Developing good mentoring relationships in graduate school is fundamental to having a positive, rewarding experience. Successful mentoring relationships contribute to the creation of a stimulating environment, and dynamic of reciprocity, that facilitates the personal and professional development of the faculty member and the student alike.
The fit between a student and a mentor is therefore critical; questions of professional goals, intellectual interests, working style and expectations for the relationship all matter and should be discussed early on. Don’t be afraid to ask others both within and outside of your departments about ways to find good mentors. Regardless of how and where you find mentors, remember that there are others who are committed to providing guidance and support during your graduate school journey.
This website seeks to address and provide answers to many of the most common questions that arise in connection with mentoring relationships.
In essence, mentors are people who:
- Provide encouragement and support.
- Demonstrate professional and scholarly integrity.
- Have professional interests similar to their students and share their knowledge with the students informally or in the classroom.
- Give specific, timely, and constructive feedback on performance, including class performance and milestone experiences.
- Provide sources of information about research, grants, internships, employment, or other professional opportunities.
- Are sensitive to the diversity of student lifestyles, cultures, and experiences and are aware of the challenges faced by students from underrepresented groups in their fields.
- Discuss mentoring with colleagues and former students to improve the mentoring climate in their programs.
- How do I find a mentor?
- Is it okay to have more than one mentor?
- How often should I meet with my mentor?
- How do I manage the relationship with my mentor if he/she is not the same person as my advisor?
- Should my mentor and I share similar characteristics, backgrounds or values?
- How do I deal with personal situations?
How do I find a mentor?
Students find mentors through active searching and through unplanned avenues as well. Many students begin looking for mentors by locating faculty and staff members for instance who share their research interests, who have similar cultural backgrounds, or who are active in the same organizations and activities. It is often the case however that mentors are discovered simply because a particularly strong connection has been made with someone you have met who has a genuine interest in providing guidance and support. In many cases, an assigned advisor also serves in the role as mentor and is therefore involved in supporting you in other areas of your life beyond your academic development. Regardless of how the initial connection comes about, building a mentoring relationship is a mutual task and requires a commitment on both sides to the development of your academic, personal and professional growth.
Is it okay to have more than one mentor?
Not only is it okay to have more than one mentor, it is greatly encouraged. Having multiple mentors allows you to receive support in a variety of areas (i.e. academic, personal, professional) which lessens the likelihood that you look to one person to meet all of your needs. Additionally, you may need to seek out different mentors at different periods in time. While one mentor may be particularly helpful when it comes to discussing academic and career matters for example, you might need to seek out someone else when it comes to discussing a more personal situation. You should therefore seek to find several people who can serve as mentors during your graduate school experience and beyond.
How often should I meet with my mentor?
At the beginning of your graduate experience, it would be helpful to meet with your mentor(s) more frequently to ensure that you are becoming acclimated to graduate school and to reduce any feelings of isolation. At this early stage, mentors should assist you with becoming part of the graduate community. During the central part of your program, meeting with your mentor at least once or twice per semester would help track progress, resolve issues that have surfaced, and provide you with general guidance/support. In cases where you may be having substantial difficulty in a particular area, you may want to meet with your mentor(s) more frequently. In the final part of your graduate school journey you will want support and guidance around making personal and professional choices. You will likely want to meet with mentors more frequently as you move through the decision making process regarding research agendas, job searches, relocating families, and other long-term decisions.
How do I manage the relationship with my mentor if he/she is not the same person as my advisor?
Having one or more mentors other than your advisor can be very valuable. They can provide different perspectives and advice, introduce you to additional bodies of literature or professional networks, and perhaps provide additional comments on work in progress. However, for decisions relating directly to your academic work, your advisor has to have the last word. Likewise, you should not ask your mentor(s) to do things that are your advisor’s responsibility.
Should my mentor and I share similar characteristics, backgrounds or values?
Your mentor does not necessarily have to share the same background, characteristics or values. In fact, sometimes those with different experiences may offer more insight into a particular situation precisely because they don’t have the same perspective. Sometimes, the best wisdom or advice is gained when we are able to hear the perspective of others. This is not to say however that there is no value in having a mentor who shares similar values or characteristics. There are valid reasons for wanting a mentor who may have had similar experiences and can offer support based specifically on having a shared understanding of a particular experience or situation. In either case, it is important for mentors and students to recognize that regardless of the similarities or differences between them, mutual trust and respect are critical to building successful mentoring relationships.
How do I deal with personal situations?
Life does not stop because you are in graduate school. People sometimes hope that graduate school will be a period during which they can focus entirely on learning and research, and for a few it may work out that way. But for most people, such a sole focus is not an option. Personal relationships develop, children are born, relatives die, illnesses or injuries occur, and so on. Part of learning to be a successful professional is learning to balance such personal issues with professional demands, and mentors can be an invaluable resource as role models and sounding boards regarding such balancing. In more acute situations, such as a sudden illness, a student may wish to investigate the possibility of taking time off from the program. In that and all cases, it is important to become familiar with the relevant department, college, and university resources and policies. Your advisor, mentor, graduate officer, and department head should all be consulted regarding issues or decisions with major implications for your timely progress through your graduate program.
Penn State Policies
Additional Resources at Penn State
Mentor Memos provide practical tips for navigating graduate studies successfully. Memos focus especially on issues that graduate students may not learn about from other sources. Mentor Memos are resources produced by faculty at the University of Washington.
How to Get the Mentoring You Want: A Guide for Graduate Students at a Diverse University by The University of Michigan
How to Obtain the Mentoring You Need - A Graduate Student Guide by The University of Washington
Mentoring Graduate Students by Vanderbilt University