Best Practices for Mentoring Students

Terry Davies, senior adviser to the Geosciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation, offers insight into her personalized approach to mentoring.

Interns Claire Bratzel, Marianne Cartagena and Andrew Ligeralde at the U.S. Geological Survey after interviewing scientists. Image Credit: Terry Davies

Terry Davies, a legislative policy expert with more than 25 years of experience, serves as a senior adviser to the Geosciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Davies develops high-level communications and outreach materials highlighting the importance of geoscience research and education and fosters partnerships between NSF and other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Institutes of Food and Agriculture. The resulting collaborations identify emerging scientific opportunities and leverage federal investments in scientific research.

Davies also has developed a unique mentoring approach at NSF, where she has mentored students since 2007. Her most recent summer interns were from the Rice University Center for Civic Leadership, Michigan State University’s Elements of Federal Policy Development in the Natural Resources Arena Program, and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. To attract more mentors to its Civic Leadership program, Rice University sent the following questions to Davies. Her answers include insight into her personalized approach to mentoring and her personal sense of gratification for paying it forward.

Terry Davies in the U.S. president’s office at the U.S. Capitol. Image Credit: Neysa Call

What value do you get from mentoring young professionals?

I find several aspects of my mentoring relationships very rewarding. It is very invigorating to gain personal insight into the mindset of our future generation’s frontrunners, such as how they perceive and process information in this rapidly evolving digital age. For example, many of our projects are tailored to attract students to pursue scientific careers. My interns’ fresh perspectives are very useful to inform communication materials that will appeal to their generation. Many of my interns are dedicated to public service and are committed to making a positive impact on people’s lives. My mentees have gone on to medical school, taught school in impoverished countries, and served the public through careers at the White House, on Capitol Hill, and in local government. I receive personal satisfaction knowing that I may have helped these future leaders at pivotal points in their careers. Many have gone on to make lasting impacts in their communities and in the larger public policy arena.

How do you prepare for the arrival of your mentees?

Before their arrival, I review their resume, biography, goal statement, and any other information they want to share. I then conduct a welcome phone call to discuss their professional goals for the internship, which helps me start developing a professional development plan. This phone call also helps me identify specific areas of professional development to be considered (e.g., public speaking or networking skills). I next provide pertinent background information for them to review about the National Science Foundation. Last, but not least I develop a broad portfolio of research, science policy, and communication assignments that will result in a professional portfolio the interns can use to demonstrate their accomplishments to potential employers or for higher education. Their final professional portfolios include web articles, press releases, technical or scientific publications, fact sheets, infographics, presentations, professional interviews, and event planning. I recommend having no more than three interns so that they get quality time and great learning opportunities.

The cover of a report highlighting stories on how geoscience research impacts society. Image Credit: Sean Dilliard, Terry Davies, Melissa Lane and Beth Zelenski

How do you spend your time with them?

A majority of their time is spent working on a variety of assignments with colleagues who challenge them to develop new ideas and projects, such as social media themes to attract students to compete in various NSF-sponsored challenges. My strengths are showing them how to network and teaching them how government agencies interact with the administration and Congress.

I have both a formal and informal mentoring structure. On a formal basis, each intern and I work jointly to develop their individualized professional development plan. We include assignments to showcase their fully developed skills and proficiencies as well as projects to provide for incremental improvements in less-developed professional skills and/or projects to help round out their professional portfolio. I provide context for each particular project and explain its significance to the intended audience. I follow-up on how the product was used, and solicit customer feedback and outcomes in order to provide the interns with timely, real-world feedback on their work. This helps build confidence as most of them are working at a professional level to which they are not accustomed, and it inspires and informs future iterations of their work. The interns each document their activities and accomplishments throughout the summer, and we assess it against the professional development plan. This process results in a diverse portfolio of successful accomplishments.

As part of my formal training process, I also concentrate on professional networking and interpersonal skills. Hence, we plan events with high-level speakers, arrange personal interviews with government leaders, and attend Congressional hearings. For example, I make a point to call on my interns during these activities to ensure they each engage on a personal level. I also arrange for fun, educational events to maximize their experience in Washington, D.C., such as meetings with members of Congress. The interns each develop a short “elevator speech” about their field of study and present it to members of Congress in these meetings. We also talk about ideas for projects and events that they can lead when they go back to school.

As part of my informal structure, I teach a government 101 program that explains how the legislative process works when the interns first arrive. We continue to work on this subject over the course of the internship. I also email them articles about hot political and policy issues, and we have group conversations about what they mean, the considerations behind the decision-making process, and the impacts to various entities and the public. This activity challenges the interns to think outside of the box and to comfortably express their opinions in a safe environment. I always ask for their opinions before I chime in with mine. I keep an open-door policy so they have access to me, and I also often stop by their offices to check in with them.

