Tuesday, July 23, 2013

100 PhD's conferred by Chuck Eckert and counting!

My colleague (and friend), Chuck Eckert, graduated his 100th Ph.D. student in the past few days. Just run the numbers... and it's staggering: It takes 4-5 years for a student to finish her or his Ph.D. So assuming a professor has a 50-year career, that still means only 45 years during which she or he gets to confer a Ph.D. To get to 100 in that span, you would have to average over 2 doctorates/year. Assuming an average of 5-years for graduation, and the fact that there is some attrition... you would need to support a group of about 14 graduate students on average for 50 years. Of course, that doesn't include postdocs or research scientists. Add them to the mix, and you need to support a group in the 20 to 30 people range, again for 50 years. There are a few such groups, and likely they too have produced over 100 PhD's. But this is clearly the exception and not the rule. Little wonder that the story was featured in this Sunday's Milestones in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

There is one other difference that sets Chuck apart. He actually mentors all of his students (and many others too!) His research group isn't simply run as a top-down enterprise in which his students barely see him near the end of their training. Rather, they see him regularly, and are required to be engaged in their weekly group, subgroup and individual meetings with him. At any moment, he might ask them questions beyond their science such as where they expect to be in 10 years or what will they do if the experiments all work as expected. In the end, mentoring doctoral students is about helping them learn how to think and act without you. There's no one path to doing this well because it depends on the student as well as the mentor. It's clear, though, that mentors have to put a lot of thought into how to do this well. And Chuck has figured this out in ways I aspire to emulate even if I have no hope to get to a 100!

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