Oftentimes the term “expert blind spot” is used to describe instances in which an expert’s understanding of a content area overshadows their knowledge of how to teach it. This isn’t exactly how it is being used in this context, but its usage is not much of a stretch here. Jeremi asked Dr. Caldwell, “How do you advise such a dynamic lab of students who all have varied interests and are at different stages in their programs? How do you do it?” Although a few ideas were faintly mentioned, what became apparent was that Dr. Caldwell was unaware of elements of his style that made him an expert-advisor. Jeremi didn’t stop at that answer; she probed other GROUPERs and found that the expertise on his advising style was distributed among his advisees. Now that we have begun to characterize it, we thought we would do some knowledge sharing. Our hope is that this information is not only beneficial to Dr. Caldwell, but also to others interested in advising (or mentoring, in general), and to those wondering what it’s like to have Dr. Caldwell as an advisor.
As an undergraduate coming into a graduate’s domain, the GROUPER lab, I felt very intimidated and insecure. Would I meet their expectations? Would they tell me I was the worst undergrad on the planet? All these worries and more swarmed my head, but that’s where Dr. Caldwell calmed my nerves. He assured me that I would fit right in and they wouldn’t expect me to perform at a graduate level. I could move at a pace that I wanted and was not going to be pressured to meet this deadline or that. That is what I love about being an undergrad advised by Dr. Caldwell: he is realistic about my abilities. Other advisers could have looked at me my first week being in the lab and said “You have to write this paper by this date and you better know how to write a fantastic research paper”. But, Dr. Caldwell had realistic expectations and in our 1-on-1 meetings, he has always been concerned about me, rather than a paper deadline. He has let me know that I am not required to find a topic right away, and he knows that I am busy with my coursework. He has guided me to finding a topic and was genuinely interested in what I wanted to get out of this experience and what I was going to enjoy writing about. There shouldn’t be pressure being an undergrad in a graduate lab, and Dr. Caldwell has definitely kept it that way. In the group setting, being in this research lab is my first group experience of the sort. I had been on teams before for projects, but this is by far the most positive one. Although we do get off task sometimes, the lab is very goal-oriented, and when we do get off task, it usually has a life lesson or reason attached to it. Everyone in the lab looks out for one another; there is no competition for papers, topics, or Dr. Caldwell’s attention. He treats everyone with the same level of respect and attentiveness and has never made the lab feel competitive in any nature. It is a very supportive environment and Dr. Caldwell, inside and outside the lab, is an extremely supportive adviser, especially to undergraduates.
As explained in previous GROUPER blog entries and from browsing the GROUPER website, there are many ways in which Dr. Caldwell distinguishes the GROUPER lab from others. These include lab meetings that are filled with humor and light-hearted sarcasm and outside activities such as the G4s. Although Dr. Caldwell does a great job of advising his lab a whole, he does a superb job of advising his students as individuals. Let’s look at an example: me. Entering into a doctoral program, I knew that I had a specific style of advising that would work for me; any deviation from this style would be disastrous. Dr. Caldwell always e-mails me in a timely manner, follows through on tasks, allows for task-oriented discussions (as I do better with a list of tasks and deadlines instead of being let loose in the “forest”), and meets with me regularly. However, even though I believed that there were a certain set of standards I needed for myself, Dr. Caldwell added another guideline I wasn’t aware I needed in order to be a successful student: it’s ok for me to take a break, to step away from research, especially when I’m causing myself to become overly-stressed (and usually it’s for no apparent reason other than just me being a perfectionist). It almost seems to be counter-intuitive: why would my advisor ever want me to stop working on my research, even for a day, let alone several days? Causing me to spiral downwards on my research (again, for no good reason) would not do me any good and, thus, cause me to become less productive and maybe even have a grudge against my research. Ultimately, Dr. Caldwell wants all of his students to be successful (hence, the large list of GROUPER alumni). Dr. Caldwell has been advising students for years and he probably knows what’s best for me, even if I don’t know it myself. Having Dr. Caldwell as an advisor lets me know that both my research interests and personal sanity are being monitored for their well-being.
