Dr. Anuj Chauhan
Department of Chemical Engineering
2015-2016 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
Based on a recent gallop poll, having access to a mentor that cared about them, made them excited about learning and encouraged them to pursue their dreams are the three key contributors to long-term success for college graduates. These three elements are the core of my mentoring relationships with all my students.
I greatly enjoy and cherish my role as the Graduate Coordinator of the department of Chemical Engineering. As the Graduate Coordinator, I mentor all PhD students until they are assigned to PhD supervisors. I have mentored more than 100 PhD students and 250 MS students in the last five years. I mentor the students through the process of course and advisor selection, and also guide them in applying for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Since joining UF in 2001, I have graduated 15 students as Chair and 3 students as a Co-Chair. These students came from six different countries and included 5 females. Also I mentor visiting students from research groups in the US and other countries including Japan and Portugal.
A good mentor must first and foremost know, respect, and care deeply for the mentee. All professional relationships are with people and these must be based in an environment of mutual respect and care. I try to create a personal relationship with my students by learning about their lives, hobbies, goals and aspirations. Each student is unique and has strengths and weaknesses. As a mentor, I try to reinforce the strengths and help them work on the weaknesses. I also believe that emotional happiness of a student is a necessary requirement for professional success and so I try to create a safe, yet challenging work environment where the students feel appreciated, challenged, and have a desire to set high goals for themselves. I arrange group activities and parties to bring the students closer to each other
The mentoring role of a professor is critical when a PhD student is transitioning from a bright, talented, eager undergraduate student to an intellectually curious, technically adept professional with excellent communication skills and the desire to change the world. This role is particularly important when the graduate students first join the program as they are quickly expected to become experts in a completely new field. This may seem intimidating, but I try to make this process more gradual by first giving them a small project that will expose them to the field. Also success in the small project makes them believe in their abilities which in turn motivates them to move to the more challenging aspects of the project. Another benefit from this approach is that in case of future failures, the students do not feel at a total loss because they accomplished something in the original project. The mentor must also play an important role to help the students handle research failures such as data not supporting the hypothesis, papers getting rejected, etc. In such situations, I am always very honest but I use my own experiences from the past to try to present the other side of the coin. For instance, data that does not support the original hypothesis could be a goldmine as it could lead to newer and more exciting research directions to generate and validate new hypotheses. I sometimes show reviews from some of my lab’s older submissions that were even more scathing but the paper was eventually published in the same journal. It helps the students to see that others have been in similar situations and eventually they succeeded.
Inspiring the students to pursue their dreams is a critical element of mentorship. I think passion and excitement for learning is highly contagious – when my students see how passionate and excited I am about their work, they get excited as well. Excitement in turn inspires them to set even higher goals and then work hard to achieve those. Early in their PhD projects, I play a more active role in directing the students by giving them more specific tasks. However towards the end, I only give very broad directions, expecting the students to use their own creativity to drive the research. This helps prepare the students for their future careers. Mentoring becomes very important when the PhD students are about to graduate. They need help in wrapping up the thesis, preparing the CV, applying for jobs, and finally comparing offers and choosing which job to take. I help them in the job search by working with them in improving the CV, doing mock interviews, and also leveraging my contacts in industry. I support them in traveling to conferences to give talks and attend job fairs.
I believe in the philosophy of ‘once a mentor, always a mentor’. I continue to stay in touch with my students and help if they need it. Many of my students have consulted me when changing jobs, handling complicated situations at work, and even on personal matters such as establishing the right balance between work and home. One of my first PhD students had to move to the West Coast because her husband received a great offer. She was looking for only local companies around there which was very limiting. I suggested that she should apply to other places as well particularly those that allow telecommuting. That would give her more options and also extra freedom should she need to move again. She eventually received a telecommuting offer from Merck, and she was able to keep the same job after she moved back to the East coast.
Evaluating my success as a mentor can be difficult. I can gauge my success from quantitative measures such as presentations and publications, citations to the papers and success of my mentees after graduation. All my students have published 5-10 papers and presented 3-5 talks at national and international conferences. Our group published 20 scholarly papers in just the last year and in addition we publish in popular news media to reach the general public. My students won numerous awards while at the UF and are now having productive careers in industry or academics. Just in the last year, Vincent Hsu was awarded a Best Paper award at a conference and the Attributes of the Gator award for Professional Excellence, which is the most prestigious student award in the College of Engineering. Robert Damitz won the Big Idea competition in its first year of inception at the UF. More important than these metrics though, I rely on personal input from both current and graduated students. All my students have commented that they always knew that I truly cared for their well-being and they truly appreciated that. They also remark that inspire in students a passion for their work and be more to be creative.
I took the job of a faculty member in Chemical Engineering to conduct high quality research that can have a positive impact on the world. What I realize now though is that I have larger impact on the world from the students that I mentor. That makes this job all the more amazing and makes me continue my never ending quest to continuously improve as a mentor.