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2011 Dean’s Award: Paula D. McClain

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring

Paula D. McClain joined the Duke faculty as Professor of Political Science in 2000. She earned a B.A., M.A., and a Ph.D. in Political Science from Howard University. She held academic positions at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Arizona State University, and the University of Virginia before coming to Duke.  In addition to serving on the faculty of the Political Science Department, Professor McClain holds appointments in the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Department of African and African American Studies. She is also program director of the Race, Ethnicity and Politics Program; director of the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute; and co-director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Gender in the Social Sciences (REGSS).  Professor McClain's primary research interests are in racial minority group politics, particularly inter-minority political and social competition, and urban politics, especially public policy and urban crime.

In spite of her multiple university commitments, Professor McClain's students find that she is consistently available, encouraging them at every step of their academic careers and wholeheartedly supporting their professional development. One student notes that "Professor McClain has shepherded me through the process of graduate school from the earliest of my experiences through the dissertation phase."  Another acknowledges that "Her kindness, professionalism, and sage advice have guided my graduate studies in a way that has allowed me to succeed in ways that I could not have imagined."  

For some, this guidance begins even before entering Duke University as a graduate student: "I met Dr. McClain when I arrived at Duke to participate in the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute. During the weeks that I spent on campus she mentored each student on how to navigate the graduate school application process, how to navigate graduate school once admitted, what it means to be a professor, and what it means to be a researcher." This student remained in close contact with Professor McClain after the summer experience, often "asking her questions about recommendation letters, which schools to apply to, how to judge award letters, and what factors should go into my final decision." Ultimately, this student chose to attend Duke University for Graduate School because of the attentiveness and caring Professor McClain had demonstrated: "I knew that at Duke, I would have someone always in my corner fighting for me." Since then, this student has "learned from her how to navigate the Ph.D. program, how to balance home life and my education attainment, and how to plan for my future in academia." While pondering next steps, the student notes that regardless of what it is, "I know that she will be part of that next step, and that her mentoring will not have stopped with my degree completion." That this student's experience is not unique makes it all the more compelling, since it captures the theme that is present in Professor McClain's interactions with all of her students, one of "unwavering kindness and commitment to students."

Professor McClain's commitment to students is purposeful and practical, focusing on giving each student  a professional development "toolbox" for success, some of which are tailored for the individual and others that are important for all. For example, one student "recognized that my ability to convey my ideas via writing was not as strong as it could be" and "felt a certain void" in the mentoring experience as this went unaddressed. However, this changed with the entrance of Professor McClain into her life: "My most memorable experience with Professor McClain as a mentor was when she read one of my conference papers and revealed to me why I did not convey my thoughts well in writing. It had taken three years before I received constructive feedback that would help me improve my writing. She took the time to comb through my thoughts, help me map my ideas, and write accordingly. A scholar must be tooled with good writing skills and this mentoring experience was momentous for me because it would reshape how I thought about my own talents and prospective contributions to the profession."

Other important tools include the ability to do high quality field research. Professor McClain develops strong researchers by involving them in ongoing projects: "She introduced our research team to multiple aspects of field research. We learned about the methods for developing a survey instrument, proposing it for review before the Institutional Review Board, writing to attain research funding, and proctoring bids with survey research firms to field the study." Another student credits Professor McClain with opening the door to many professional opportunities through her involvement with the research team: "Through my work with her, I learned more about scholarship than I have from anyone else. With Dr. McClain and other members of the research team I learned firsthand the process of taking an interesting idea and developing an innovative, multifaceted research project. I learned and refined several important methodological skills, including survey design, elite interviewing, and statistical data analysis, which likely contributed to my success in the job market for postgraduate opportunities."

After data collection, she continues to encourage professional development of other important academic skills: "Based on the data collected for our study, she invited us to research, write, and present several conference papers. She also extended to us the opportunity to write papers for publication. In this spirit, she offered me and other graduate students numerous research opportunities by which we learned the ins and outs of research development and execution." Teaching skills are not overlooked, either, as graduate students have the opportunity for active involvement with the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute, which "teaches us how to teach and mentor by way of Professor McClain's example and advice. " Professor McClain is described as "a model teacher, who spends immeasurable time developing her lectures," who demonstrates to her students that "data can be accessible and interpretable among people with various backgrounds and exposures to social science," and shows them how to share "the sense that political science can be practical for navigating our everyday life experiences."

Professor McClain does not overlook the importance of connections within the larger scholarly community: "She has been particularly diligent about encouraging her students to develop professional contacts and participate in research opportunities," including participation in her research group, "which is made up of a large cadre of graduate students and young faculty members (i.e. former students) at various universities," thus allowing them to create a foundation for networking. Professor McClain, in her capacity as co-director of REGSS, also "brings leading researchers from the nation's top universities to share their work with a growing network of Duke scholars," giving graduate students additional opportunities for networking and professional development. Students are confident that Professor McClain "truly cares about the professional development of her students and is willing to contribute the time and resources necessary" to ensure their success.

Professor McClain, as a former student states, "In many ways, is her own mentoring institution," thereby acknowledging the depth and expanse of her achievements in mentoring a multitude of young scholars. She also has the gift of inspiring their faith in her leadership: "While academia is filled with wise folk, good mentors must somehow make the mentee receptive to their wisdom by convincing students that they can and should be trusted. It is difficult to do this unless the faculty member truly has the students' best interest at heart." That Professor McClain is committed to their best interests is unquestioned by the many for whom "she serves as a gentle, yet firm figure coaxing her students to engage the process of research" and who allows them "to grow and expand, always willing to lend a kind word."