Mentoring Concepts for a Dynamic Learning Community

As you read through this section, bear in mind that each department and program has its own culture, requirements for a degree, career trajectories, and even terminology for mentorship. Because of this wide variability, some items we discuss in this section may or may not pertain to your particular situation. For instance, in some programs students choose an advisor when they decide to come to UNL; in others they are assigned an advisor for their first year; while in still others it is possible that graduate students can progress through much of their graduate careers without making links with faculty members.

Who graduate students are

The graduate student population has changed profoundly in the last 20 years and will continue to do so in the 21st century. Changes are evident in overall student demographics as well as in new market demands for graduate training. While such changes vary from region to region and among institutional types, we cannot assume that the typical graduate student is a full-time, white male from a middle-class background. In addition, mentors and protégés should not assume that every Ph.D. graduate has prospects for immediate employment in a research institution upon degree completion.

Age Diversity

The average age of graduate students is on the rise. According to data from the 2000 National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey, the average graduate student is 33 years old, and 20% of all graduate students are over the age of 40. Thus, many of your peers already have marriage or life partners and dependents (with corresponding family responsibilities), and prior work experience. In addition, close to 57% of all graduate students maintain some form of employment outside their studies.

Racial Diversity

The racial diversity of the graduate student population also is increasing, due to shifting U.S. demographics and to government and privately funded programs aimed at widening access to higher education. If national census projections hold, in the next 15 years Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans may constitute nearly 40% of the national population between the ages of 25 and 39 — the age group from which graduate education draws most of its applicants. According to the 2002 Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report, individuals from these ethnic groups and Native Americans earned over 4,730, or 19%, of the 25,450 doctoral degrees awarded to U.S. citizens in 2002. What this means is that, although still a relatively low number of the total Ph.D. earners that year (39,955, including non-U.S. citizens), the proportion of minority Ph.D. earners has increased 70% since 1991. Also, in 2000, 79,847 out of 497,000 total master's degrees were awarded to U.S. minority students, a proportional increase of 88% since 1991 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000).

Gender Diversity

Women now pursue advanced study in record numbers, constituting approximately 60% and 51% of U.S. citizens who earn master's degrees and Ph.D.s, respectively. However, gender representation by field of study varies considerably. The physical sciences and engineering struggle with this problem more than disciplines in the arts, humanities, and sciences or the professional fields. Experts predict further increases of women and minorities pursuing advanced study during the next decade.


These changes in the graduate student population affect your and your peers' needs for mentoring and, along with other factors, are driving greater variety in career goals. For instance, although it is true that many doctoral students pursue advanced study to become professors, an increasing number are seeking other professional opportunities. In the U.S., the transition from an industry-based economy to a knowledge-based one has generated new demands for knowledge workers. Many graduate students seek high-level analytical tools and intellectual development to market themselves as future leaders in a wide range of "knowledge economy" sectors. In addition, downturns in the availability of tenure-track positions in academe are leading some students — including many who originally intended to become professors — to shift their job search to arenas outside of academe.

Such developments bolster the case for re-examining the structures of graduate education and students' needs for mentoring. In this context of change, the oft-relied on separation of students into "traditional" vs. "nontraditional" categories is no longer useful. In all likelihood, you don't fit squarely into either category. Because there is no single recipe for good mentoring, your best approach is to engage in ongoing, reflective assessment of your needs, and to learn strategies to interact with your mentors effectively. This guidebook will help you do that.

What graduate students need

What exactly do students mean when they say they need a mentor? Perhaps they need someone who is concerned about them and how they fit into their wider discipline; a professor to talk to about issues in their field that lie beyond their research topic; someone who is willing to teach them about what it means to be a professional in their field; someone who cares enough about them that they are willing to help open doors leading to funding or future job opportunities.

