A Research Lead Perspective: Mentorship and Intrinsic Motivation

A Research Lead Perspective: Mentorship and Intrinsic Motivation

Posted on June 28, 2022

Over the past two and a half years, I have participated in Project Vox’s research team as a volunteer, a student, and ultimately as Research Lead, a formalized role which involves mentorship and management of the research team. As a PhD candidate in Art History specializing in early modern women artists, I was attracted to Project Vox’s mission and focus on early modern women philosophers. In the semesters leading up to my appointment as Research Lead I became involved in mentoring initiatives at Duke, and Project Vox offered me the opportunity to put into practice many of the mentorship strategies I learned. My motivations for contributing to the team have shifted as I transitioned from an individual contributor to a leadership position, giving me an appreciation for the roles of intrinsic motivation and accountability in our collaborative process. This post takes an in-depth look at how our team cultivates intrinsic motivation to align the goals of the project with those of individual contributors.

As a collaborative research group, Project Vox is comprised of contributors at different stages of their careers, with different specializations, and with different reasons for participating. At the beginning of each semester, I began our research team’s work with discussion of each team member’s personal goals. When students first identify what is motivating and inspiring them at a particular moment, we can then set goals for both individuals and the team that will be a valuable use of everyone’s time. As Research Lead, it is my job to ensure that team members always keep their end point in mind by reinforcing identity and goals. I cultivate students’ strengths and help them identify areas for growth. In delegating the tasks that need to be accomplished for the progress of the team as a whole, I ground students’ commitments in what they have expressed matters to them. For example, at the start of Spring 2022 two students communicated their long-term goal of preparing to write a senior thesis so I tasked them with working together to lay the groundwork for a future Project Vox entry. This semester-long project involved searching for and synthesizing sources, determining the scope of the entry, and outlining the organization of sub-topics—skills they will need to complete their individual senior theses.

In many cases, students participating in Project Vox hope to gain more advanced research skills and experience working on a long-term research project. This kind of work is excellent preparation for advanced study or diverse workplaces. During our all-team retreats at the start of each semester we ask: what does each person need to learn to achieve their respective goals? In the past year, responses to this question have included how to read efficiently, how to effectively search for primary and secondary sources, how to summarize content, and how to write in an academic style. As Research Lead, I provide guidance in these matters through discussions of how to evaluate information found in primary and secondary sources, how to distinguish between original thought and paraphrasing, and how to write with a particular audience in mind. This guidance can apply to the whole group, and it can also be tailored to the individual as they utilize different skills and take different paths to end up in the same place. As I modularize research tasks to fit within the project goals, my team members also learn to recognize the structures that underlie research. For instance, students that are used to writing shorter papers learn how to manage large quantities of reading notes, keep track of citations, and revise their work over an extended period of time.

As we begin our work each semester, we lead with students’ strengths to make this transition. We build confidence by asking what skills they have already developed that they could contribute to the project. The contributions are meant to be somewhat equitable, so one strategy for personalizing work while moving the team forward is to offer students a list of research tasks that need to be accomplished and to ask which tasks they feel comfortable completing. At times, has been my role as Research Lead to determine what is realistic. When contributors are guided by their enthusiasm, they sometimes volunteer to take on more work than they have time to complete. At other times, contributors may feel overwhelmed by tasks that they are capable of completing and then the team steps in to remind them that they have collaborators to support them. When a student asked to step away from the project upon realizing that they had committed to more work than they had time or energy to complete, we worked together to identify an alternative set of tasks that was better suited to the student’s strengths and availability. While keeping the team moving forward is my primary role, it has been important to me to make adaptations to accommodate everyone who is interested in participating.

I have found that the key is to focus on what is essential so that the team can be structured for quick returns. Paring back our work plan to what is essential also offers teachable moments. We discuss ways in which we can approach our research project so that we can achieve a state of stasis and completion. This can be challenging for students prone to perfectionism or who are so enraptured with the process of discovery that they have difficulty finalizing drafts to share with others. At this stage—usually during the second or third semester of an entry’s development—the collaboration of more senior scholars models the role of an advisor or an editorial board. For example, when writing a long-term independent research project such as a thesis or dissertation, individual students are responsible for planning, researching, and writing—however, they also have advisors and committees to help them build their bibliography, clarify their thoughts, and contextualize their findings. Students on the Project Vox research team learn how to respectfully seek out the expertise of others, such as requesting an appointment for advance instruction with a subject librarian. By framing these exercises as glimpses into higher academia and the professional arena, students become more motivated to ask senior scholars for help, as well as to give and receive feedback.

Whether or not team members choose to pursue academic careers the skills they learn are transferable to workplaces of all kinds. Throughout a typical semester participants practice public speaking, learn time-management strategies, and benefit from workshops offered by members of the larger Project Vox team. One of the more sensitive areas for encouraging growth is individual accountability. I created structures to support accountability such as semester timelines with individual and collective deadlines as well as group research logs. Practices such as group research logs help team members be methodical about what they are doing and why, as well as encourage reflection on work habits and skill development. Tracking contributions in this way on a weekly basis increases equity and ensures that individuals are not duplicating each other’s efforts. There are times when these strategies are not enough to keep team members on track. In these cases, I strive to maintain an attitude of unconditional positive regard: to be gentle with the individual yet firm about the objectives to respect the team’s timeline. We can realign team members’ incentives with team goals by having conversations about what causes stalled progress, then offering support and recommendations about how to move forward. This experience models workplace dynamics and prepares students for success in life beyond the classroom.

Finally, we pause for reflection at the start, mid-term, and end of each semester. In addition to the benefits described above, participants have noted the ways in which their involvement in this work have changed their broader outlook. For instance, many team members have never taken a single Philosophy course, but by developing expertise through participation in Project Vox they have expressed that they are now less likely to rule out opportunities in other areas of their lives. Studies have shown that job applicants—particularly women—shy away from applying to jobs if they do not possess all of the desired qualifications. After participating in Project Vox students have said they feel more confident in pursuing opportunities in which they can grow and develop new competencies.

Not only do we reflect on our collective and individual progress, but we also seek out feedback on our operation to improve what our project can offer to both contributors and our audience. Project Vox’s mission statement and processes have evolved over time, requiring all-team introspective discussions. Regardless of their personal motivations, it is essential for all team members to know that their contributions matter, that their ideas for improvement are taken seriously, and that they are participating in the lasting change of a living project. It is these appeals to intrinsic motivation that have kept team members coming back semester after semester, often advancing into new roles within the team as leaders themselves.

Dana Hogan is a PhD candidate in Art History and is enrolled in the Graduate Certificate in Gender & Feminist Studies as well as the Certificate in College Teaching. Her doctoral project, “Expanding Worlds: Women Artists and Cross-Cultural Encounters in Early Modern Europe (Working Title)” foregrounds women in the study of cross-cultural circulation of artists and works of art, as well as their subjects and objects.