Thoughts on Mentoring to Train and Retain Methodologists

The following post is written by Frederick Boehmke, Professor of Political Science at the University of Iowa. Boehmke hosted the 2010 meeting of the Political Methodology Society at the University of Iowa.

Mentoring as a Tool for Retaining Methdologists

“But I’m not a methodologist!” I have heard this refrain many times from graduate students and younger faculty members who would seem to me to be extremely methodologically knowledgeable and have always wondered what this claim says about us methodologists. For I am a methodologist and have no problem saying so just as plainly as I would claim to be an Americanist. Yet no one who studies American politics would say “But I’m not an Americanist!” Of course, if I am methodologist then at one point I suppose I must not have been one, which begs the question: when did I become a methodologist and why? And how can we get more talented young scholars to make the same transition?

Not to spoil the surprise, but in truth I have no idea when this metamorphosis occurred. I certainly didn’t think I was a methodologist when I got a B+ in Linear Regression in graduate school. But I figured I probably was one when I was entrusted with hosting the Summer Meeting. In between lay teaching a bunch of graduate methods classes and writing a handful of methods papers, so it probably happened somewhere along the way as a junior faculty member. I certainly doubted my “status” at times, from the time my advisor ordered me to introduce myself to Gary King as a graduate student (he was very friendly once I mustered up the courage, of course) to the first time I presented a paper at the summer meeting (which was one of the three most nerve-wracking talks I’ve given).

So having been through these experiences, now when I talk to a graduate student or junior faculty member who seems pretty on top of things to me, it frustrates me to hear this phrase. If our goals is to get interested and energetic people involved in the group and attending and contributing to our meetings at a higher rate, then we should all recognize that the phrase “but I’m not a methodologist” has become our enemy.[i]

How do we banish this thinking? How do we get more people to come (and come back) to the meeting? How do we attract more people doing methodologically intelligent and creative work? How do we encourage them to submit that work to Political Analysis? While many academic, intellectual, and societal forces interact to make people reluctant to stake a claim to being a methodologist, one that I think matters quite a bit and that we can control is mentoring. I know that I neither would have found myself in some of the aforementioned situations nor would I have been as prepared to survive them as I would have without my graduate advisor’s support and counsel.[ii]

Mentoring graduate students constitutes one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of this profession. It is also one of the most important tools at our disposal for recruiting and retaining new generations of methodologists into our ranks. Given the hesitation that many young scholars feel in declaring themselves part of our group, mentoring must feature even more prominently in attracting new scholars to our meetings, journals, and conversations than it might for students working in other areas. And even more so for students outside the prevailing core of methodologists, those that might bring greater numbers and diversity to the group, whether from outside the top schools, or women, or minorities. As Shannon’s initial contribution in this symposium notes, these potential methodologists face even greater challenges in overcoming their reluctance to give up the thinking that leads one to say “But I’m not a methodologist.”

To that end, this contribution offers some thoughts on mentoring and advising graduate students. The underlying motivation rests with getting more students interested in methods and joining the methods community and, in particular, with overcoming the peculiar form of methods phobia described earlier, but most of the content should likely be useful beyond methods or methods students in particular. It goes without saying that what follows represents just one person’s thoughts – one man’s thoughts. The set of experiences that I have had give me a particular viewpoint on mentoring. And while my perspective has evolved over the years through conversations with many members of the field, my department, and at home about diversity issues in political science and academia in general, it nevertheless heavily represents the sum of my own personal experiences.[iii]

What works for me will therefore not necessarily work for everyone, neither would every advisor nor advisee be best served by heeding my suggestions. My experience alone has taught me that the best advising approach varies substantially across students and that the advisor must find the approach that works best in a given situation.

I’ve also noticed that being an effective advisor for one student increases the chance that other students will approach you in the future and that those students will already have a sense of your comparative advantage in terms of advising style, which tends to increase the chance of a successful outcome. And, let’s be honest, since I tend to fit into the caricature of the scary senior methodologist, it doesn’t hurt to have an established track record of effective advising to increase the chance that students will put that aside and come talk to me.

Mentoring Students as Professionals

For those just starting out as advisors or even for those more seasoned but willing to consider someone else’s experiences, some of the suggestions here might prove useful. Admittedly, I have somewhat more limited experience to draw upon than many of the more seasoned members of our group in this area. Still, I have directly supervised dissertations for at least eight PhD students – most successful but some not – and have written at least twenty recommendation letters for more than ten different Iowa PhD students to attend the summer meeting in the last ten years, half of which were for women.

