Three Themes of the Mentoring Process
Through the interviews, the outlines of skills used in mentoring were elucidated. The skills focused on promoting the students’ scholarly development process. The skills were categorized into three themes of the mentoring process. Each mentor had their unique stories of mentoring. We found universal themes from these stories. The first stream was related to the individualized process of qualitative research—one-on-one mentorship. The second stream involved the collaborative process—facilitating group work as a mentor. The third stream concerned networking, including ensuring access to coadvisors as resources and using the dissertation review committee as another resource. The Figure shows three themes of mentoring process and set of skills of each stream.
Figure. Three themes of the mentoring process and the set of skills in each stream.
Individualized Process of Qualitative Research: One-on-One Mentorships. Strengthening knowledge of qualitative research methods is among the first themes of the mentoring process. The graduate school curricula for both master’s and doctoral nursing programs in Japan offer limited content related to qualitative research methods. Therefore, it is important for student advisors to first assess the students’ background in terms of their understanding and knowledge of qualitative research methods. In the case where a student intends to complete the master’s and doctoral programs consecutively, the advisor would be able to start the training for qualitative research at the master’s level. However, it is rare for students to be able to receive such integrated training, and so it is necessary for the advisors to assess the student’s preparedness in terms of data collection, analysis, and conceptualization. One participant reported:
We don’t have universal basic coursework for the qualitative method. We have seminars in each clinical area. I use my seminars to offer methodological coursework. Many doctoral students, including those from other clinical areas, come to these seminars.
- A mentor should assess whether the student has a sufficient basis to be an expert in the qualitative research method. I consult a methodologist when making this assessment.
- If a doctoral student comes straight out of the master’s course, they [sic] have a basis in methodology from their course-work in the master’s course. We also have older students who came to the doctoral course long after finishing their master’s degree. They are removed from up-to-date knowledge about qualitative methodology. The level of preparation varies.
Depending on the level of knowledge and skills related to qualitative research, the participants reported that they recommend students read books on research methods, in addition to well-written research articles using qualitative methods.
Encouraging students to make data collection more research question-oriented is part of the individual interaction process. Advisors placed importance on developing interview guides, requiring students to conduct pilot interviews and to subsequently modify the guide. Sometimes students required participant observation in the field as a step in developing the interview guide. After the initial data collection, advisors read the transcripts with the students. They closely examine the data quality together. Advisors provide feedback to students regarding the clarity and precision of the data and encourage them to extract codes or categories to bring out the strength and importance of the data. At the beginning of analysis, students can generally verbalize the importance of their discoveries but are unable to write about it precisely. Advisors take time for students to talk freely about their discoveries and, in doing so, encourage them to express themselves logically and with a clear connection to the reality observed.
One participant stated:
After data collection, at the first meeting with the doctoral student, I ask them: “How was the story? What kind of story did the patient tell? Tell me everything.” Sometimes the story is long. But telling it to someone like me who doesn’t know anything about the situation is effective in moving forward the student’s conceptualization of the data.
Another participant said:
My interest in data is reality. If I can feel reality from the data, if there is an intuition there, that’s what is important.
The purpose of facilitating students’ efforts to extract concepts that fit real phenomena is to improve the data quality. After data collection, the advisors require students to talk about their experiences in the field using their own words, without referring directly to data. This reporting includes the student’s essential point of view. Advisors then read the data together with students. Sometimes the naming of categories or concepts relies on predetermined typologies and does not necessarily reflect real phenomena. Advisors try to break down such preconceived categories and concepts so students can come up with codes that reflect the data and the participants’ experiences more closely. Students’ ways of thinking are often heavily influenced by articles, textbooks, and well-known theories they have already learned. In a doctoral dissertation, originality is a top priority. Advisors try to teach students how to create concepts from both logical thinking and sensitivity to the data. After naming the concepts, students are required to explain what is original about them.
One participant noted:
I advise students to have a central core image that they want to express. Then they should choose the name of the coding. Properties and dimensions are also important, but so is making sure that the coding fits the phenomenon. If they decide on specific wording too soon, the wording brings unwanted nuance into the reality they’re trying to express.
Collaborative Process: Facilitating Group Work as a Mentor. Clarifying research questions through the use of group activities aims to take full advantage of the unique potential of groups. Advisors who participated in this study were assisting up to six doctoral students at the same time. They organized weekly or monthly group seminars. Doctoral students are required to make presentations at these seminars. This kind of arrangement allows multiple doctoral students to interact with one another and ask questions about one another’s research from different standpoints. This usually serves to clarify the students’ research questions. If, for example, there is a student who did not know about another student’s target phenomenon, the seminar provides a good opportunity to explain the phenomenon in detail. Such interactions within students’ groups force members to make their research questions more tangible. This type of interaction also occurs between advisor and student, but discussion in a peer group tends to be broader. Members compare their questions with one another, which helps them to be conscious about the differences. The discussion process is useful in helping students to take advantage of opportunities for self-expression. It helps them to get used to being challenged by others. The discipline of having to express the content of their research in a way that is intelligible to others also readies them to defend their research in front of multiple advisors. It serves to help students learn to convey their findings more persuasively to others and helps them to strive to be understood.
