In the fall of 2015, Douglas Knutson was a doctoral student and Dr. Julie Koch was his advisor. Together, they wrote a SAS article titled, Mentorship: Trust, Communication, and Even a Little Laughter. Now, Dr. Knutson is an Assistant Professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and serves as advisor for Jaidelynn Rogers, a doctoral student. Dr. Koch is proud to be Jaidelynn’s “grand-advisor.” Today, the three of us revisit the topic, and explore how mentorship and supervision are skills that are passed down generationally from professor to student, and that live beyond one mentorship dyad.
How did your mentoring relationship begin?
Jaidelynn: I applied to Southern Illinois University with the hope of working with Dr. K (that’s what we call Dr. Knutson around here) on LGBTQ research. As a new professor at SIU, I assumed he would be eager to produce research (…and…little did I know just how eager he would turn out to be). During our first in person meeting, I was immediately drawn to the wall-to-wall, color-coded bulletin board in his office…so we spent at least 10 minutes of a 30 minute interview talking about organization, teamwork, and our mutual love for sticky notes.
Douglas: I have to admit that I knew I’d enjoy working with Jaidelynn from that very first Skype, screening interview. It wasn’t just our mutual love for sticky notes and organization (though I’ll admit, I do love a kindred sticky note spirt). Jaidelynn expressed an incredible passion for LGBTQ+ health and an ability to connect with the heart of our shared communities’ struggles. Sometimes you just know when an academic pairing is going to work. Oh yeah, and I blame Julie for that hyper organized research chart wall…she sent me a picture of one and creating my own changed my life…
What, if any, bumps have you experienced in the past and how did you navigate them?
Jaidelynn: So far, one of the biggest setbacks to our mentorship relationship was when I decided to compliment him on one of his oversized gray sweaters. Apparently “you look comfy” isn’t a very good compliment. All jokes aside, Dr. K is very busy. Despite this, we are able to maximize our time together by setting agendas and efficiently communicating via email. In spite of his busy schedule, Dr. K prioritizes me and his other advisees by giving us his undivided attention during our weekly meetings (quality over quantity). He also recognizes his students’ need for LGBTQ community (SIU is located in a rural part of southern Illinois), and therefore plans events for his advisees at his house where we share food, watch LGBTQ movies, play board games, and genuinely enjoy each others’ company.
Douglas: That sweater comment though… Levity aside, productivity is a two-way street. Jaidelynn is a hard worker who sets clear deadlines and regularly meets them. She comes prepared to meetings and she’s always ready to pitch an idea. As our mutual love for sticky notes and research pipeline charts would indicate, we get along well because we are well organized and maximize our efforts and time Also, Jaidelynn is an absolute joy to be around.
What are the benefits you have experienced as a result of this mentoring relationship so far?
Jaidelynn: To say that the opportunities Dr. K has presented me with are plentiful is an understatement! Aside from giving me lots of work, he also encourages me, recognizes my achievements, compliments my growth processes, supports my dreams, and makes me laugh. I truly believe that, hands down, Dr. K is the best advisor ever. The passion Dr. K has for research, his students, and the LGBTQ community is inspiring and I can only hope to be an activist-psychologist like him one day.
Douglas: Positive feedback from Jaidelynn reminds me of how grateful I was to be one of Julie’s advisees. She, too, was the “best adviser ever” (as I’m sure many readers would argue is/was true of their advisers). Much of my supervision style is based on lessons I learned from Julie. To this day, she takes my phone calls, calms my fears, reminds me to take breaks, and she inspires me to keep pushing for bigger and better things. I hope to emulate her work with my advisees and I am so happy that I succeed at this from time to time. I sincerely hope that Jaidelynn’s future advisees benefit from the generational influence and guidance of Julie and me.
What do you feel you brought to the mentoring relationship that was of benefit to your mentor/mentee?
Jaidelynn: I am a very goal-oriented, driven person and I think my insatiable need to do more and be better has been beneficial. On the flip side, I am the sassiest person I know and always down for a good belly laugh, so I know how to lighten the mood and “queer things up.” I think my ability to present authentically and my sense of humor have both been helpful for our mentor/mentee relationship. I also truly respect Dr. K, not only as a researcher but as a human being, and I think my admiration for him and his work have helped us foster a bond.
Douglas: So I’m going to sidestep the question a little because, I want to highlight what a necessary ingredient quality and passionate students are. Mentorship is hard (and time consuming), but when students like Jaidelynn come along, they make the work feel effortless. LGBTQ+ mentees bring such depth, insight, and awareness of struggle with them into the academic world. Jaidelynn’s empathy, awareness, and insight make her a joy to work with. I agree with her, we are most productive and robust when we are most ourselves.
What do you feel are the most important aspects of a healthy and helpful mentoring relationship?
Jaidelynn: Mutual respect, trust, authenticity, and communication are some of the components for a mentor/mentee relationship that feel most salient to my experience. However, being able to let your guard down with your professor and go to them for support and encouragement helps to make the difficult days feel less lonely.
Douglas: I totally agree. I think that, especially for LGBTQ+ folks, openness, transparency and authenticity can be powerful. I tend toward person centered approaches to mentorship, so I generally assume that authenticity, congruence, and positive regard are at the heart of a healthy mentoring relationship.
What tips do you have for students who would like to seek out and build healthy and helpful mentoring relationships within the field?
Jaidelynn: I would encourage students to be themselves and to not be afraid to ask for what they need. I’d say, don’t hesitate to send a professor a quick email or to ask to meet with them one-on-one. Hearty relationships develop around communication. It’s not always easy to admit when I need help, but I have learned to trust that my professors care about me and that they want me to succeed. Additionally, I think hard work is one of the biggest components to a successful mentor/mentee relationship. I am always working hard to be prepared, meet deadlines, and present quality work. Lastly, pick an adviser that shares common interests with you. It is nice to have interests outside of school to discuss!
Douglas: I’d encourage students and professors to be authentic and open (as much as is professionally possible) at interviews and conferences. It is easier to discover a match if everyone involved is being real. I’d also suggest taking a deep breath and trying to find the fun. The work we do is hard, but there are silver linings and humorous moments hiding everywhere.
Some reflections from Julie
Julie: It is great to see my former advisee, now colleague, with students of his own to mentor. We are learning more about how the graduate school experience is a stressful one, often resulting in mental health issues such as depression and anxiety in graduate students. I will never forget my own advisor, Dr. Kay Herting Wahl, supporting me through a difficult time in my own PhD program and how much that meant – and means – to me. It is so important for all of us, students and faculty alike, to intentionally enjoy our time with one another, to recognize the amazing privilege of learning and exploring together, and to see each other as unique human individuals. I love seeing this excitement and shared humanness passed across “academic generations.” When I hear about Jaidelynn’s passion for her research, and Douglas’ enjoyment of his research lab and work with her, it gives me a little added “spark” and reminds me of why I chose a career in academia.
Jaidelynn Rogers, BA is a first-year student in the counseling psychology doctoral program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
Douglas Knutson, PhD is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Julie Koch, PhD is Head of the School of Community Health Sciences, Counseling and Counseling Psychology at Oklahoma State UniversityTags: Mentoring