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Aaron Towne

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Mentoring Plan for PhD Students

Communication and Meetings

How would you describe your advising style? Does your approach vary over the course of a student's progress within their degree?

I think of myself as an engaged advisor. I view research as a partnership – an exciting quest we undertake together.  I meet weekly with my students (this can be adjusted to more or less to meet individual needs or preferences), and we use these meetings to talk through research progress, brainstorm next steps together, and discuss other big-picture mentoring topics. The goal of a Ph.D. is for you to become an independent researcher by the time you graduate, so the nature of my input tends to transition from “directing” to “advising” to “mentoring” over the course of a Ph.D.  At all times, I try to balance providing the necessary structure while encouraging you to bring your own creativity and independent exploration to the problems at hand. I also work hard to tailor my approach to the needs and wishes of each of my students. 

What is the best way/technology for students to contact you? Are there time frames in which students should expect to hear from you?

The best ways to contact me are by email or just knocking on my door! I reply to most emails the same day unless they require more extensive thought, in which case I might suggest that we discuss the topic in person.  

How often do you plan to meet with students one-on-one (be as specific as possible, it's okay to describe multiple styles that may vary with student needs)? Is an agenda required? How long are meetings?

As mentioned above, the default is a weekly one-on-one meeting, usually 45-60 minutes, but this can be adjusted as needed. No pre-disclosed agenda is required, but I ask that you come prepared to use our time together as effectively as possible. Some students find it helpful to prepare a few slides or a short document to guide the discussion and show results.  

Do you have regular group meetings? What does student participation look like in a group meeting?

We have a weekly group meeting, which rotates between two main activities. First, I ask each student to give an update on their work once per semester (and once in the summer). This helps us all stay up-to-date with each other’s work and provides an opportunity for focused discussion about your work, often leading to great suggestions from other group members. Second, we take turns selecting papers to read together as a group and discuss them during group meetings. We have found this to be extremely helpful in developing a joint base of knowledge and vocabulary that enriches our group interactions and enhances our ability to support one another’s work.  

Research and Teaching Expectations

Describe your students' primary area(s) of responsibility and expectations (e.g., reading peer-reviewed literature, in-lab working hours, etc.).

You are responsible for successfully completing your Ph.D. project. I will provide guidance, direction, support, etc., but ultimately, your success is your responsibility. Completing a PhD requires generating new knowledge that is original, important, and interesting and becoming THE expert in some small part of the field. I will help you shape your project to meet these goals, but I expect you to provide much of the creative spark.  Practically, work within my group includes a mix of analytical and computational work, in addition to reading the literature, giving presentations, and writing papers.

I expect my students (and myself) to be self-motivated and the number of hours worked to never be an issue. A flexible schedule is one of the many perks of the academic lifestyle. However, I ask that all be in the lab for some portion of the usual workday (M-F 9-5) so that interactions with your colleagues can occur for their and your benefit. At the same time, work-life balance is extremely important, and I encourage you to maintain and nurture other outside interests and relationships.

How do you decide authorship and/or authorship order?

Authorship and author order are determined by your contribution to the work described in the paper.  You will be first author on the papers that you lead, other contributors (if any) will be middle authors, and I will typically be last. Each student in my group owns their own clearly defined project, and we take an inclusive approach to recognizing contributions from others, so authorship has always been straightforward to date. However, if an issue arises, I encourage you to speak freely about it to find a solution that is agreeable to everyone involved. More generally, I encourage open, honest, and direct communication about literally any topic.

Do you ask students in your group to serve as a GSI over the course of their program?

I ask each Ph.D. student to serve as a GSI once (for one class for one semester), as doing so is a valuable opportunity for growth, especially for those interested in an academic career, but even for those who are not. I am also open to it if you are interested in serving more than once.  

Do you have general expectations for graduation?

My fundamental expectation for graduation is that you will have made an original and meaningful contribution to the field of fluid mechanics and/or reduced-complexity modeling. Typically, this will entail writing at least three first-author journal articles (in addition to possible conference papers). This is a basic guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule. I also expect that you will have achieved a level of expertise and independence by the time you graduate, to the point that we can interact more as colleagues and less as advisor-advisees. This is, after all, the point of a Ph.D.!  