Still, we know that all students' needs are not the same. Because students come from different walks of life and have different needs, effective mentoring is not equal mentoring but equitable mentoring. Just as effective teachers tailor lessons to the learning needs of a diverse community of students, so, too, do skilled mentors appropriately tailor guidance strategies to the goals and circumstances of individual protégés.

Mentoring, like all of our academic and professional activities, takes place in historical, social, and political contexts that influence our institutional culture. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is comprised of a diverse graduate student body that includes groups of students who have been historically underrepresented or marginalized in higher education and, as a result, face some unique sets of challenges in graduate school.

The Office of Graduate Studies acknowledges this fact in its commitment to identify, pursue, and encourage strategies that enhance success, diversity, and multiculturalism in all facets of graduate education.

What mentoring is

A close, individualized mentoring relationship between a graduate student and a faculty member (or others) develops over time and requires both caring and guidance.

The Council of Graduate Schools, a national policy organization dedicated to the improvement and advancement of graduate education, defines mentors as:

  • Advisors, people with career experience willing to share their knowledge
  • Supporters, people who give emotional and moral encouragement
  • Tutors, people who give specific feedback on one's performance
  • Masters, in the sense of employers to whom one is apprenticed
  • Sponsors, sources of information about and aid in obtaining opportunities
  • Models of identity, of the kind of person one should be to be an academic

(Zelditch, 1990)

Although there is a connection between mentors and advisors, not all mentors are advisors and not all advisors are mentors. Think of the difference this way:

  • Advising focuses on the activities, requirements, and attainment of satisfactory progress through the steps needed to achieve a graduate degree.
  • Mentoring focuses on the human relationships, commitments, and resources that help graduate students find success and fulfillment in their academic and professional pursuits.

    Mentoring helps students understand how their ambitions fit into graduate education, department life, and postgraduate career choices. As students progress through graduate programs, they will find that rarely is one individual able to meet all their mentoring needs. As discussed later, students will obtain more effective guidance by cultivating multiple mentors anyway.

This guidebook focuses primarily on mentoring, although many of the recommendations also extend to advising. (By advisors, we mean those individuals who serve as thesis or dissertation supervisors.) Think of mentoring as the consistent and developmental evolution of wisdom, technical knowledge, assistance, support, empathy, and respect to graduate students through, and often beyond, their graduate careers. In other words, mentoring is a constellation of activities — educational, interpersonal and professional — that constitutes more than advising students on how to meet degree requirements, as critical as that is.

An effective mentoring relationship passes through developmental phases. Early on, a mentor recognizes a student's unique qualities and need for special coaching. In turn, this recognition inspires the student to seek to benefit from the mentor's support, skills, and wisdom. Later, both will explore and deepen their working relationship, perhaps collaborating on projects in which the student develops into a junior colleague. After a while, the protégé may grow in ways that require some separation from the mentor, to test his or her own ideas. This distancing is a sign that the mentoring relationship is maturing and providing the protégé with the skills needed to function independently. Finally, both mentor and protégé may redefine the relationship as one of equals, characterized over time by informal contact and mutual assistance, thus allowing them to become true professional colleagues.

Why mentoring is hard to find

Regardless of their fields, faculty need to balance many demands that are made of them. Some of their responsibilities include: teaching undergraduate and graduate courses; advising undergraduate and graduate students; serving on dissertation committees; researching or working on creative projects; writing grants, books and articles; reviewing the work of students and colleagues; serving on departmental and university committees; and fulfilling duties for professional organizations.

The pace of these demands does not let up over time. Junior faculty face the pressure of preparing for their tenure review, which means they have to be engaged in an active research agenda. As faculty become more senior, and their national and international prominence increases, there is a concomitant rise in the requests for their time and energies (Tierney & Rhoads, 1994).

For these reasons, graduate students and mentors need to ensure that time is reserved for mentoring and that the time is well invested for both parties. The vast majority of faculty members find that mentoring graduate students is one of the most rewarding of all their professional responsibilities. That is because mentoring is not a task, per se, but a renewable source of intellectual, professional, and personal fulfillment and a gratifying means by which mentors can pass on the rich lessons they have learned throughout their careers.

