Mentoring the Doctoral Student: Lessons Learned


Author: Pamela S. Angelle

As I stepped off of the airplane, arriving in San Antonio, Texas, USA for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), I finally believed those who told me that the temperature would be HOT and the air humid. However, the heat did not detract from the immersion into the culture of the area, the enlightening sessions, and the essential networking that leads to immediate friendships and future collaborations. Throughout the week, I ran into old friends who I last saw at BELMAS, sharing both laughter and memorable times.

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Three University of Tennessee doctoral students attended AERA with me and presented research at various times throughout the week. The opportunity for the Ph.D. students to discuss how they designed studies, explain what they found out, and answer questions about the ‘so what’ of their findings was a valuable experience. They were thrilled to talk to scholars such as Chris James from Bath, Deborah Outhwaite from Warwick, and Ruth McGinity from Manchester. For a doctoral student from the American south, this was quite a memory maker. Hearing Ian Potter explain his role as the GFM CE opened up a new world to these doctoral students on how to ‘do’ education.

AERA is known for embracing doctoral students, the future of our field, in several ways. AERA is ‘committed to capacity building for and nurturing of future education researchers (“About AERA Graduate Students”, 2017).  Throughout the week, 42 sessions were devoted to doctoral students with topics including Exploring the experiences of doctoral students, Doctoral education across the disciplines, and Dreams deferred by debt.  Moreover, two day workshops were held for Clark Scholars and Jackson Scholars (see for more information).

As I reflected on the week in San Antonio, I recalled the excitement of the students as they met scholars whom they would cite in their dissertation. On meeting David DeMathews, one of my students practically jumped for joy and exclaimed to me, “He’s my chapter one!” Spending time graciously given by my BELMAS colleagues opened the students’ eyes to imagining schools operating in ways different from their own experiences in US schools, yet, at the same time, promoted an understanding that, as educators, our concerns are much the same. 

Mentoring or Opening New Worlds?

Much of the mentoring literature, as it pertains to doctoral students, focuses on mentoring the dissertation and mentoring marginalized groups. Mentoring the dissertation process assumes that mentoring begins post qualifying exams and acts as a support system to students as they begin their research process (Kumar & Antonenko, 2014; Lindsay, 2015; Peters, Gurley, Fifolt, & Collins, 2015).  Recent literature examines mentoring through the lens of gender and race (Felder, Stevenson, & Gasman, 2014; Grant & Ghee, 2015; Patterson & Davis, 2015) and encourages us to consider student needs as we guide them to the terminal degree.

While observing my students enter this world of academia as they overheard excited discussions about research findings and differing methodologies, I realized that getting the dissertation completed and degree conferred is only one role I play as my students walk this journey. Whether they intend to enter the professoriate or lead a school, learning about the world of the academy involves more than journal articles and statistical tests. Casual conversations over dinner as seasoned academics asked my students about what they intended to research encouraged them to think about how to articulate research and voice hypotheses. A glass of wine at the SAGE reception at the end of the day became a window into the importance of networking as the germ of an idea blossomed into an intriguing research project.

I know that my students benefitted from the AERA conference but I feel that I learned a great deal reflecting on their experiences. I have added to my repertoire of mentoring through an understanding of how important it is to provide these experiences to doctoral students. I am grateful to my BELMAS colleagues for the generosity of their time in opening this new world of academia to future scholars.

Pamela Angelle is Associate Professor in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  Prior to her appointment to the professorate, she was a School Improvement Coordinator for the Louisiana Department of Education where she assisted PK-12 schools in organizational change and improvement. 

 Views or opinions expressed in BELMAS blog articles are solely those of the author and do not represent the views or expressions of BELMAS or BELMAS RIGS.
Next article: Stress and the student: can we do more? >


“About AERA Graduate Students” (2017).  Retrieved from:

Felder, P. P., Stevenson, H. C., & Gasman, M. (2014). Understanding race in doctoral student socialization. International Journal of Doctoral Studies9, 21-42.

Grant, C. M., & Ghee, S. (2015). Mentoring 101: Advancing African-American women faculty and doctoral student success in predominantly White institutions. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education28(7), 759-785.

Kumar, S., & Antonenko, P. (2014). Connecting practice, theory and method: Supporting professional doctoral students in developing conceptual frameworks. TechTrends58(4), 54-61.

Lindsay, S. (2015). What works for doctoral students in completing their thesis?. Teaching in Higher Education20(2), 183-196.

Patterson, S., & Davis, D. J. (2015). Creating a “safe and supportive environment:” Mentoring and professional development for recent black women doctoral graduates. International Journal of Doctoral Studies10.

Peters, G. B., Gurley, D. K., Fifolt, M., & Collins, L. (2015). Maintaining a strong collaborative community in the early dissertation-writing process: reflections on program interventions. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education63(1), 44-50.

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