As a new student, I was not sure on what topic to start working on for my doctoral thesis. This was making me so nervous, especially since every time I pick a topic, I have a tendency to keep changing my mind. I am amazed at how Dr Caldwell reacts to my changes. A typical adviser would not like his student to discuss with him a certain idea over and over then simply drop it for another idea that looks more appealing to the student. However, my professor always stresses how important it is to pick a topic that fits my interests and what I want to do in the future. He discusses with me my future plans to be able to help decide what to do with my Ph.D. studies.
The way he reacted to my hesitation over the 1st few months relieved all pressure that I might have had. It added a lot to my self confidence and kept me focused to do more reading and exploring more ideas in order to be able to pick the research that suits me the best. It is great if a student knows exactly what he wants to work on from day one. But, trying to quickly settle is not the right thing to do. And that’s what I appreciate about my experience with Dr Caldwell on how he managed to help through the journey of picking the best fit for me.
Another very successful approach Dr Caldwell sticks to, that in my opinion helps all students in the lab, is weekly lab meeting. In that meeting, I get a chance as well as my lab mates, to talk about my ideas whether I am still in beginning, middle or finalizing the research. Feedback from academic students of the same interest with presence of a leading faculty member in the domain is found to be very helpful.
Mentoring and success drive Dr. Caldwell’s advising style. Dr. Caldwell places a very high premium on mentoring: he gives his time to meet with us individually and collectively on a weekly basis (with the exception of when he’s traveling, of course). Any outsider peeking into his life as a professor would say that hosting one-on-one meetings with five (or more) students every week –in addition to holding office hours for your class– is pretty remarkable! It is through our 1-1 meetings that it becomes apparent how deeply interested Dr. Caldwell is in exploring our ideas and discovering what topics interest us. In fact, he is beyond interested: he gets excited about exploring new ideas with us! Unbeknownst to us, somehow in the midst what seems like a pure exploration of ideas, he gathers information about what we are passionate about and our career goals. With these two pieces of information, he helps us settle on topics with which we will be satisfied. With this approach, his students excel. As we succeed, he succeeds.
His conception of mentoring extends to peer mentoring. Weekly lab meetings are designed in a way that we share updates on our respective projects; and through this exchange, we learn from one another about the milestones ahead. At times, Dr. Caldwell asks probing questions (that he already knows the answer to) such that others may benefit. Additionally, this informal exchange inevitably facilitates the development of our “elevator pitch” such that when we are away from the lab, we can respond succinctly and intelligently to questions people ask about what research we are working on. This is a specific example of how he transforms, what seems like, casual interactions into teachable moments.
I will quickly add a few others things that characterize his style. One, he is extremely well-read and as a result, is able to make fascinating connections because ideas that may seem unrelated on the surface. In Dr. C’s words, he’s able to “scan and connect.” Continuing with this idea, he also does what we call “management by wandering” which means emailing articles he comes across that may be interesting or relevant for us. Secondly, in meetings that involve committee members, he plays an interesting role, balancing between being coach and gatekeeper (through the milestone). At times, he uses an adaptation of the Socratic approach to get the student to share information/ explanations that he thinks would be helpful for the rest of the committee or to re-phrase committee members’ questions in a way that clarifies the question other members are asking. Third, he includes us in the strategic elements of his research enterprise. For example, our input is solicited when brainstorming ideas about the immediate goals and long-term visions for GROUPER, as well as some of the characteristics prospective GROUPERs should posses. Lastly, he’s real! He has a family, a home he invites us to once per semester, enjoys playing video games from time to time, thinks about next steps in his career… you know… facets of life that make people “real”- Dr. Caldwell has them. And this is not to say that other advisors don’t, but he’s personable enough to share elements of personality with us. As a student aspiring to make my mark on the world someday, I sometimes wonder about the possibility of work consuming life. It’s nice to see a model that demonstrates that you can have life outside of work, and those two ideas do not have to be in opposition to one another. Of course, Dr. Caldwell’s model is not perfect, but at least it shows that it is possible.