Advisors made use of this group dynamism consciously. For example, one participant said:
At the end of first year, doctoral students do their presentations based on their substruction. This is part of their routine coursework. After that, they come back to take part in seminars in each clinical area. There are several students in these seminars. Once a month, seminar participants make presentations and discuss each other’s work. This makes their research questions clearer. Various viewpoints come up in the group discussions.
Another participant mentioned:
During spring term, from April to July, students gain experience in the clinical setting in the process of this particular research. After their literature review, they give presentations at the weekly seminar for doctoral students. We have many clinical specialists in the group. They raise questions about issues, which aren’t easily explained in terms of the concepts the student has set out. Being challenged to show actual data to explain the issue helps the student to assess the direction of his or her data collection efforts.
Networking. Ensuring access to the resources of coadvisors concerns strategies related to organizational/system issues in the doctoral program. The main topic was the role of coadvisors and members of the dissertation committee. The number of committee members ranged from four to six. Advisors might also be committee members, and one to three other professors might serve as core advisors. It was felt that advisors should have knowledge about the phenomenon in which the student is interested, as well as knowledge about appropriate methodology to study that phenomenon. In many cases, this requires the resources of coadvisors.
One participant stated:
I always ask specialists in qualitative methodology outside of the university to become coadvisors. Sometimes doctoral students also attend an outside specialist class held at another graduate school, if the instructor agrees to do so. Mentors should make such situations possible. I can’t cover every type of qualitative methodology.
Advisors were specialists in certain areas of nursing and sociology. Sometimes they had expertise in the particular phenomenon, the appropriate methodology, or both. Other coadvisors are often members of the dissertation evaluation committee. In such cases, students benefit from having another understanding member on the committee. Coadvisors often help students to synthesize their doctoral dissertation throughout the whole writing process.
In Japan, generally few faculty receive essential training in qualitative research methods. Evaluation committees are also still largely unfamiliar with such methods. For this reason, inviting methodological specialists to be on evaluation committees is important to ensure the fair evaluation of qualitative dissertations.
Effectively using the dissertation review committee as a resource involves the process of synthesizing and socializing the student’s analysis. Dissertation defenses are first vetted by the advisor and core coadvisors, with respect to the dissertation draft. Their goal is to examine whether the draft surpasses the standards of a doctoral dissertation. A chief judging criterion is whether the dissertation offers new knowledge, including new frames of reference. If the examiners can agree that the dissertation surpasses dissertation standards, a review committee is organized chiefly by the advisor, taking into account the opinion of the student.
The standard number of review committee meetings varied among participants. One participant reported that in a sociology course, one drafting committee and four review committee meetings were held. In nursing courses, one drafting committee and one defense, either closed or public, was the average.
The review committee typically includes specialists in both methodology and in the phenomenon being studied. Students make a presentation to the committee and receive comments from the reviewers. They can then present their findings to other people. This is the socializing process of the findings. Because the members of the review committee work in an academic community, they have a sense of how the outcome of the research may be useful for the field of nursing.
Students and advisors sometimes develop long-term relationships during the process of supervision. However, a form of tunnel vision may also result from this. For example, the student and advisor can understand each other fairly well, but other reviewers find it harder to understand the context in which the student is operating. Doctoral dissertations should be written for a broad audience. The process of socialization during the reviewing and rewriting process can therefore broaden the student’s vision and bring it closer in line with reality.
One participant stated:
At the preliminary examination, we examine the draft of the dissertation. There are three members on this committee. One is the mentor; two are from graduate schools in fields that relate to the theme. Members of this committee advise doctoral students on how to revise their papers. After revision, the committee decides whether the dissertation can move ahead to final evaluation. The biggest issue for the evaluation committee is the structure of the dissertation as a whole. Structure means the appropriateness of the research questions and the findings. This step in the committee’s process results in big progress for the dissertation. Even students themselves are surprised at how much progress is made.
Another participant said:
We need comments from the viewpoint of outsiders other than the mentor and student alone. I request multiple mentorships as a committee member. This helps me feel more secure as a mentor.
In a one-on-one relationship with the mentor, the student can explain concepts and phenomena by drawing on the past history of the relationship, but in many cases such explanations are inadequate and remain opaque to coadvisors. Learning to verbalize and express ideas more cogently to coadvisors can serve as good practice for presenting research results to fellow researchers in the same field of study.