Engineering Professor Takes Holistic Approach to Teaching Ph.D. Candidates
Teaching graduate students involves more than passing along technical knowledge. Professors are mentoring, modeling behavior and helping create tomorrow’s thought leaders in their fields.
For chemical engineering professor Michael Matthews, it is about creating what he calls “the well-dressed Ph.D.”
“A student enters grad school to learn to do research, to learn to become a leader of in some disciplinary area and to gain not only technical depth, but all the other skills it takes to become a leader no matter where the person goes from there,” says Matthews, who was awarded the 2020 Mungo Graduate Teaching Award.
A “well-dressed Ph.D.” should have a mastery of a solid academic core in their discipline along with distinctive competencies and abilities. The doctoral candidate needs to develop the ability to think, plan and act independently of the research supervisor and be able to transmit new knowledge effectively. This student also should be able to find, sort, evaluate and use information effectively and efficiently, while identifying important problems and opportunities that can be addressed by future research.
Finally, the successful doctoral candidate needs to obtain meaningful employment and build a professional network within their research and development community.
“This model now shapes my graduate teaching, mentoring and professional development efforts,” Matthews says.
To this end, he developed three one-hour courses for the relatively new biomedical engineering program that help develop graduate students’ information literacy and critical writing skills as well as provide mentoring in the early stages of students’ research work. The courses are geared toward biomedical engineering students, but open to all graduate students in the College of Engineering and Computing.
"A student enters grad school to learn to do research, to learn to become a leader of in some disciplinary area and to gain not only technical depth, but all the other skills it takes to become a leader no matter where the person goes from there."
“Many of my own doctoral students have completed this sequence, and I can state with conviction that I am able to distinguish marked improvement in their communications skills, their dissertation defenses, the quality of their manuscripts and in their overall ability to answer questions,” says Melissa A. Moss, a professor and interim chair for chemical engineering and director for the biomedical engineering program.
Matthews also has teamed up with professor Claudia Benitez-Nelson in the School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment on a National Science Foundation-funded program called Bridge to the Doctorate, which supports under-represented minority students who are seeking doctorates in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
Beginning this fall, that grant will fund a cohort of 12 graduate students for two years with an annual stipend and tuition assistance.
“Claudia and I believe it has potential to transform the STEM graduate population and their educational environment at UofSC,” Matthews says.
Moss, who has experienced Matthews as a mentor and a colleague, says this most recent project may be Matthews’ most lasting impact on the field and the university.
“Mike’s strength as a mentor and educator within the research realm is an asset for these underrepresented students to succeed both within their doctoral studies and their subsequent careers,” she says. “His contributions and leadership within the area of graduate education have been nothing short of outstanding. He has developed unique pedagogical platforms, promoted a diverse graduate population and established a culture of educational excellence.”