Are you supportive of your students going on internships? If so, is there a time of year that is best? How many internships can they do?

I support internships if they advance your Ph.D. work and/or open up future career opportunities. The appropriate timing and number would be situation-dependent.  

Opportunities for Feedback

How do you provide students with feedback regarding overall progress, research activities, etc.?

In addition to the ongoing feedback from weekly individual meetings and group meetings, I conduct a quarterly mutual assessment with each of my students. These exercises are four-fold symmetric: (i) the student assesses their own progress and performance over the last quarter; (ii) I provide feedback on their work; (iii) I assess my own performance as an advisor and researcher; (iv) the student provides feedback on how I could better support them.  

How far in advance of a deadline should a student expect to provide written work for feedback, such as publication drafts?

I typically provide several rounds of feedback and edits on publication drafts. The first is high-level, focusing on the paper's overall content, framing, and organization; I can usually provide this in less than a week. For the second round, I review the paper in great detail, generally taking a couple of weeks. Any subsequent rounds are usually fast and done within a few days.  

How do you solicit feedback from your students?

As mentioned above, I ask each of my students for feedback several times per year as part of our mutual assessment process. Additionally, I welcome feedback at all times, e.g., during any of our weekly one-on-one meetings.  

Conference Attendance

Which meetings do your students generally attend? What funding is available to attend these meetings?

Our bread-and-butter meeting that we all attend is the American Physical Society, Division of Fluid Dynamics (APS-DFD) annual meeting. We also present at many other meetings, depending on the project, including those of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), the International Union of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (IUTAM), and the U.S. National Committee for Theoretical and Applied Mechanics (USNC/TAM), among others. Funding typically comes from the same grant or grants that fund the given project as a whole.

Time Away from Campus

Discuss expectations regarding vacations and time away from campus and how best to plan for them. What is the time-frame for notification regarding anticipated absences?

I appreciate two-week’s notice if you will be away for more than a day or two. I am quite flexible as long as you are making good progress in general and your plans do not prevent us from meeting any external deadlines, e.g., from funding agencies.  

Are there specific standard times that students in your group generally take vacation?

Often summer and winter breaks work best, but I am flexible.   

What do you do to facilitate students taking time off (e.g., do you proactively encourage people to take vacation after major deadlines)?

My approach is to treat you like the adult that you are and let you manage your schedule as best suits your needs within reasonable bounds provided by University policy for GSRAs. 

Additional Information

Are there any additional points that you would like to share?

The following core values and principles underlie the expectations and culture of our group.

• Honesty & integrity.  We strive to be above reproach in all we do. This includes never misrepresenting results, always giving credit to others when it is due, and avoiding posturing (e.g., admitting we don’t know something rather than making something up).

• Supportiveness.  We seek to help others succeed. I want to be abundantly clear: you are not competing with the other group members. This frees us to generously share our ideas and expertise to benefit others’ work. 

• Respect.  We treat everyone with respect. It is crucial that the work environment be safe and free from harassment and discrimination. 

• Constructive criticism.  The principle of respect does not preclude delivering appropriate scientific criticism.  Indeed, critical analysis is a necessary part of the scientific process. For the one giving criticism, the key is to make it constructive and to target ideas, never the person behind them. For the one receiving criticism, it is important to remember that you are not your work, and vice versa – a criticism of your idea does not constitute a criticism of you as a person. 

• Rigor.  We strive to make our science as rigorous as possible. This includes backing up our ideas with careful mathematical analysis whenever possible and avoiding logical jumps or inconsistencies.

• Clarity.  Our goal when communicating ideas and results (i.e., through papers, presentations, group and one-on-one discussions) is NOT to look smart, but rather to communicate as clearly as possible.

• Balance.  There is more to life than work. Although Ph.D. studies are demanding, I hope that you will maintain and nurture other outside interests and relationships.

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