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David Dilillo

Mentor Spotlight

The ABCT Spotlight on a Mentor program honors excellence in mentorship by highlighting exceptional ABCT mentors nominated by their students and trainees. We are pleased to present an interview with our most recent spotlighted mentor, Dr. David DiLillo. Dr. DiLillo is Professor and Associate Chair of Psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), where he has been a faculty member since 2000. He received his Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University in 1997 after completing an internship at the University of Tennessee Professional Psychology Internship Consortium. At UNL, he mentors clinical psychology doctoral students, teaches the core Psychotherapy class, and provides clinical supervision. Dr. DiLillo and his research team study trauma, particularly interpersonal violence victimization and perpetration. This work has been funded by grants from NIAAA, NICHD, and NIMH. Among his many professional activities, Dr. DiLillo finds the mentoring of graduate students to be especially rewarding. He takes pride in helping doctoral students acquire the skills and experiences needed to develop their own program of research. To date, nine of his doctoral student trainees have received F31 NRSA fellowships from NIH. Dr. DiLillo has been recognized with a university-wide award from UNL for excellence in graduate mentoring.

In the many nomination letters submitted in support of Dr. DiLillo, themes of encouragement, support, and learning emerged. Anna Jaffe described her experience working with Dr. DiLillo this way:

Beginning with first advising meeting, David encourages his students to develop an individual program of research by exploring the literature with curiosity, clarifying one’s interests, and then focusing on projects that align with those interests… One of his strengths as a mentor is helping students to consider broad long-term goals, while also paying attention to the specific task at hand. David views each task (from a poster abstract to a manuscript) as an exercise and learning opportunity for his students. The care and detail with which he approaches each project has been admirable and inspirational, and also speaks to how invested he is in his graduate students’ training.

Dr. DiLillo’s nomination letters uniformly praised Dr. DiLillo’s developmental approach to mentorship and attention paid to excellence in writing. Anna Jaffe wrote that Dr. DiLillo is skilled in “providing more guidance for newer students and granting independence to students as they progress through the program.” Similarly, Michelle Haikalis wrote that “[Dr. DiLillo’s] hands- on approach during the early stages of training is particularly helpful. For example, in early versions of manuscripts he often shows students his editing process during individual meetings so that they can more thoroughly understand how to improve in their writing.” In her nomination letter, Ruby Charak described the way in which she developed mentorship skills herself under Dr. DiLillo’s guidance: “By letting me take the lead on meetings with Research Assistants, mentoring undergraduate students during the summer, and taking guest lectures [Dr. DiLillo] provided me a platform to develop skills on how to supervise and mentor students.” Molly Franz commented on the attention Dr. DiLillo paid to his students’ writing: “One of David’s strengths is his excellent writing ability, which he generously shares by spending many hours each week editing our manuscripts. He does not merely replace our wording, but engages in discussion with us about the art of writing, which has been incredibly helpful to my professional development.”

Reportedly, Michelangelo once stated, “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” This phenomenon, known as the Michelangelo effect, embodies what I believe is the essence of mentoring: while always being genuine, I believe mentoring means seeing the potential in others that they might not even see in themselves and helping them to become the best versions of themselves that they can be-often, this means going well beyond what they thought was possible. Mentoring is about creating optimal long-term relationships, believing in your mentees, and helping them grow into who they want to be, not who you want them to be, including all the struggles and missteps that are so common along the way. For me, this means that I genuinely have to care for and be concerned about the people I am in a mentoring relationship with, be available to them, and commit to putting in the effort to help them grow.

Dr. DiLillo responded to questions from ABCT’s Academic Training and Education Standards Committee about his experience and goals as a mentor, as well as his mentorship philosophy and mentorship practices.

For how long have you been a member of ABCT?

I have been a member of ABCT since I started graduate school in 1992.

For how long have you engaged in the type of mentoring that you engage in now?

I have been mentoring doctoral students in the Clinical Psychology Training Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln since 2000.

What type of mentor do you aspire to be? Do you have a mentorship philosophy?

My philosophy is to mentor students in ways that will help them discover and reach their own professional goals. I say “discover” because many students do not have well-defined interests or career plans when they begin graduate school; they simply know that they enjoy clinical psychology. To accomplish this, I try to provide mentees with a wide range of research and clinical opportunities so they can explore their interests, develop competencies, and create a fulfilling career path. Throughout this process, I strive to foster increasing independence. I utilize the developmental concept of “scaffolding,” which involves offering students temporary support to assist them in accomplishing new tasks they could not typically achieve on their own. As they acquire new skills, I gradually remove the supportive scaffolding. I find this promotes self-efficacy and autonomy—the ultimate goal of mentoring!

What practices do you engage in that foster your mentorship style?

Mentees in my lab initially participate in one or more team projects, often employing existing datasets, then progress to developing ideas for their own projects. I have weekly individual meetings with mentees throughout their graduate careers. Over time, mentees assume increasing responsibility for project decisions and leadership. We also meet weekly as a lab to discuss ongoing group projects and professional issues relevant to our research. I encourage interaction between mentees—with advanced students orienting newer students to various lab procedures—to foster a culture of support and collegiality in the lab. Students are involved in multiple projects simultaneously and are encouraged to present and publish their work, as well as to seek funding for their research. I also encourage students to affiliate with other labs if they wish—again, so they can discover their own interests. Relatedly, I often help students make connections with other faculty and resources to acquire training experiences that I cannot provide (some recent examples are: training in advanced statistical modeling, ERP assessment, salivary cortisol analysis).

What are your strengths as a mentor?

I try to be a positive role model for mentees. I am committed to them and demonstrate that by spending time on mentoring activities. I am willing to share my knowledge, skills, and experiences with students. I view mentees as junior colleagues and treat them with respect.

Whom do you perceive to be your most influential mentors? Describe the main lessons that you have learned from your mentors.

I have been influenced by numerous mentors. Among them are:

William D. Murphy – my internship director, who is the embodiment of a scientist-practitioner. I remember Bill conducting a CBT group for adolescent sex offenders, writing an assessment report, and analyzing data for an article-all in one day.

Lizette Peterson – my postdoctoral advisor, who was an absolute dynamo. She showed me that it’s possible to balance a productive research career and an active, involved family life. She used to say, “A change is as good as a rest.” It’s true!

Dave Hansen – my colleague at Nebraska for the past 16 years, and our department chair for 11 of those years. Dave exemplifies professionalism and collegiality on a daily basis. A terrific role model and problem solver!

Note: all these mentors are ABCT members (though Lizette passed away several years ago).

What do you tend to look for in potential mentees?

I look for mentees who are motivated, organized (yet flexible), have a strong work ethic, are eager to learn, and get along well with others. These qualities, along with natural intellectual ability, serve students well in any mentoring relationship.

What advice would you give to other professionals in your field who are starting out as mentors?

A few things come to mind:

Serve as a role model for ethical behavior and high standards of professionalism.

Play to your mentees’ strengths while challenging them to grow in new areas.

Be open to your mentees’ ideas.

Make mentoring a priority; follow through with commitments (meetings, deadlines, etc.).

Spend as much time listening as dispensing advice.

Don’t try to shape mentees in your own image; help them develop and reach their professional goals.

Take an interest in mentees. Show that you care. Listen with empathy when professional or personal issues arise, while maintaining healthy boundaries.