Another university academic year has just ended and I had the privilege to “hood” a doctoral student just prior to his receipt of his diploma. That experience has encouraged fresh reflection on the nature and potential power of educational mentoring opportunities. While still at commencement, my new colleague informed me how important my support of his work and development had been and I was touched and gratified by his observation. Nonetheless, as I reflected, I was still more struck by how his development had been supported by his fellow students as much as it had been by his committee co-chairs. He was at the center of a group of Ph.D. students who read one another’s work, cajoled and complained to each other about individual progress and various class readings and assignments and otherwise constituted a supportive intellectual community. Although its individual members’ interests were diverse, that group developed close social and emotional ties even as its participants served as interlocutors, confessors, cheerleaders and critics for one another. In short, my new colleague was blessed to be a member of a vibrant and supportive collegial community. And as I reflect, I am persuaded that camaraderie and sense of community was critical to his intellectual evolution.
I am also struck that such an environment is by no means automatic, however important it may be, and it should never be taken for granted. Indeed, it doubtless constitutes a vital factor in a successful graduate education. As such, I suspect educators should spend more time and energy than is typically the case now to encourage the development of such supportive networks. But that perhaps is easier said than done given the canalized and specialized character of most faculty preparation and the essentially individual path doctoral candidates ultimately tread. Indeed, it seems tempting for faculty members particularly, to seek to mentor those with whom they work as if their dyadic relationship was not only important, but the only element in successful doctoral preparation. And yet, that would be a mistake for at least two reasons. First, however sensitive and accomplished, most professors know those with whom they work in limited ways. They are not their students’ “friends,” nor are the doctoral candidates with whom they work likely to confide deeply in them concerning perceived personal frailties or miscues. Rather, most professors deal with professional and intellectual matters and hope to prepare graduate students for their desired future roles successfully. And yet, Ph.D. students can and do surely benefit from a support network of peers to whom they can gripe openly (and even incessantly) and with whom they can share their most basic insecurities, not to mention early drafts of “less than perfect” materials. Those commonly engaged in the often-daunting experience of Ph.D. study can commiserate and exchange insights in ways not even the most supportive faculty member may be expected to reach. Second, faculty can and do react to work and student insights, and help to shape students’ schedule and trajectory, but professors cannot bear the daily vicissitudes of reading and study with them, nor, would it be appropriate to expect them to do so. Faculty may be supportive, indeed strongly so, but their role ultimately is to secure a level of intellectual sophistication and professional acculturation for the students with whom they work, and that responsibility may not permit the same support loyal friends may provide.
In short, graduate doctoral student mentoring is doubtless a primary faculty responsibility, but that role is not undertaken in a vacuum, and the character of the social and intellectual community in which Ph.D. students undertake their studies may be as or more important than their singular relationship with their primary academic advisors. Professors and university leaders alike would be well advised to keep that in mind as they develop their graduate programs. It is never inappropriate to recall that education is not simply a solitary pursuit, but one mediated by community possibility. Similarly, it is always appropriate, to the extent such is true, for professors to keep in mind the vital, but nonetheless modest, role they play in an individual’s path to the Ph.D.