas and ways of thinking. 

It is my hope that you were all the recipients of great mentoring in your time at Yale and that you will also remember with great fondness the support you received on the long journey to the PhD.  As you embark on your new careers, I hope that each of you will also generously share all that you have learned and inspire a new generation of critical thinkers and scholars who will no doubt go onto accomplishing great achievements that we can only barely imagine.  

Eric Dufresne, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, Physics, and Cell Biology; Graduate Mentor Award in the Natural Sciences

Thank you very much. 

I am honored to receive the Graduate Mentor Award.

I would like to thank all of the graduate students, post-docs and undergraduates I have worked with in our lab over the years.  I have learned so much from you. I am so proud of the contributions we have made to science and engineering together. 

To the graduating students assembled here, I would like to share a bit of my view on mentoring.

As you take the next step in your career, please remember that one mentor is not enough to support anyone’s growth and development.  Be sure to build what has been called a ‘constellation of mentors’ – a group of individuals with complementary perspectives, experiences and skills that reflects your aspirations and abilities.  Your constellation of mentors should extend beyond your immediate colleagues and collaborators, and reach into your broader network of friends, family or teachers. 

As you become a mentor, encourage your protégés to seek support from others.  Within the laboratory sciences, good mentors mold their research group into a cohesive team.  In the best labs, each team member acts as a sort of peer-mentor, providing essential technical-and-emotional support for the day-to-day struggles of research. 

Throughout your career, it is essential to understand that every effective mentoring relationship is different.  In essence, the path to effective mentoring has to be rediscovered every time.  To get there, both sides need to devote time and energy to building trust and understanding.  Mentor and protégé need to appreciate what their partner has to offer and hopes to accomplish.   With this mutual understanding, they can intelligently identify a path to their shared goals. 

To re-iterate, first remember that we all need more than one mentor.  Second, each mentoring relationship needs to be thoughtfully built upon the unique skills and aspirations of each side.

With that, I would like to congratulate all the graduating students and their families. 

Thank you. 

Greg Huber, Professor of Political Science; Graduate Mentor Award in the Social Sciences

Thank you. I am deeply honored. I want to start by congratulating all of you who are receiving your degrees this weekend. I also want to take the time to thank the informal mentors that I know almost every student has—the parents, partners, friends, and fellow students who help them through those dark moments in graduate school.

I’ve been a Director of Graduate Studies for 3 years, which if you know anything about political science, is a little like being a parent to 4 children who speak 4 different foreign languages, some of which you don’t understand.

This is great job. You get to learn when anyone is going to have a baby or gets a job offer. You also, unfortunately, learn about bad things, like when a student loses a family member or gets no job at all. You also get to participate in the sublime, as when a student gets in trouble for illegally sharing copies of their favorite TV shows online and you have to sign a form to get them out of trouble.

I found that figuring out the role is hard, because it is very different from advising a single student. It is about simultaneously advising about 80-100 students. I’d never done that before. So, as I’m want to do, I called up the people I knew who had done this job before and asked them what they had learned. That was the beginning.

So what is the job of being an effective mentor to an entire PhD program? I think, in a nutshell, in boils down to this:

You want to provide students with information that you now know, by virtue of your experience, so that they can make choices to get where they want to be.

As my students can tell you, I’m a checklist person. And so, here are my 7 most valuable pieces of advice. You are graduating, and perhaps because you now get to wear these wonderful robes, people are going to look to you for advice. Maybe this will give you a head start:

1) Wear a bicycle helmet, your hair is not your most valuable asset

2) Everyone in graduate school is a good student or they wouldn’t be here. But that doesn’t mean they have any idea about how to be an academic, because it has a whole lot less to do with being a good student that you could ever imagine. So faculty members have to help students make the transition from student to researcher and teacher. This is also true in fields where you will leave the university setting and go elsewhere, so make sure your students are prepared for what they will have to do.

3) You can’t change what students want. Believe me, I’ve tried. But you can help them to understand the relationship between the choices they make and what they want.

4) It is okay to decide you don’t want to become an academic. Part of being an effective mentor is reminding students they can do something else. Those students who hear this and leave end up happy, because it frees them to do something that pays much more. Other people take their PhD and go do something else, and that’s great too. By reminding people that they have the option to leave the university you free them from the assumption that not wanting to be an academic is some sort of character flaw. Believe me, it isn’t.

5) We learn by doing, and we often do the first time by copying someone who is better at what we want to do. That’s called apprenticeship. But for a student to become an apprentice, they have to ask someone else if they can work with them. This means they will have to learn to talk to their professors. Believe it or not, many students are afraid of speaking to the faculty. Consequently, they do not realize that the faculty are interested in helping them succeed, and the faculty don’t know when a student is interested in working with them because the student won’t say hello. As a mentor, try to be an academic matchmaker.

6) We have a very hard time anticipating how we will allocate our time in the future because we are very bad at figuring out that our supply of time won’t increase in the future. This means you can’t do everything, and so you should pick what you like, and realize you’ll never be less busy. People doubt this, I’ve learned, and so you need to show people now what they will be asked to do in the future or they will believe they will be less busy. It also means that if you have time now, you should invest in doing things that you won’t have time to do in the future. While I cannot tell you what you ought to enjoy, you should take the time to think about it.

7) My memory is poor, and if I fill it with details, it crowds out creativity and happiness. If you write things down, they outlast you. As an advisor, you can write down plans for the future and share them. I’ve made many checklists—about going on the job market, what you ought to be doing in each year you are in a PhD program, how to give a job talk, etc.—and those checklists free me and students from remembering, reduce uncertainty about the future, and set expectations that can guide those who aren’t sure what they should do now to get where they want to be. Additionally, when you write something down, if it doesn’t work, people tell you, and you can improve it. So memorialize your mentoring so you don’t always have to repeat it.

Thank you, and good luck.