Advising students with an eye towards getting them involved in more technical pursuits – whether methodological or theoretical – takes a fair bit of time and work in my experience. Certainly some students come ready with the training and skills to immediately excel at more technical pursuits, but this seems more the exception than the rule and I suspect that such students will likely face few challenges in participating in the methods community. But for the rest, which constitute a large part of those that we want to reach out to, more time working on skills, developing research projects, and providing feedback appears beneficial.

The earlier you can begin the process, the better. Having started my service as an advisor in anywhere from a student’s first to fourth year, I can unequivocally say that starting earlier provides more opportunity to expose students to the research and training that will give them a better chance to succeed in methods.

Get students involved in a collaborative research process as soon as possible, ideally in their second year. This offers a chance to lead by example. If the paper has a methods component, even better, but that is not necessary. Attention to methodological details plays a crucial role even in research with fairly standard data analysis and it offers an excellent chance for students to get familiar with the various software and models that they may have only just been exposed to in their classes. Practice brings comfort which can then be leveraged to learn more advanced techniques. This also provides a great opportunity to build good coding and documentation habits, though I have found that no matter how much I stress the use of batch files, good code, and good notes, students still often go for the easiest short-term approach at first.[iv] But this just sets the stage for the epiphany of the wisdom and value of good practices in a year or two when you go back to revise the paper and analysis. Learning from mistakes has its place.

I also use this year to let students explore their own research interests, usually by letting them pick an article or two every week or two to discuss. This eventually helps identify a research area and a dissertation topic. I think it’s best for students to identify their own research interests rather than to hand them a topic. Not that I’m above sharing good ideas, but even then students will be more interested and willing to invest in advanced skills when they have a role in selecting the idea from a menu they’ve helped construct. This process can take a year or two and occasionally a little longer, but when a great idea comes along it really tends to jump out to everyone and stick. Identifying the topic earlier allows more time to invest in the specific skills needed to execute it, but even when it takes longer I always encourage students to take lots of methods classes and get training outside of our program whenever possible. This helps build a stable of skills that can inform potential research interests as well as provide a foundation for understanding methods talks or preparing to offer a wide variety of classes as a faculty member.

As the student begins to work on a collaborative research project or their own work – whether a conference proposal, grant submission, research paper, or dissertation chapter – they will come to you with questions or ask you to read drafts. Respond immediately when they come by your office with a question. Read drafts and provide comments within one day whenever possible. This accomplishes two things. First, and especially early on, you want to encourage questions and provide positive reinforcement by answering quickly. This helps build a supportive relationship and establish trust – something that you will need in abundance when you tell them to propose and present a poster at a methods conference. Second, research is all about momentum, especially when you are graduate student and it becomes the central feature of your life. Waiting two weeks for comments on a paper from your advisor interrupts that momentum and throws the entire project off track. Students usually don’t have as many projects as faculty members going simultaneously and they probably don’t have quite the same ability to shift effortlessly between projects. So help keep them going by providing timely feedback.

This lesson took me a few rounds to figure out. My recollection of my time as a graduate student involves stopping by my advisor’s office virtually every day with some question or another and I didn’t understand why my students weren’t doing the same.[v] At first I just chalked it up to the scary methodologist image or the fact that I probably seemed really busy. (If the answer to the question “are you busy” isn’t almost always yes, you should reconsider your work habits as well as the example you set for your students. But being busy isn’t a reason not to make time for your student as soon as possible.) But then I realized that by delaying feedback I was not providing proper incentives to come talk to me. If a question won’t get answered or a draft read in fairly short order, why ask it or send it rather than keep working? Once I changed my strategy here my students’ behavior shifted correspondingly.

As you give advice your strategy should shift over time. At first it will be helpful to offer somewhat specific answers, but over time you want to shift to helping the student figure things out on their own. In the first year or two, I might spend some time interactively working through questions with a student to illustrate how to tackle a tough problem and build problem-solving skills. Over time, though, you have to shift responsibility to the student so that they can own their work and start to rely on their own abilities and instincts. So then you might just provide hints to point them in the right direction (mine occasionally get so vague as to get completely missed over the course of three or four conversations). Eventually, you have to let the student succeed or fail on their own terms and providing too much support undermines that. Somewhere in the process of writing the dissertation I tend to let students decide how to handle the technical details of the estimator, or the nuances of the theory. I’ll still provide comments and highlight areas of concern, but they become their problems to address along with the associated consequences. By the time they do their actual dissertation defense, I say very little. I think that advisors that jump up to answer questions for their students in public settings like these do them a disservice. Talk with them afterwards about how they could do better, but don’t undermine them in public.[vi]

