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A Two-Way Street

Rutgers is renowned for the quality and quantity of its research. Its success hinges on the abiding professional—and personal—relationships that develop between Ph.D. candidates, who undertake the quotidian work of discovery, and their faculty mentors, who guide them through the labyrinth of learning as their own ardor for new knowledge is continuously renewed. 

By Lara De Meo • Photography by Benoit Cortet

A Two-Way Street

Those who study the behavior of goats know that establishing a relationship with the animals is necessary for productive research. When the goats get lots of attention from humans, and from an early age, they behave naturally in the presence of researchers. “The goats are more comfortable to be themselves,” says Larry Katz, a professor and chair in the Department of Animal Sciences at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. “Taming them is an important part of being able to ask the questions we ask.”

The relationships between the humans performing the research are also important, and some of the closest ones at Rutgers are between professors and the doctoral students whom they mentor. Depending on the department or discipline, the nature of the relationship varies. In an interdisciplin­ary area like childhood studies, a graduate student will choose a research topic and likely have several mentors to facilitate approaching the topic from different perspectives. Many science and engineering labs, on the other hand, involve teams of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers working with one professor, “the principal investigator,” who has received funding from industry, government, or foundation sources.

Some things are universal. Between the amount of time spent together and the significance of their interactions, professors and graduate researchers are bound to become close. A typical doctoral research project takes four or five years for a full-time student as the professor guides the student through a process ranging from frightening to thrilling. Earning a Ph.D. entails not only completing coursework, research, and a dissertation (which must be defended in a public presentation), but also finding something new, and important, to contribute to the field—amid other responsibilities, such as teaching undergraduates and assuming various leadership roles.

Professors provide their protégés with everything from research guidance to emotional support, beginning with steering them toward the right projects and helping them believe they can pull them off. Nyeema Watson CCAS’00, a Ph.D. candidate in childhood studies at Rutgers–Camden, says she frequently needs pep talks from her mentor, professor Dan Hart, about questions like, “Will this be something that other people care about?” And, students need guidance on background reading, advice on study design, and feedback about where to go next.

It’s a two-way street. The fresh perspective and enthusiasm that graduate students bring to their work can invigo­rate professors’ careers and open new vistas of research for them. “Without the students, my career wouldn’t advance,” says Ben Glasser, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering at the School of Engineering. “I would be doing the same thing I was doing five years ago; at some point, someone would say it isn’t current, isn’t exciting.”

Students often accompany their professors to conferences, where they present their research or network, or both. When they graduate, they can count on their mentors’ professional connections to help with their careers. Here, too, it works both ways. “I’m working on a roundtable discussion for a conference that’s being organized by a former student,” says Eugenia Etkina, a professor of science education in the Department of Learning and Teaching at the Graduate School of Education. “He invited me to be a part of it, and I’m very proud.”

The road to a Ph.D. is long, filled with pitfalls, and plagued with doubt and fears of failure. Who could be a better source of support than someone who has been through it? And who better to share the successes? Five pairs of professors and doctoral students offer their perspectives.