There is a growing concern at universities to make sure that the mentor relationship between faculty and graduate students is well understood and developed. Here is an example of the message being offered from Penn State.
I have been very fortunate throughout my career to have mentors and role models in my teachers at Grove City College and also at GMU. I have written about these mentors and how lucky I consider myself to have had the opportunity to study with them on several occasions (here, here, here). Hans Sennholz, Don Lavoie and James Buchanan taught me much in my formal education and also in discussions outside the classroom. I also had the good fortune as a graduate student to study with Kenneth Boulding and to come under the influence of Warren Samuels. I also had the great opportunity to work with Mario Rizzo and Israel Kirzner from 1990 to 1998 at NYU.
But one of the things that is often overlooked in these discussions is the importance of mentors outside of academia for intellectual development. I recently received an alumni award from Grove City College and the occasion gave me reason to reflect on all I learned from my professors, but also coaches and friends during my time in college. The same would be true for high school, and certainly in graduate school I learned much from my fellow classmates.
Two of my biggest influences on my intellectual development have not been professors or fellow students, but two men who work outside of academia but are among the most intellectual curious people I've ever met. Edward Weick, who I met when I was teaching at Oakland University, works in the field of investments. Ed worked with Goldman-Sachs for years before establishing his own firm in the late 1980s. Ed challenged me (and continues to challenge me) to think about the practical applications of economic theorizing to understand empirical reality of the business environment. I can remember Ed asking me at our first lunch what I thought about the economy and I started to tell him this or that theory offered by a variety of economists, and Ed stopped me and said simply -- "I don't care what those guys think, I want to know what Peter Boettke thinks." For one of the first times in my life I was unable to speak!!! Ed asked me to tutor him in economic classics, and we became good friends. I am on Ed's email list and we still speak on the phone occasionally and he still challenges me constantly to think seriously about the applications of economic theories to making sense of the business environment.
Richard Cornuelle is the other major influence on me. Dick's concern with the principles of a free society and in particular the operation of the civic associations in a voluntary society. Dick has been a tireless champion of libertarian intellectual pursuits for over 50 years and his curiosity, and enthusiasm for truth in social theory is contagious. I probably am intellectually closer to Dick than to anyone else in the world.
The main point I want to make is how important it is for young economists to learn from a variety of sources and not get myopic. We don't just learn from other economists nor just from other academics. In fact, in our efforts to tie theories to reality --- either in the political arena, business community or civic associations --- we are compelled to engage the theory in a way that if we stayed content in our academic discourse we never would. And here is the important point, academic discourse suffers dramatically whenever it is allowed to be disengaged from the world of business or policy for too long.
Mentors come in a variety of forms. We don't necessarily need university policies to encourage graduate students to work with faculty. The incentive system in science works to direct students who have ideas to get encouragement from faculty. The system more or less works to direct talented people on the career path that will maximize their academic opportunities. Reputation is a powerful mechanism in science, and the meaningful mentorship relationship as aspiring economists emerges within that scientific quest for truth and career enhancement. What universities lack, however is engagement with the community surrounding the university from the business world, policy world, and world of civic associations. Academic gamesmanship too often substitutes for intellectual engagement with the world.
An alternative to the standard model is actually being pursued at the Mercatus Center and the various different programs pursued in academia and policy.