Mentoring philosophy

No matter where you are in your career, academia can feel a bit like back-country orienteering. You pick a destination far off in the distance, make a plan for getting there, and then set off into the wilderness. In some places, especially early on, there may be well-worn trails. But as you go further, you will increasingly have to blaze your own path. The going is often tough. There may be times when you need to stop, figure out where you are, and reassess your plans. But with planning and a good support system, most destinations can be reached and the journey will be worth the effort. Although cheesy, I think this metaphor provides a good basis for my mentoring philosophy:

My role

I believe strongly that as an adviser, my job is to help students figure out where they want to go, to equip them with the right tools to get there, and to make sure they don’t get too lost along the way. My job is not to choose my students’ destinations for them or enforce a specific path. To this end, I strive to work with each lab member to establish long-term ambitions, shorter-term goals, and a roadmap for achieving these objectives. The degree of assistance that each student needs will vary as a function of previous experience, career goals, and self-sufficiency. Regardless, my primary role is to understand the needs of my students and provide them with the support they require to advance their career.

Over the course my career, I have found that my most productive relationships are based on respect, humility, hard work, and humor. These are traits that I strive to bring to the lab. They are also the traits I look for in collaborators and students. Members of my lab can expect me to provide a supportive, respectful working environment and above all I expect all lab members to contribute positively to this atmosphere.

Post-docs

Post-docs are at a transitional phase in their career: still under the supervision of a mentor but expected to demonstrate the ability to conduct research as an independent scientist. The primary purpose of doing a post-doc is, in my opinion, to get a permanent job, not to pad the CV of your mentor. Therefore, I view post-docs in may lab as collaborators rather than employees or students. Early in your post-doc, we will establish a set of deliverables for the project that is funding your fellowship and a plan for carrying out the research. We will also discuss your career goals and identify opportunities to strengthen your CV in areas that will help you land a job. I may lean on you from time-to-time to help with teaching or mentoring duties but you should focus first and foremost on publishing papers, getting grants, and applying for jobs. Where applicable, we will work together to design new projects and find additional funding. If at any point during your post-doc you get offered a job that you want, TAKE IT! Whatever project you’re working on for me will survive.

Graduate students

The expectations for graduate students enrolled in the Department of Wildland Resources’ MS and PhD programs are outlined in the graduate student handbook. This document also contains useful information and advice for being successful in this department. Additional resources for completing your degree, including a checklist of degree completion requirements for both the MS and PhD programs, can be found on the Department’s website. This checklist will serve as the primary guide for developing individual expectations within the lab.

Within the degree completion requirements, I recognize that individual students have different expectations and objectives both during and after graduate school. My role as a mentor is to help you formulate and meet those objectives. For this reason, I will meet with each student in my lab early in your first semester and then on a regular basis to discuss expectations, goals, and progress. During these meetings we will develop a mentoring plan that establishes shared objectives, timelines, and deliverables. This plan may (and will likely) change over the course of your graduate career but will serve as blueprint for us to establish your personal goals and a defined path for progress and evaluation.

Undergraduate students

Getting involved in on-going research projects or establishing independent projects with the help of a faculty mentor are great ways for undergraduates to gets hands-on research experience, deepen their understanding of scientific concepts, and become more competitive for jobs or graduate school. Utah State has the second oldest undergraduate research program in the nation and provides several ways to get involved in research on campus (and to obtain funding!). The University’s Honors Program also provides opportunities for undergraduates to become involved in research.

All of these programs require a faculty mentor and I am happy to help interested students plan, implement, and communicate independent research projects. I plan to establish several local field projects that focus on the ecology of birds in and around Cache Valley. These projects could provide numerous opportunities for independent research by students interested in ornithology, population ecology, behavior, and statistical modeling. If you are interested in the work done my lab and would like to get involved in undergraduate research, please contact me about research and funding opportunities.

A note on work-life balance

Academia is stressful. Social isolation, imposter syndrome, and competitive job markets all contribute to high rates of mental health issues in graduate students. Although some stress is unavoidable, suffering from mental health issues is not inevitable. Spending time with family, finding activities that help you recharge your batteries, and taking time off are all important strategies for maintaining mental and physical health. These activities also tend to boost long-term productivity. One of the reasons for developing a individual mentoring plan is so that we can judge your progress based on explicit expectations and goals rather than proxies like hours spent in the lab. We will meet on a regular basis to make sure you are on the right track and I do expect students to make steady progress. However, as long as you are making progress towards your degree, when and how you work does not make much difference to me. If you work best early in the morning, late at night, or during the weekend, that’s fine. If you can get everything done M-Th, take long weekends. Bottom line, find the schedule that works best for you and go with it. I pledge to encourage members of my lab to have a healthy life outside of the office and to lead by example.

I also recognize that a healthy work-life balance may not, by itself, be enough. If you are in my lab and feel like you are struggling with mental health issues, please come talk to me. We will work together to find help.

The material in this document was inspired by and borrows from the “Bahlai Lab Policies” by Dr. Christie Bahlai and her lab group, used under CC BY 4.0. The Rushing Lab policies are licensed under CC BY 4.0 by Dr. Clark Rushing

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Clark Rushing
Assistant professor