Mentor the Researcher, Not the Research

George J. Pappas, Joseph Moore Professor in the departments of Electrical and Systems Engineering, Computer and Information Science and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, recently wrote an essay for The Almanac on his experience developing the next generation of engineering researchers, teachers and leaders.

George Pappas

During my Penn career, I have mentored more than 30 students and postdocs and almost all of them have become professors, matching their professional aspirations before joining Penn. While there are many approaches to PhD mentoring, I would like to offer three fundamental aspects of my mentoring philosophy.

Student-Centric Mentoring
There are two primary models of PhD student mentoring: project-centric mentoring and student-centric mentoring. In project-centric mentoring, the professor has a research project from a sponsor and then recruits graduate students specifically for that project. The project is well defined, has clear scientific objectives and deliverables (depending on sponsor), and the PhD student performs research toward realizing the goals of the project. This model serves many PhD students and their mentors extremely well and may be ideal for mentoring undergraduate research.

For my PhD students, however, I have always chosen student-centric mentoring, where the primary mentoring emphasis moves from the research project to the doctoral student, from the research to the researcher. While the project-centric approach emphasizes the research project and meeting deliverables and deadlines, which are critical to the sponsor and research supervisor, the student-centric approach focuses on reaching the maximum potential of every individual PhD student.

I have adopted a student-centric mentoring philosophy for two reasons. First, every doctoral student is different. Some are more theoretical, some more experimental, some more creative, some more organized and some more collaborative. Hence, getting the most out of every PhD student requires finding the right project for the student, not the right student for the project. This approach has worked particularly well for my group, which has about 15 members and is well funded from various agencies. Having a variety of qualitatively different projects is perfect for student-centric mentoring as I can focus on which research area (or combination of areas) can best develop the unique strengths of every student.

Second, while project-based mentoring focuses on producing great research, student-based mentoring focuses on educating great researchers, with great research being almost a byproduct. This approach ensures that the student will be producing great research after their doctoral thesis. Student-centric PhD mentoring is the ideal integration of education and research, which should be our focus in premier research universities.

Of course, it is entirely appropriate to consider more hybrid models in which a mentor begins with a more project-centric approach before transitioning to a more student-centric approach as the mentor comes to know more about the student’s technical strengths and intellectual interests.

Continue reading at The Almanac.