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A Tool Kit for Effectively Mentoring Graduate Students

Success in graduate school depends in large measure on the quality of mentoring the student receives as well as a close and effective working relationship with an advisor. Ideally, a student’s advisor plays a mentoring role, providing advice on a variety of topics including dissertation projects, responsible conduct of research, professional development, and career selection. A student’s mentor and advisor may be one and the same, they may be different people or the advisor may be one of several mentors. Ideally, thesis committee members will also be an important part of a student’s mentoring team. Indeed, the most effective mentoring strategy might well involve a team or community of individuals playing various roles shaping and guiding the experiences of students. Regardless of the number or structure of these relationships, they should all be characterized by the desire to promote the academic, personal and professional success of graduate students.

Mentoring relationships are the responsibility of all parties involved and are most effective when they are built on mutual trust and respect. Recognizing that student needs and the nature of relationships change over time is also a critical component of successful mentoring relationships and should be explored at various points in the relationship by mentors and students alike.

This Tool Kit for Effectively Mentoring Graduate Students contains information and resources useful to all parties interested in effective mentoring.  The assembled materials address best practices for effective mentoring that consider the dimensions of diversity among graduate students and faculty.

 

For Mentors

Mentoring graduate students can be both rewarding and challenging. 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. These important questions should be the focus of any initial conversation between a student and a potential mentor. Regardless of whether you are a new or senior faculty member, negotiating these issues can pose multiple challenges.

The 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.

FAQs

How often do I need to meet with students?
At the beginning of his/her graduate experience, it would be helpful to meet with the mentee more frequently to ensure that the student is becoming acclimated to graduate school and to reduce any feelings of isolation. At this early stage, mentors should focus on encouraging the student to become part of the graduate community. During the central part of the student’s program, meeting with them at least once or twice per semester would help track progress, resolve issues that have surfaced, and provide general guidance/support. In cases where a student is having substantial difficulty in a particular area, mentors may want to meet with them more frequently. In the last part of the student’s graduate school journey they will need support and guidance around making personal and professional choices. Mentors will likely need to meet with students more frequently as they move through the decision making process regarding research agendas, job searches, relocating families, and other long-term decisions.

How do I work with diverse students?
One of the most basic tenets of working with diverse students is recognizing that there are various dimensions of diversity (i.e. age, ethnic/cultural background, research interests, race, personality, gender) and understanding that individuals bring different perspectives or worldviews to the relationship. This frame of reference allows mentors to value the perspectives of their students in ways that promote mutual trust and respect. Mentoring diverse students requires that mentors be willing to acknowledge that there may be occasions when they do not fully understand the particular experiences of their students, but are nonetheless willing to listen to those stories and provide feedback and support when needed. Mentors must often broaden their own awareness of issues impacting diverse populations in order to provide support and information about resources and specific areas of research that a student may be interested in. The university offers a host of activities that provide opportunities for learning about diverse populations. Mentors should actively participate in these opportunities when they become available. Lastly, mentors should be willing to ask questions and seek guidance when they are faced with an issue they are not familiar with.

How do I manage the relationship if I’m not the adviser?
You can be a mentor to students without being their advisor. Such flexibility benefits both students and faculty, but can also lead to potential complications. First you must respect the advisor’s role in directing the student’s academic program. Offering alternative perspectives, including intellectual ones, is appropriate and valuable. But on intellectual and professional matters, the advisor has to have the last word, and students should never be put in the middle. Likewise, major problems with a student’s academic performance or progress should be brought to the advisor’s attention, even if a student might prefer to discuss them only with you. Finally, do not let yourself become a student’s de facto advisor if the advisor is not doing everything he or she should: you can do an enormous amount of work without receiving any official credit.

How do I maintain professional boundaries?
Mentoring students requires a significant personal commitment to their well-being as it incorporates both academic/professional guidance as well as psychosocial and emotional support. One of the most effective ways to ensure that appropriate boundaries are maintained is to discuss the expectations of both parties early on in the relationship and to periodically re-examine those expectations as the relationship grows. Secondly, it is helpful to encourage students to develop mentoring relationships with more than one person. Having multiple mentors allows students to receive support in a variety of areas (i.e. academic, personal, professional) which lessens the likelihood that a student looks to one person to meet all of their needs. It is also important for mentors to remember that there are other resources on campus that are designed to deal with a host of student needs and should be utilized when appropriate. Finally, mentors need to remember that while graduate students are adults and can be included in activities that might not be appropriate for undergraduate students, there is still a differential in the power structure of this relationship, which all parties need to be mindful of.

How do I deal with personal situations?
A variety of situations are likely to come up during the course of a mentoring relationship. Addressing these issues in ways that remain professional while also acknowledging the need to balance work and life can be challenging. Modeling how to perform such balancing acts can be a substantial component of being a mentor. At least three categories of personal situations come up often.

The first entails a discrete event or obligation that makes it especially difficult, or even impossible, to meet the obligations of the academic program for a time (i.e. a serious illness or injury for the student or family member, or the birth of a child). In these cases, the most important thing is to make sure the student is aware of relevant policies and resources. In some cases, it can be beneficial to discuss whether it would be better to take some time to focus on resolving the personal issue. Students should always consult with their advisor and/or program head to determine the feasibility of taking time off.

The second issue is that many graduate students, like faculty, struggle with work-life balance. Some have substantial family obligations, ranging from child care to ongoing care for an adult family member. These may limit when they can be on campus and which hours they can work. Mentors should be mindful of such circumstances. Other students are thinking about when or even whether to have children, move across the country or further for a job, or make similar commitments with large professional and personal implications. They often observe faculty closely to see how we have navigated similar choices, and they may ask directly about such decisions. Speaking with students directly about such issues is delicate, but a significant part of being a mentor. Even when students do not bring up the questions directly, some infer much from what they observe, so faculty should be mindful of what they model.

The third issue that often arises is whether a student wants to continue with graduate school and, perhaps, a subsequent academic career. Mentors should listen and provide encouragement but not judgment. Students raising such questions are often implicitly asking for encouragement and support; they do not actually want to be told to leave graduate school. Others, however, may genuinely be questioning whether this is what they want to do with their lives; they should be able to discuss that question without a presumption that continuing is the only or best option.

How do I deliver bad news/have difficult conversations? 
No matter how experienced you are as a mentor, delivering bad news or having a difficult conversation with a student is never easy. These conversations may include discussing the lack of academic progress, helping resolve conflicts between a student and their advisor, or assisting students dealing with personal issues. One of the first things to remember is that you should not hesitate to consult with others who are known to be good mentors. Deans and department heads should also be considered as a primary resource. Every case is different and the way to approach difficult conversations strictly depends on the topic. Some aspects to be considered are determining the best time and place to meet with the student. For instance, is this a conversation that can be held over coffee or is it more appropriate to meet somewhere less public? Regardless of the location, both students and mentors need to feel comfortable in order to address the issues at hand and speak openly about them. Lastly, remember that resources exist to support students both personally and academically, and should be utilized when needed. Please see the list of resources on this website.

Penn State Policies

Mentoring Guides

For Students

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.

FAQs

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 adviser?
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

Mentoring Guides