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How Do You Say ‘Keep Going’ to a Stymied Student?

The knock on my door didn’t sound different from any other knock, so I had no idea that my day was about to get much better. My mentee walked in. She had been my doctoral student and was now my colleague, thanks to an unusual set of circumstances that had led her to start her academic career at our university. As a result, she had been working hard to diversify her experience and her scientific network. She was also submitting grant applications and multiple manuscripts to journals. That day she walked into the office, emitting a kind of radiance that made my heart leap.

“I got the grant,” she said with a giddy laugh.

As I leapt from my chair and shouted, “Yes!,” she hugged me, exclaiming, “I got it! I got it!”

Only several years before, she had been a first-year doctoral student and had hit the wall that so many doctoral students do when they realize how little they know, how much there is to learn, and how daunting the process can be.

“You said it would be like drinking from a fire hose, Dr. Stewart, but I swear I’m going to drown,” she’d said back then, looking small and shaken and nothing like the exceptionally bright and talented student our faculty had interviewed.

“You will not drown,” I said emphatically.

We talked for a while that day, with me playing the role of cheerleader. I had recruited her to our program and would serve as her primary adviser. Although she was in the early stages of her studies, I was confident that she had the talent and the tenacity to make it.

“Focus on why you are here,” I told her. “Focus on the research you want to do and the people you want to serve through your science. The classes are giving you the tools to do that. Think about how you’ll use those tools for your research.”

Of course, I wasn’t always the cheerleader; she routinely referred to me as a “hard-ass,” which to her chagrin I took as a compliment. But sometimes our students get stuck, becoming overwhelmed by the challenges they face as they progress in their academic programs. In fact, most doctoral students with whom I have worked (not to mention my graduate-school classmates) admit that they considered dropping out on at least one or two occasions (first semester and some point during the dissertation process appear to be the most common low points). Yet nearly all of them are talented people who went on to complete the Ph.D.’s and achieve professional success. And so we faculty mentors regularly find ourselves in the position of nurturer or coach, the person who says “Keep going” when the student is on the brink of exhaustion.

My strategy is usually to help students tap into what led them to the program in the first place: What did they want to do, and how is this program going to help them get there? Helping them see their coursework or dissertation as a means to that end when they have temporarily lost sight of the finish line can make it all seem less daunting.

Other students clearly have unreasonable expectations for themselves. The perfectionists who are driving themselves beyond reason may need coaching (or even counseling) on how to let go of counterproductive internal standards. Still other students need a dose of tough love to get back on track, and for them I often think of this line from the movie A League of Their Own: “It’s supposed to be hard! If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it! It’s the hard that makes it great.”

What mentoring strategies do you use to help your students and mentees when they hit the wall? If you are a student (or recent grad), what helpful advice did your faculty mentors give you when you were in despair?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Steve Kwan]

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