I keep in touch with my interns after they return to school and keep them informed on metrics and outcomes of their completed projects. For example, one intern developed a report highlighting stories on how geoscience research impacts society. At the 2015 Geological Society of America’s annual meeting, the former science adviser to President Obama, Dr. John Holdren, highlighted the report in his speech.

Another group of interns wrote a children’s booklet on ocean exploration. NSF handed out copies of the booklet at a Capitol Hill briefing on science research, which was attended by more than 200 people including several members of Congress. A senior correspondent from Science magazine called the booklet “terrific,” and asked for additional copies. These outcomes demonstrate the value of the work the interns do and are compelling examples to a potential employer.

The cover of a children’s booklet on ocean exploration. Image Credit: Andrew Ligeralde, Claire Bratzel, Marianne Cartagena and Terry Davies. Illustrations by Zachary Nipper

How do you view your role as a mentor?

One of my biggest roles is to remove obstacles that may impede success. For example, other colleagues may try to assign mundane or extraneous tasks, which are not part of their performance plans, directly to my mentees. I intervene and make sure to give the interns cover by asking colleagues to come directly to me. I also help them identify and take advantage of relevant opportunities—especially as their time in Washington, D.C. flies by so quickly.

To that end, Washington, D.C. is a great place to develop networks. I put a huge emphasis on developing networks and the long-term value of maintaining and building networks. Many interns have ample experience in classrooms and laboratories but little experience in reaching out to leaders and learning about their leadership skills and career paths. The interns are always surprised by the multitude of high-level people willing to meet with them and be interviewed. I take part in arranging their initial meetings and then allow them do their own outreach. It is rewarding to watch how eagerly and enthusiastically they embrace networking once they build confidence in their abilities. We spend a considerable amount of time evaluating protocol and delivery techniques, and how to incorporate them into their presentations. We also discuss the importance of integrity and ethics to manage one’s reputation, especially in government.

What is the difference between supervising and mentoring?

As someone who has both supervised and mentored people, there are some obvious differences. As a supervisor, I lead employees to help achieve the agency’s mission and goals and help provide them with the necessary resources to effectively carry out their job responsibilities. I also am held accountable for an employee’s performance and their compliance with legal and ethical requirements and policy directives. As a mentor, I am a teacher, an advocate, a resource, and a coach. Not only do I mentor summer interns, I also mentor professional colleagues at NSF, who are leading scientists in their field of study. Each year, I mentor about 10 colleagues from within the Directorate of Geosciences on how the federal government works, how NSF interacts with sister agencies, and how their science informs legislative and agency policies. My role is to augment their learning opportunities and expose them to new experiences that help them understand how government works at the 65,000-foot level. At the same time, I am exposed to relevant and timely scientific research and expertise.

How would you respond to a colleague who says, “I don’t have time to mentor.”?

I would say that is very disappointing and a missed opportunity. We need to cultivate the next generation of informed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) professionals as well as a talented federal workforce, and equip them with the tools they will need to effectively interact in order for our nation to remain globally competitive. A 2014 U.S. Government Accountability Office report tells us that by September 2017, nearly 600,000, or nearly one third, of our permanent federal workforce will be eligible to retire. Mirroring this trend, Science and Engineering Indicators 2016 reports a larger proportion of older scientists and engineers remained in the labor force in 2013 than in 1993. At the same time, many economic projections point to a need for more than 1 million more STEM professionals than the U.S. will produce at the current rate over the next decade, although the need is more pressing in some fields than others. How do we expect to advance the priorities of this country and preserve our quality of life if we do not take responsibility now to develop our workforce?

What have you learned from mentoring interns?

When I make an assignment, I usually have a mental picture of the final outcome or product. At the same time, I am open to different ideas, methodologies or approaches to crystalize that vision. For some interns, this creative autonomy takes them out of their comfort zone because they are used to strict structures. Over the years, I have learned that if I start with more structure and lessen it over time, I have greater results.

I also have learned that if I task student interns with meaningful scientific or policy challenges, their end products are better. Having a transfer of knowledge flowing between mentor and mentees presents a truly great opportunity.

After the interns have completed their internships and continue moving through their professional careers, follow-up communications such as sending interesting articles, pictures, letters of recommendation, career opportunities, and links to their final products is important because it builds on the portfolio they developed during the internship and presents them with more options in their career paths.

One of my interns formed a Facebook group called Terry’s Posse and almost all of my previous interns are in the group. This tool is a great way to keep in touch with everyone and help each previous intern pay it forward to other aspiring professionals.

Terry Davies is a senior adviser to the Geosciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation. Any opinion, finding and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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