Ask any successful psychologists they got where they are, and it's likely they'll immediately credit their mentors. Reflecting mentoring's importance to professional development, the number of mentoring programs-within and outside of psychology-is growing dramatically, noted former APA president Diane F. Halpern, PhD, at a 2006 APA Annual Convention session sponsored by the Centering on Mentoring Presidential Task Force created by APA President Gerald P. Koocher, PhD.

During the session, two teams of mentors and mentees illustrated the benefits of the relationship. Leading one team was former APA president Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania; leading the other was Asian-American psychology pioneer Stanley Sue, PhD.

"What we have here are instances of mentoring at its very best," Halpern said. "It's something very special when everything goes right."

Accentuate the positive

Not surprisingly, Seligman-the founder of positive psychology-has a mentoring philosophy in line with his area of expertise: Emphasize the positive and offer room to grow. It's a style that suited panelist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD. Her undergraduate adviser at Yale, Robert Sternberg, PhD, had contacted Seligman and said, "This kid is brilliant, leave her alone and don't get in her way," Seligman recalled, adding: "And that essentially happened to be my philosophy of mentoring students."

His view stems from what psychologists know about how children's creativity spikes when they are in a secure, positive environment. "In positive emotional states, the kind of intelligence that is recruited is top down, creative, synthetic, lateral," he said. "When you don't have enough positivity in your mentoring, you get analytic thinking, intolerant thinking and apprenticeship, as opposed to creativity."

Nolen-Hoeksema credits Seligman with teaching her about the importance of good writing within the profession and for the lay public. "You can have great ideas and great experiments, but if you can't write, they can die on the vine," she said.

In turn, she has made writing instruction and hands-off, positive nurturing the cornerstones of her approach with her own mentees, who include panelist Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, of the University of California, Riverside. As a faculty member at Stanford, Nolen-Hoeksema mentored Lyubomirsky when she was a social psychology graduate student there in the early 1990s. In her talk, Lyubomirsky recalled valuing Nolen-Hoeksema's talent for articulating how she thinks.

"She has a gift for demonstrating how she gets from A to B to C to D," said Lyubormirsky. "A lot of mentors skip from A to D without explaining how they got there."

Yet one of the most important lessons Nolen-Hoeksema imparted was inadvertent, noted Lyubomirsky. Nolen-Hoeksema became a mom during Lyubomirsky's graduate student years and thus provided a model for how a woman could balance motherhood and a demanding faculty position.

"That meant more to me than any other mentoring I could have had that whole year," Lyubomirsky recalled. "I learned you can be a great scientist and a parent."

Now, a fourth generation of mentees is reaping the benefits of Seligman's and Nolen-Hoeksema's wisdom: Lyubomirsky recently won a faculty mentoring prize for her own advising prowess. She continues to rely on Nolen-Hoeksema's support, even as their relationship has matured to one of colleagues.

A professional family

Many former mentees of Sue have formed similar bonds. Sue, a professor at the University of California, Davis, has mentored myriad ethnic-minority students during his career to promote leadership in the ethnic-minority psychology community. His philosophy? Help students publish as early as possible, join national professional organizations and take on leadership roles. "The success of your students is a reflection of your own success," said Sue. "You can really advance the field by contributing leaders, and that's very gratifying."

One of those leaders, panelist Sumie Okazaki, PhD, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), sought out Sue's mentoring when she went to graduate school at UCLA-where he taught at the time. She had read his work on Asian-American psychology as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, and wanted to work with him. His guidance kick-started her career, yet also empowered her to seek additional mentoring when her life or career took turns outside of Sue's expertise.

"No one mentor can advise you on everything in your life," she emphasized. In fact, she said, she feels fortunate to have had multiple mentors, because research on mentoring has shown that Asian-American women are less likely to seek or find mentoring than are women of other cultural backgrounds.

As a mentor herself, Okazaki's approach is based on the idea of "on gaeshi," a Japanese phrase that means to return a favor or repay a kindness. In giving back, she's introducing her student mentees to the same local and national professional networks Sue helped her plug into as a student. These include APA's Div. 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues) and the Asian American Psychological Association.

Like Seligman, Okazaki also promotes independence in the students she mentors, noted panelist and current Okazaki mentee Eric J.R. David, a Filipino graduate student at UIUC who studies Filipino Americans' mental health as a member of Okazaki's Culture and Emotion Lab.

"She is able to strike a good balance between providing guidance and encouraging independence, and between emphasizing scientific rigor and also allowing me to pursue my passion and have fun," he said.

Indeed, there's a special pride about being part of "Stanley Sue's professional family," noted David, who found a mentor in Okazaki by contacting Sue as an undergraduate student. And as a member of the third generation, he says he "can only hope to continue this welcoming, familial and intellectually stimulating atmosphere."

For more information on the Centering on Mentoring Task Force initiatives, visit the Task Force Web site.

Further Reading

  • Huwe, J.M., & Johnson, W.B. (2002). Getting Mentored in Graduate School. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.