What does it mean to mentor someone? What are the characteristics of good mentoring? What are the stages of mentoring? What should one expect from a mentor? From a mentee? These and other questions are important for faculty member and student to ask before entering such a relationship with one another, as well as being clear of how these roles are defined. In a mentoring relationship, both parties work together to:
- co-create connections through sets of agreements that establish specific, measurable, attainable, realistic/relevant, and timely (SMART) goals.
- help the student reflect on their goals in ways that help them clarify how they intersect with their personal and professional aspirations.
(Lundsford, Laura Gail and Baker, Vick L. (2016). Great Mentoring in Graduate School: A Quick Start Guide for Proteges. Council of Graduate Schools.)
Mentoring In Graduate Education
Students may receive mentoring from staff and peers. In this document we pay attention to the important role that faculty have in assisting graduate students develop research interests, skills, and agendas. Although we use the terms mentor and mentee, we recognize that some may use the terms mentor and protégé. In addition, mentoring and coaching are sometimes used synonymously, with the latter focused more on the internal awareness and development of the mentee/protégé. The information in this guidance comes from multiple resources and studies, including reports provided by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS).
Guidance also updates information originally provided by the University Graduate School from a time that mentoring relationships were viewed differently. For example: “Both professional and (should the case arise) personal topics may be discussed, but avoid asking direct personal questions.” Instead, The GMC’s mentoring approach helps mentor and mentee to understand the connections and intersections of the personal and professional, and how personal topics shape and are shaped by professional concerns. This became most clear at the beginning of the pandemic when students and faculty questioned their research and their reasons for studying subjects that seemed disconnected and irrelevant to what was happening in the world. While the more contemplative and personal approaches may counter practices that were once expected, The GMC’s wholistic approach – to graduate whole human beings – meant that faculty and students could share successes and challenges, including those that were related to aspects of their identities often ignored or made invisible in the academy.
Within the context of graduate education, mentoring is a relationship between faculty and graduate student in which the former is committed to providing guidance and access to information and resources that support the latter’s progress at various stages of their academic career. Because of the depth and length of the graduate journey, a student may be supported by multiple faculty members to address different areas of support. We encourage faculty and students to complete the interactive National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity (NCFDD) mentoring map to better understand the benefits of having multiple mentors to address multiple needs. A student may have or need a number of mentors (see mentoring map), each of whom provides information about different aspects of the student’s academic and professional life.
Is A Mentor Different Than An Advisor?
A faculty member may function simultaneously as mentor and advisor. The roles are not mutually exclusive; however, they do occupy different positions. As a faculty member, you may find that you move between these two positions depending on the needs of students and your own availability.
Advisors are people who are willing to share their knowledge and give specific feedback on one’s performance; they also take a role in helping students understand and adhere to the protocols of completing their degree. This may include, but not be limited to, an orientation to the department and its policies, establishing an individualized education program (IEP), and understanding their research requirements within the larger contexts of the university. The advisor also provides information about other programs of study and their requirements, departmental or other sources of employment (as AIs or RAs), and works with the school and the Graduate School to ensure that all degree requirements are met.
Several faculty members may play a formal role in advising an individual graduate student. The director of the thesis or dissertation is one key person who has specific duties including offering timely feedback to students in response to verbal questions or written projects such as drafts of theses or dissertations. Other key people include the faculty, sometimes assigned upon acceptance to a program; and the Director of Graduate Studies, the person with knowledge about and responsible for the rules and procedures applicable to the student’s degree programs.
Mentors, however, are more. In most cases, they are not assigned but sought out by the student based on common research or other interests. Mentoring goes beyond advising. It is a supportive, nurturing professional relationship that develops and changes as the student progresses through the academic program. Mentors facilitate the academic career of graduate students’ journeys by serving as a guide and coach. They help integrate students into the academic and professional culture of their disciplines. And, by considering the multiple contexts of student’s experiences and identities, they also assist students in navigating those contexts with as little harm as possible and with as many tools and resources as possible.
Successful mentoring relationships are wholistic and take into account the external/internal contexts that may shape students as human beings. For example, these may include, but not be limited to: race, gender, sexuality, nationality, socio-economics, religion, abilities. Mentors in such relationships take into account the multi-dimensionality of students and the intersectionality of their lives, for example a graduate student may also be an instructor or a parent. Such relationships may arise serendipitously, perhaps from a course the student takes or a shared interest; from a student’s awareness of a faculty member’s skills or research; or from a student’s need for personal support outside their department.
What Are The Basics Of Being A Good Mentor?
How a faculty member mentors may be shaped by their own mentoring experiences. What a graduate student expects from or needs from a mentor may also be shaped by their mentoring experiences. When these experiences meet each other, it is important for both faculty and graduate student to clearly communicate the contexts that have shaped them, the reasons they pursue research, and why they have committed to pursuing an academic life.
While dialogue about these issues takes time to develop before, during, and after a mentoring relationship is formed, there are some basic principles that can guide faculty intentions as they create mentoring relationships with their mentee.
Be supportive. Engage in ongoing conversation: make sure the student knows that you care and are willing to take the time to talk about a variety of topics.
- Discuss professional and personal topics. If you are uncomfortable talking about the personal or specific personal topics, be certain to disclose this to the student in your initial meeting.