Conference attendance provides a parallel stream through which to build confidence. Going to MPSA and APSA are fine and provide a good first look at the broader discipline, but they don’t provide the same type of environment as the Society’s Summer Meeting. I don’t want a student’s first experience with a methods conference to be at the summer meeting the year they hit the job market. I’ve had great success getting 4-8 students a year to go to our regional methods conference, SLAMM!, which offers a smaller, safer environment in which to see top-rate methods research and meet faculty and graduate students working in this area. These trips are usually cheap and quick, so you can get a caravan of students to go and have a bit of fun. This gets them attending even in their second year when they can really begin to see the wider world of methods beyond their basic training. If possible, host your regional methods meeting every few years, since even more students will attend.

Along these lines, encourage students to go to ICSPR, EITM, Essex, or other summer schools. In addition to receiving specialized methods training, they get a chance to meet faculty and students from other programs and begin to build relationships. Those relationships make it even easier to show up at the summer meeting since you may already know 10-20 people with whom you can strike up conversations. I believe that meeting students from other universities at similar stages of their career really helps. Not only does it help build a broader cohort that can sustain itself over the years and mutually reinforce good behaviors like conference participation and even collaboration, but it also helps students situate their own abilities. Usually that helps since they will find that while some students may be a bit more advanced many students will be at the same level or even a bit below. Learning that as soon as possible makes doing methods as a graduate student seem less intimidating.

To the same end, I also encourage students to attend the summer meeting a full year before they go on the job market. I view this as a gradual escalation from regional meetings to a sort of practice run at the summer meeting followed by the real thing the year of the job market. Getting a feel for the meeting one year provides good perspective and lessens the shock and pressure the second time around when a student applies for jobs. It also helps build the general pattern of attending the meeting on a regular basis that will hopefully continue even after graduate school.

At all of these conferences, keep an eye on them and make sure they are mingling and meeting new people. If not, take the initiative and introduce them to people. Make introductions to faculty with overlapping interests whenever possible. Introduce them to good role models or good mentors. Connect them to former students from your program to build community and see examples of people who were in their position a few years earlier.[vii]

Mentoring Students as People

Along the way, I think it’s good to get to know advisees as people. It helps you learn how they think about things and where their strengths and weaknesses lie. These kinds of conversations often develop better outside your office when one can have a less rushed conversation. I find that an occasional lunch or cup of coffee can be a good way to provide opportunities for more general conversations about a student’s work, professional goals, or an assessment of their progress. It also provides a chance for the student to ask questions that might have been lingering but that they never felt there were time for in a more focused office meeting. Studies have found that providing both social-emotional and more research-focused support both lead to a better working relationship while also increasing student satisfaction with their advisor and their graduate school.[viii] I tend to have these types of meetings more often as a student progresses since by the time they graduate they need to have some insight into what it means to be a faculty member, so you need to let them see a little bit of that side of your job. But don’t go too far – I don’t think it’s helpful for students to know too much about behind-the-scenes departmental politics since it rarely helps them and usually just distracts from the main task at hand of getting research done.

Relatedly, I also believe you have to maintain the clear supervisory nature of your role – don’t get too casual about the topics you discuss, departmental or otherwise. While the relationship can be friendly, don’t let students mistake that for being friends. As an advisor you have to make a number of important decisions about students’ progression through the PhD program and you want those decisions to be made on neutral grounds, whether it a positive decision in which case you want it reflect upon the quality of the student’s accomplishments or a negative decision, in which case you need them to see clearly where they need to improve in the future. Overall, you have to maintain your authority as a mentor while building trust and teaching students how to interact with faculty members as equals in the near future.[ix]

Along the way, it’s important to remember to celebrate big accomplishments: a first conference presentation, a successful dissertation defense, a first publication, a job offer. But perhaps even more important is dealing with disappointment. Our discipline seems designed to provide many more instances of negative than positive feedback: most journals and grant agencies accept far fewer than 15% of submissions and most jobs receive dozens of applications. While it may be easiest (and even occasionally true) to reach for a convenient explanation that may reduce the sting at first – so and so won that award/got the publication/got hat interview because they know what’s-her-name – in the long run this doesn’t help. Use the review or denial to identify ways to improve a paper or application and make it better. In the long run good people doing the best work they can do will succeed in this discipline. It may take years to establish oneself, but when good outcomes start to happen, it will be worthwhile. Your job as advisor involves helping to build confidence in order to ride out the disappointments and to help students stay focused on what they can control, namely the quality and quantity of their work and the rate at which they submit it to conferences, journals, and other outlets.[x] Methods requires even more of this attitude since it can be a longer road to develop and publish a more technical paper at the boundaries of knowledge.