Why mentoring is important

Early on, graduate students learn that advanced study differs vastly from their undergraduate experience. As undergraduates, the goal was to obtain knowledge, while in graduate school the goal is to contribute knowledge to a field of study. Graduate school is the professional training ground where students learn the skills to be successful in their fields and gain an understanding of how their disciplines work.

Research confirms what most faculty and graduate program directors already know: many students enter their graduate programs with little understanding of the complex landscape of higher education or how different philosophies in graduate programs drive expectations for academic excellence and ideal career pathways. In fact, despite very articulate statements of purpose in their applications, many graduate students initially are unsure of what they will do with a graduate degree.

This is not a problem but rather an opportunity for good mentoring. Students' career goals are evolutionary and good mentors assist students with their professional evolution.

Mentoring is important, not only because of the knowledge and skills students can learn from mentors, but also because mentoring provides professional socialization and personal support to facilitate success in graduate school and beyond. Quality mentoring greatly enhances students' chances for success. Research shows that students who experience good mentoring also have a greater chance of securing academic tenure-track positions, or greater career advancement potential in administration or sectors outside the university.

A recent survey of graduate students at UNL revealed that those who had developed mentoring relationships with faculty members were more likely to:

  • receive financial support for their graduate studies in the form of assistantships, scholarships, or fellowships
  • exhibit greater productivity in research activity, conference presentations, pre-doctoral publications, instructional development, and grant writing.
  • experience a higher degree of success in persisting in graduate school, achieving shorter time to degree, and performing better in academic coursework.

(Bellows and Perry, 2005)

Benefits of mentoring

Both graduate students and faculty mentors derive a number of benefits from a successful mentoring relationship. Long range benefits to protégés who enter both business and academic professions include accelerated promotion rates, greater career mobility, higher overall salaries and compensation packages, greater personal and career satisfaction, enhanced professional confidence and self-esteem, decreased role-stress, reduced work-family conflict, and a sense of enhanced power within the organization (Johnson, 2003).

Active mentors report enhanced career satisfaction and fulfillment, creative synergy and career rejuvenation, loyal support from previous protégés, and organizational recognition for skill in talent development.

Mentoring enables graduate students to:

  • acquire a body of knowledge and skills
  • develop techniques for collaborating and networking
  • gain perspective on how a discipline operates academically, socially, and politically
  • acquire a sense of scholarly citizenship by grasping their roles in a larger educational enterprise
  • deal more confidently with the challenges of intellectual work

Mentoring enables faculty members to:

  • engage the curiosities and energies of fresh minds
  • keep abreast of new research questions, knowledge, paradigms, and techniques
  • cultivate collaborators for current or future projects
  • identify and train graduate assistants whose work is critical to the completion of a research project or successful course offering
  • prepare the next generation of intellectual leaders in the disciplines and in society
  • enjoy the personal and professional satisfaction inherent in mentoring relationships

A mentor's varied roles

Mentors play many roles in students' lives to help them succeed; these include "guide," "counselor," "advisor," "consultant," "tutor," "teacher," and "guru." A mentor's particular combination of professional expertise, personal style, and approach to facilitating learning influences the kind of mentoring he or she provides. A mentor will wear several "hats" over the course of his or her students' professional development, and might be comfortable wearing many hats at once, or only one or two at a time. Whatever the case, it is important to remember that effective mentoring, like wisdom itself, is multidimensional, and that mentors play three core roles that are essential to advancing the educational, professional, and personal growth of graduate students.

Three core roles

1. Disciplinary guide

As noted earlier, sometimes a faculty member will be both a thesis/dissertation advisor and mentor; in other cases, the student benefits more by having different people carry out each role. Either way, the role of a disciplinary guide is to help students become contributing members of their disciplines.