- When meeting with the student, actively listen and reflect back to them what you have heard them say. Ask questions for clarification or more information.
- Share your own experiences as an academic without centering them in the conversation. Encourage the student to begin trusting their own knowledge and abilities, confidence, and independent thinking.
- Remember: trust is built on honesty and a willingness to share information, and to clearly articulate your expectations about each other, the research, and the purpose of the mentoring relationship being created.
Demystify graduate school. Use your first meetings to learn about your mentee’s previous academic experiences, their reasons for attending graduate school, and their goals during the completion of their degree.
- Discuss various aspects of their academic program.
- Ask the student about their concerns and about what they would like to know.
- Discuss with students both the explicit, implicit, and hidden curricula to which they may/may not have access or awareness.
- The academic advisor should explain the rules and procedures governing the degree, but the mentor should give the student insight into ‘how things work’ in the department – not so much what has to be done as how to do it successfully.
- Introduce the student to more advanced students or to peers as a way of integrating the student into the department, whether or not a graduate student association exists.
- Suggest departmental, school, and university activities in which the student should participate; explain how and why these activities may be beneficial for the student. Invite the student to accompany you at key activities.
- If you are comfortable doing so, consider meeting outside your office or off campus in a public place such as a coffee house or the local library.
Provide honest and constructive feedback. When meeting with the student to review progress in the graduate program and specific projects, provide honest and constructive feedback.
- If you have developed a set of agreed upon accountability steps, refer to these as a way to remind the student of the plan you co-created at the beginning of the semester. Revise this plan as needed.
- When providing feedback, keep in mind any conversations you have had with the student about how they communicate and the types of information they like to receive.
- When necessary, offer the students resources that might be helpful: Writing Tutorial Services, Social Science Research Commons, GradGrants, and the librarian responsible for their discipline.
Provide professional encouragement and support. Support the student’s entry into their profession and the development of their scholarship.
- Regularly discuss coursework, research interests, changes, successes, and challenges; sharing information, books, and journal articles; and encourage participation in relevant publication and conferences, and those that might expand the student’s interests.
- Share your knowledge about the profession.
- If you work or collaborate with the student, discuss your expectations: how polished you expect work submitted to be, how (and how quickly) you will provide feedback, how intellectual property is shared and co-authorship is credited.
- Help the student form professional networks.
(Based on the work of Dr. Jennifer Park)
When we face difficulties during our time in graduate school, our peers are the people that will understand you the best. Peers can be great mentors as we learn so much from each other. I invite you to think about how much we learn from our peers and how much the people around us influence us.
In a higher education setting, learning takes place in various ways (Colven & Ashman, 2010). Education has been shifting from the traditional “lecture” based teaching to a “learner” centered approach. With this shift in instruction, learning occurs more as students work together and, at times, mentor each other in- and outside the classroom. For graduate students, especially, peers are not only colleagues but also friends and research collaborators: they can provide us with emotional support.
Have you had a more experienced peer providing guidance to you? Some of the factors that affect graduate students’ well-being include insecurity, decreased self-esteem, increased workload, and a financial burden (Bowman et al., 1990). Peer mentors are similar in age, share similar experiences, and can develop relationships with us that last longer and that can help graduate students address a number of issues. Peer mentoring can create non-hierarchical relationships because there are less age differences and may serve as a supportive capacity related to both career development and psychological support (Grant-Vallone & Ensher, 2000).
The following are questions that we might need to consider for successful peer mentoring. How can we facilitate peer mentoring relationships? How can we prolong this type of relationship? Are there any instances when stress is added to peer mentoring relationships? What are the ways we can shift a negative relationship to a positive one in which both mentor and mentee learn from each other?
At some point in our lives, we all experience peer mentoring, even when we are not part of a formal mentoring program. What has worked for you and has inspired you to be a peer mentor yourself?
(Based on the work of Dr. Jennifer Park)
Retuning to school for graduate studies comes with many challenges for graduate students in adjusting to new schedules, courses, work, family, and friends. Having high-quality interactions with a mentor can be helpful for many of us. You do not need to be in a formal mentoring program to engage in high-quality interactions. You can talk to people that you feel comfortable talking to and share your situation. Research shows that high-quality interaction that occurs short-term, e.g., 5-10 minutes, can be of great help for a person in need of assistance during critical times in their career.
Fletcher and Ragins (2007) define mentoring episodes as short-term developmental high-quality interactions in mentoring relationships. They explain that while all mentoring relationships include mentoring episodes, individuals can experience mentoring episodes without being formally involved in a mentoring relationship. As mentoring episodes increase, continue, and repeat between individuals, they become mentoring relationships (Ragins, 2016). Relational mentoring episodes are short-term developmental interactions that occur at a specific point in time (Allen & Poteet, 2011). For example, at critical points when graduate students are experiencing difficulties with a new environment or on a project, mentoring at the right time can promote their engagement in high quality mentoring episodes.
Therefore, it is important for graduate students to understand that mentoring relationships can be formed organically anytime and anywhere. It may happen at a conference, at a coffee shop, or at a workshop. It could be a professor that you met in one of the first classes you had taken as a graduate student. Academia is a place where we all collaborate and support one another. You can always reach out for support, and I assure you that there will be more people that are willing to help you than those that will not.