Many academics do not receive formal mentorship education. Yet, when students receive effective mentoring from a faculty member or adviser, this can have positive impacts on the student’s productivity, creativity and mental health, according to a 2018 article in Ecology and Evolution.
After attending a national leadership program for faculty called Lead21, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) faculty members Samira Daroub and Heather McAuslane began working on an idea to strengthen faculty-student mentoring.
This fall, the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) launched its inaugural CALS Mentor Academy with McAuslane and Daroub as its program leaders.
“Through the CALS Mentor Academy, we are helping new faculty members gain the tools and confidence they need to successfully mentor graduate students,” said McAuslane, the program’s co-director and CALS assistant dean. “The program is designed to elevate the discussion of mentoring and promote a culture of effective mentoring within departments, starting with the faculty.”
As part of the CALS Mentor Academy, 23 participants from various disciplines in the college meet eight times during the semester to improve their graduate student mentoring skills. Guest presentations feature fellow CALS teaching faculty as well as facilitators across UF’s campus in the College of Education and UF Health. Faculty within UF/IFAS CALS were nominated by their UF/IFAS unit leaders for this opportunity.
Topics the facilitators address in the CALS Mentor Academy include: establishing expectations and aligning goals, fostering independence, communication, addressing diversity, ethics, mentoring philosophy, and how to have difficult conversations. The faculty-led curriculum is adapted from the Wisconsin Project for Scientific Teaching.
“CALS has held an annual ‘Teacher’s College’ for new teaching faculty since 2007,” said CALS Dean Elaine Turner. “We’re excited to add the CALS Mentor Academy to our professional development initiatives for faculty in the college. We look forward to seeing the further strengthened relationships between students and faculty that come out of the CALS Mentor Academy.”
The graduate student population is more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general population, according to a study published in 2018 by Nature Biotechnology. This serves as another motivation for implementing the CALS Mentor Academy.
“Having a good mentor is one way to help reduce the stress and anxiety our graduate students face, and in CALS, we realize that is critical for their success and mental health,” said Daroub, a soil and water sciences professor at the UF/IFAS Everglades Research and Education Center in Belle Glade, Florida.
Daroub mentioned that the rise in mental health issues among graduate students demonstrates the need for additional career development guidance as well as a shift in culture for faculty to model an appropriate life balance for mentees.
Zoe Bowden, an agricultural education and communication master’s student, thinks the CALS Mentor Academy proves that UF/IFAS CALS faculty truly care about their students. She hopes it encourages additional faculty to become involved.
“I’m so lucky that teachers in my department invest in graduate students like me; they have a genuine concern for our wellbeing and truly want us to succeed personally and professionally,” Bowden said. “Our faculty serve as models for us as the next generation of professors and industry leaders, so it helps graduate students learn how to be mentors as well.”
Several UF/IFAS units foster peer-to-peer mentorship among graduate students. Both the UF/IFAS Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department and the UF/IFAS Agricultural Education and Communication Department facilitate mentor-mentee pairings among Ph.D. students and master’s students through their respective graduate student associations. Bowden said she has found this peer mentoring to be valuable.
“In my first semester, I was paired with a Ph.D. student, and now we’ve completed published research and attended conferences together,” Bowden said. “I can ask him all kinds of personal and professional questions, like what life is like balancing school and a spouse. Our relationship has grown, and I think we’ve mutually benefited from the mentor pairing.”
The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) administers the degree programs of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). The mission of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is to deliver unsurpassed educational programs that prepare students to address the world’s critical challenges related to agriculture, food systems, human wellbeing, natural resources and sustainable communities. The college has received more total (national and regional combined) USDA teaching awards than any other institution. Visit the CALS website at cals.ufl.edu, and follow CALS on social media platforms at @ufcals.