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Mechanical Engineering

College of Engineering and Applied Science

Mentoring and the Graduate Student Experience

Recognizing that the role of a faculty mentor is a very important part of a graduate student's education, all graduate students in Mechanical Engineering (ME) will be assigned a faculty mentor prior to their enrollment at UW.  If the student has already identified a research problem on which to work, then the faculty member offering the problem for consideration will likely become the student's primary mentor.  Alternatively, if the student has not identified a research problem then the department's graduate coordinator will serve as their advisor and mentor.

The faculty/student association established by the mentor/protégé relationship has many facets.  Among these is guidance as to the values and practices of the discipline, lessons in professionalism and the expected standard of ethics, and encouragement and criticism in the search for knowledge.  A faculty mentor/student protégé relationship is mostly guided by the faculty member since he/she has more experience with post-baccalaureate schooling, but the student also has new responsibilities that were not associated with their undergraduate education.  Following is a summary of what both students and faculty should expect from one another as they enter into a mentor/protégé relationship.

Expectations of the Faculty Mentor

The faculty mentor has many roles in the relationship with his/her students.  Among these:

Guidance:  Graduate school is a new experience, with different requirements and expectations for students.  The faculty member needs to recognize that the student will be unfamiliar with Programs of Study, graduate committees, research, conference presentation, and authoring of journal articles.  It is the faculty mentor's responsibility to both explain and guide the student protégé through these new aspects of the graduate school experience. 

Research Partner:  In the capstone design experience that is a part of every undergraduate student's BS program, UG students are expected to demonstrate two things:  their ability to apply fundamental concepts they have learned in their course work, and their ability to learn independently since the design project inevitably contains elements beyond those discussed in the classroom.  In graduate-level research, the student needs to recognize that the research problem represents uncharted territory for both student and the faculty advisor.  Research entails a methodical investigation into an area that has not been studied previously, often using new strategies that are themselves untested.  Particularly at the MS level of study, pursuing a research problem is a partnership between student and faculty member as they encounter and solve daily challenges in pursuit of the answers to their research.  Every faculty member has a different approach to working with graduate students, and some may want to visit with MS students on a daily basis, while others may prefer a bi-weekly basis, or a weekly basis.  Regardless of the frequency of meeting, the student should understand that the faculty mentor has agreed, as a consequence of accepting the student into their research program, to meet regularly with the student to discuss the ongoing research problem.  As an MS student matures and gains experience, they are expected to be more self-sufficient in solving daily problems.  For those pursuing the PhD degree, or "the research degree" as it is commonly called, the student should eventually be demonstrating the ability to conduct research on their own with little input from the faculty advisor.

Role Model:  Faculty are expected to set the standard for professionalism and ethical behavior.  Most current faculty can point to one or more of their teachers to whom they credit their own set of professional values, and it is thus important for current faculty to be mindful of their own influence on the present student body, an in particular on graduate students with whom they work closely.  Collegiality between faculty, students, and staff plays a strong role in maintaining positive workplace and educational environments, and thus faculty should be attentive to maintaining such collegiality even when strong differences of opinion may exist.

Teacher of Communication Skills:  The graduate school experience requires significant development of technical communication skills and it is incumbent on faculty mentors to work with their students to further develop technical writing, oral speaking, and formal presentation skills.  Excellent communication skills are essential for dissemination of new knowledge, and critical for graduate students in their future careers.  Writing of theses, dissertations, conference papers and journal articles are all new undertakings for graduate students with which they will need careful guidance from the faculty mentor.  Writing a thesis or dissertation is not merely the student's responsibility, as faculty mentors are expected to read and carefully edit drafts for the student as a means to teaching technical writing.  Oral communication of difficult technical material also needs to be mastered, with the faculty member providing guidance on how to communicate technical information accurately and precisely.  Presentation of a year or more of research output in the time frame of a 15 minute conference or industrial presentation is a critical skill with which the graduate student will have limited experience, and faculty mentors need to invest the appropriate time to assist students with developing presentation and speaking skills.

Expectations of the Student

The very best teachers and mentors will be of little value to an unmotivated and uninterested student.  Hence, there are expectations of the student that have to be realized for the mentor/protégé relationship to be successful.  Among these:

Self Motivation:  The graduate student needs to recognize that there is a finite time frame available to them to take advantage of a graduate education at UW.  Many students are supported on some sort of graduate assistantship, but these are usually limited to 2 years for MS students and 3-4 years for PhD students.  In most cases, these time frames should be sufficient for completion of the degree.  If supported on an external research contract, then the faculty member has a contractual obligation to produce research results by a particular deadline, and the student is being hired to do much of the work that has been promised.  If the student does not make regular and steady progress on the project, then he/she should not expect an extension of the support since the contract deadline is not open-ended.  MS students in particular need to begin their research work in their first or second semester and not naively expect that the work can be completed after all coursework is complete.  Successful MS students will find time almost every day to make some progress toward their research.  Furthermore, almost every MS student underestimates the time required to write a thesis - this is a time-consuming process that should be begun early !

In conclusion, the student should work continuously to complete degree requirements in a timely fashion, and to take the responsibility for seeking out the faculty mentor for consultation whenever such help is required. 

Be a Contributor:  The traditional sequence whereby faculty dispense knowledge in the classroom while students absorb as much as possible is only the first step associated with taking a graduate class.  Graduate students are expected to be more invested in both their classroom education and research studies.  For example, in the classroom graduate students are expected to think about the material beyond merely what is presented in class.  Similarly, in the research arena students will not be treated as technicians with tasks A, B, C, etc. to complete, but rather they are expected to be contributors who solve problems on their own, who anticipate the next hurdle, who propose direction and solutions to their faculty mentor, etc.  Furthermore, students are expected to seek out and read the literature relevant to their research problem.  In summary, the academic maturity of a graduate student can oftentimes be judged by their growing independence as a classroom scholar or as a researcher.

Be Involved:  A university offers various experiences beyond those in the classroom, student office, and laboratory, and graduate students should partake of these.  In addition to cultural events through UW's theatre and music programs, there are various international student organizations that offer regular activities and cultural support.  The Department also maintains a seminar series where speakers from outside UW present topical research, and all graduate students, regardless of their field of interest within mechanical engineering, should attend the seminars to learn about new developments in our field.

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