While I intend the advice offered here to apply generally, in the context of this special issue it seems appropriate to reflect on mentoring strategies in the context of a wider discussion about diversity. As I said earlier, the best mentoring strategy varies with both the mentor and the mentee. You have to develop a style that works for you but you ought to adapt to specific student’s needs to help them succeed.  Given how daunting methods can seem to new graduate students, I think that getting an early start provides the best route to bringing people into our group. As soon as you can, get them interested in methods, expose them to cutting edge and new methods, and get them to more technically oriented conferences. You want to build confidence and a base of knowledge so that the kinds of presentations and conversations that occur at the summer meeting seem not so much foreign but rather engaging and relevant.

Mentoring Women and Minorities

I think it helps to be aware of the different ways that women and minorities may view or approach methods in general (as discussed by other authors in this symposium). As Shannon explains, women often face greater hurdles in a mathematically focused field like political methodology and are more likely to experience “imposter syndrome” than men. Research also shows that women may participate less in seminars or underperform in more competitive environments. Randomized experiments show that faculty in other fields (both male and female) may be less likely to mentor women graduate students.[xi] Text analysis shows that recommendation letters for women tend to be shorter and emphasize different descriptions and types of content.[xii] Being attuned to these possible issues can help you be more responsive and provide opportunities to discuss them as appropriate. At a very minimum, pay attention to what goes on around you and think about how your actions affect the example that you set – once you start to pay attention you will probably notice things that you hadn’t been aware of before. Then do what you can to correct them as needed.

For example, pay attention to your classroom environment to make sure that everyone has a chance to participate. Watch for comments or body language that might undermine someone’s confidence or perception of their ability to do methods. Foster a collaborative classroom environment in which students work together to talk out research ideas or master a new estimator. This can be especially easy in methods since computer lab meetings offer a great opportunity for collaborative learning. Pay attention to your syllabi, seminar speakers, department committees, etc. to make sure that you provide examples of positive role models. This is part of your responsibility as a mentor, an instructor, and a role model in your department and beyond.

More broadly, talk to students, junior faculty, and your own peers and mentors about their experiences in this area; the conversations that I have had over the years with people in the profession have been the single most important source of information for learning about the very different ways that people experience and view methods. These conversations help my approach to mentoring evolve and improve.

To be frank, these aren’t issues that I paid much attention to when I was a graduate student and was perhaps even skeptical of earlier on in my career as a faculty member. Being in a department with many senior women faculty members who are all involved in groups focused on mentoring and promoting women in Political Science in general (e.g., conferences hosted at Iowa such as Journeys and Visions in Methods; analysis of factors predicting success in graduate school,[xiii] getting a job, or receiving tenure[xiv]; studies of gendered citation patterns[xv]; publications on the gendered nature of research[xvi]) has given me ample opportunity to have many conversations over the years that have shaped my awareness. I’ve also received an disciplinary outsider’s perspective through my marriage to a mathematician who held a Clare Boothe Luce Chair that involved overseeing a program “to encourage women to enter, study, graduate, and teach” in science, mathematics and engineering and who has strong ongoing friendships with women from her cohort. This has given me other examples and perspectives from which to engage these topics.

Awareness of these issues will almost certainly help you be a better mentor. Often it may just be a matter of ensuring that you don’t perpetuate or exacerbate any of the aforementioned obstacles that women may face more so than men. Sometimes it may mean having a conversation to discuss these realities. Other times it may lead you to offer advice or draw other resources to students’ attention. And sometimes the best strategy involves referring students to other mentors who may have faced a similar situation personally and can talk about their experiences. As a man I don’t pretend to have a complete understanding of how these obstacles manifest themselves and how a woman might react. That doesn’t mean that my experiences, both personal and with other students, can’t be of any help, but sometimes a different perspective may be needed. Remember the goal is to have as many good methodologists as we can and to have people interested in methodology. And training good students, both male and female, and setting a good example in that role will increase the diversity and quality of mentoring capacity in the next generation.[xvii] Even more selfishly, as an advisor I like working with good graduate students, including those interested in studying methods, so I want to do what I can to help them succeed. And I’d hate to lose out on working with a better student just because she wasn’t as brash as an ultimately less skilled male student during a seminar in the first year of graduate school.