This guidance goes well beyond helping them complete the requirements of their academic programs, as important as that assistance is. It is deeper and involves helping students understand how a discipline has evolved as a knowledge enterprise; recognize novel questions; identify innovative ways of engaging undergraduate students through teaching and collaborative research projects; and see the discipline, its questions and methodologies, in relation to other fields.

Another important role of the disciplinary guide is to help students grasp the impact of the discipline on the world outside academe, and to assist them in pursuing the impact they desire to have with a graduate degree.

2. Skills development consultant

While graduate study, especially at the doctoral level, is about learning to generate knowledge, the pressures for specialization can make students temporarily lose sight of the array of skills they need to succeed both during and after graduate school, in part because of the relative intensity and isolation of research. As a skills consultant, a mentor's role is to help students develop the intellectual and professional skills they will need, beyond those related to research. Some of these are:

  • Oral and written communication skills. These include clearly expressing the results of one's work; translating field-specific knowledge for application in varied contexts, such as teaching or interacting with the public; and persuading others, such as funders, policy makers, organizations, and conference audiences, of the value of one's work.
  • Team-oriented skills. Some of the most innovative learning occurs in teams that problem solve collaboratively. Increasingly, complex problems require inter-disciplinary or multidisciplinary solutions. A mentor can help a student develop collaborative, problem-solving skills by organizing group exercises and projects.
  • Leadership skills. Graduate students are prime candidates to become intellectual leaders in any number of settings. Mentors can help them build potential by inviting them to assume leadership roles throughout graduate study; e.g., in seminars, graduate student government, disciplinary societies, outreach to the community, and on departmental or university committees. These activities will help build people skills — listening to others, shaping ideas, and expressing priorities — which are indispensable for advancement in any career.

3. Career consultant

In recent years, the mentor's role as career consultant has taken on increased importance, especially for doctoral students. As a result, many doctoral students are choosing challenging positions in a greater variety of educational settings and diverse sectors of the economy.

As a career consultant, a mentor can help a protégé develop an evolutionary view of his or her career, which requires planning, flexibility, and adaptation to change. Informed of the job market realities, an effective mentor finds ways to help students link aspects of their graduate work with other potential mentors — alumni or other professionals in colleges, universities, schools, community groups, the private sector, nonprofit organizations, government, and industrial laboratories.

Wider relationships can help students explore a multitude of career choices, and learn how to translate their graduate education into various kinds of professional opportunities. With a modest investment of time, mentors and protégés can stay abreast of postgraduate employment trends both inside and outside the academy.

Mentoring teams

It would be impossible for one mentor to fulfill equally well all these mentoring roles for each and every protégé, but faculty can help and encourage students to form multiple mentoring relationships inside and outside UNL with their peers, more advanced graduate students, departmental staff, retired faculty, faculty from other departments, faculty from other universities, and friends from outside the academy.

Multiple sources of expertise improve students' abilities to marshal the many resources they need to meet challenges during and after their graduate education. To make the most of mentoring, students and mentors should have thoughtful discussions about the assistance students need to navigate their educational experience, adapt to disciplinary cultures, and become productive, fulfilled professionals and colleagues.

Rather than trying to find one mentor, students should think of their task as building a mentoring team. Carefully selecting a team of mentors that fits their own needs increases the likelihood they will benefit from the experiences and support they desire. A team also can serve as a safety net in case any one of the professors leaves the University, or if irreconcilable issues later develop between a student and a mentor.

Be creative about who you include on your team. Although this guide focuses on faculty mentors, you can expand your professional network of mentors to include your peers, more advanced graduate students, departmental staff, retired faculty, faculty from other departments, faculty from other universities, and friends from outside the academy as potential mentors. All can help fulfill your needs and serve as part of your professional network.

The team approach will likely be an informal one. That is, the mentors may or may not see themselves as part of a formal team. Individuals drawn from varied fields or professional sectors might not even know each other, at least not initially. It is up to the student to decide if there are advantages to introducing mentors to each other by proposing collaborative work.