Rewards of Mentoring

Working with graduate students and seeing them flourish is one the more rewarding parts of my job and I do it for its own sake. In the long run, being successful means helping students achieve their goals, whether to receive a PhD and get a tenure track job at a research university, or to take their skills to the public or private sectors to do work they enjoy. Whatever their objectives, I want my advisees to succeed in their field and to become part of their own research community, whether the methods group or another. Then, if you are lucky, you get to watch them develop into mentors in their own right and train the next generation of students.

[i] In general, the game of defining what makes a methodologist in some absolute sense is not helpful. Of course, when one serves on a job search for a methods position such distinctions must be made at some level, but here I prefer to draw the outlines broadly. To me, anyone who acknowledges the important of methods for the credibility of their empirical claims and will pursue knowledge about methods in order to improve those claims deserves to be called a methodologist.

[ii] In fact, I probably would have been an economic historian. But that’s a different story.

[iii] For longer exposition and more detailed treatment of the many facets of mentoring, see: Johnson, W. Brad. 2002. “The intentional mentor: Strategies and guidelines for the practice of mentoring.” Professional psychology: Research and practice 33 (1): 88-96.

[iv] Nagler, Jonathan. 1995. “Coding Style and Good Computing Practices.” PS: Political Science & Politics 28(3): 488-492.

[v] Sometimes I can’t believe my advisor put up with me for so many years. Frankly, the best way I can think of to repay his patience and tolerance is to do the same for my students.

[vi] An exception exists for the first few rounds of conference talks if they involve a coauthored paper, especially a more technical one that you had a hand in. Don’t let the student suffer for your decisions.

[vii] And remember that this is a two-way street. You should also take the time to talk to other people’s students. I learned this lesson years ago from senior people in the field. In particular, I remember that as a junior faculty I was talking with a well-known senior methodologist who had some great comments on a paper of mine, but then concluded our conversation by saying that he wanted to save some time to meet some of the graduate students in attendance. I figured that if he could do that, then the least I could do is try to follow his lead – I try to have extended conversations with at least two or three students or junior faculty I don’t already know at every methods meeting I attend now.

[viii] Tenenbaum, Harriet R., Faye J. Crosby, and Melissa D. Gliner. 2001. “Mentoring relationships in graduate school.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 59 (3): 326-341.

[ix] For an extended discussion of ethical issues in the advisor-advisee relationship, see: Johnson, W. Brad, and Nancy Nelson. 1999. “Mentor-protégé relationships in graduate training: Some ethical concerns.” Ethics & Behavior 9 (3): 189-210.

[x] A note for students here: while having raw talent certainly helps, nothing substitutes for consistent and sustained effort in achieving success. Show up for work every day. Spend as much of your work time as possible on your own research. By all means, take breaks and have lunch or coffee with your peers, but don’t spend your time wandering the halls, chatting idly, or browsing the Internet for anything non-work related. Put in the hours and you will almost certainly write a good dissertation, publish some solid papers and get a job. Then you get to keep doing it for a few more years.

[xi] Moss-Racusin, Corinne A., John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, Mark J. Graham, and Jo Handelsman. 2012. “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109 (41): 16474-16479.

[xii] Trix, Frances, and Carolyn Psenka. 2003. “Exploring the color of glass: Letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty.” Discourse & Society 14 (2): 191-220.

[xiii]  Vicki Hesli, Jacqueline DeLaat, Jeremy Youde, Jeanette Mendez, and Sang-shin Lee. 2006. “Success in Graduate School and After: Survey Results from the Midwest Region Part III” PS: Political Science & Politics 39 (2): 317-325.

[xiv] Hesli, Vicki L., Jae Mook Lee, and Sara McLaughlin Mitchell. 2012. “Predicting Rank Attainment in Political Science: What Else Besides Publications Affects Promotion?” PS: Political Science & Politics 45(3): 475-492.

[xv] Mitchell, Sara McLaughlin, Samantha Lange, and Holly Brus. 2013. “Gendered Citation Patterns in International Relations Journals.” International Studies Perspectives 14 (4): 485-492.

[xvi] Kadera, Kelly M. 2013. “The Social Underpinnings of Women’s Worth in the Study of World Politics: Culture, Leader Emergence, and Coauthorship.” International Studies Perspectives 14(4): 463-475.

[xvii] I have an untested conjecture that people’s advising style substantially reflects their experiences with their own advisor, suggesting a strong autocorrelation effect down the chain of advisor-advisee pairs.

About Megan Shannon

Assistant professor of political science at Florida State University
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