Dear UNL Graduate Students and Graduate Faculty Members:

An important part of the mission of the Office of Graduate Studies is to improve the quality of the graduate student experience. To that end, we spend a considerable amount of time listening to graduate students about their concerns and their suggestions for improving their graduate experience. Over the past several years, a common theme has emerged — graduate students' desire for effective mentoring.

Of course, many graduate students don't receive as much mentoring as they would like for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that most of us face many varied and competing demands. Given these challenges, we believe both students and their mentors share responsibility for improving the quality of such support. There is no substitute for a healthy relationship between mentor and protégé; this is the key to successful mentoring.

This guidebook reflects UNL's recognition of the important role mentoring plays within graduate education. Its purpose is to promote effective mentoring by describing the key elements, roles, and stages of development associated with it along with practical strategies for nurturing rewarding relationships. Because mentoring is a two-way street, this guidebook is aimed at both faculty mentors and graduate student mentees.  Mentoring is key to success for all of those involved in graduate education, and we hope this guide will be a helpful resource for faculty, students, and staff alike.

The themes and recommendations outlined in this guidebook derive from several respected sources. First, we consulted resources and materials from our peer institutions and adapted many aspects of mentoring handbooks developed by the Rackham School of Graduate Studies, University of Michigan, and the University of Washington. Their themes resonated well with our own campus experience. We also drew on findings from national studies and initiatives, such as the Re-envisioning the PhD project and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation's Responsive PhD Initiative. Also, we drew on insights from UNL students, faculty, and staff who have participated in UNL's Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program.

The Office of Graduate Studies will continue to sponsor opportunities for faculty, students, and staff to promote a learning environment of excellence. We hope you will use this guide as a tool to reflect on and plan for your mentoring experiences, and to share your ideas with your peers, professors, and colleagues. We invite you to add your voice to those reflected in this guidebook by sharing your thoughts with us by sending email to Join us as we continue to discuss and address the role of mentoring in graduate education.

We wish you every success as you engage in the challenging and rewarding experiences of higher education.

Your Friends in the Office of Graduate Studies

Photo of faculty and students


In Greek mythology, Mentor is a friend of Odysseus and tutor of his son, Telemachus. On several occasions in the Odyssey, Athena assumes Mentor's form to give advice to Telemachus or Odysseus. Mentor's name is proverbial for a faithful and wise advisor.

Further Information

For further information about the guidebook or other issues related to mentoring of graduate students at UNL, contact the Office of Graduate Studies at 402-472-2875.


We thank the University of Washington for their generous permission to adapt their guidebook for graduate students, How to Obtain the Mentoring You Need.

We also thank the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan, for permission to use portions of their handbook How to Get the Mentoring You Need: A Guide for Graduate Students at a Diverse University, which also served as the original basis for the University of Washington's guidebook.

How to use this guidebook

Students express the desire for good mentoring, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, age, nationality, social class, disciplinary interest, or departmental affiliation. The need is universal: good mentoring helps all students learn more successfully.

The concept of mentoring has gained currency in recent years as a means to improve the productivity and effectiveness of the many individuals engaged in the graduate education enterprise. This increased attention has revealed that many of our day-to-day understandings of mentoring are often limited. Many people assume that good mentoring "just happens" naturally or is only for those who are "lucky enough" to stumble upon the right individuals to guide their intellectual and professional development. Good mentoring, however, is not a matter of luck. It is a matter of awareness, intention, and a genuine desire to succeed.

The sections in this guidebook walk you through the concepts, planning, strategies, and tools that facilitate meaningful mentoring relationships.

Section II. Mentoring in a Dynamic Learning Community lays a foundation for understanding the nature of mentoring and how it is similar to, and different from, advising. Here you can explore the basic definition and qualities of good mentoring, the benefits of mentoring to you and your mentors, the changing graduate student population, and the various roles and responsibilities you and your mentors have. This section also stresses the importance of seeking multiple mentors.

Section III. Thinking about Your Mentoring Needs offers practical strategies and concrete recommendations for establishing and maintaining effective relationships with your mentors.

Section IV. Getting Started on Your Mentoring Journey helps you lay the groundwork for building great relationships with your mentors. Its focus is on helping you clarify the mutual interests you share with your mentors, as well as your expectations of each other.

Section V. Common Themes Among Graduate Students explores some common concerns about the graduate experience shared by a large number of students and offers advice about how mentoring can help you address and resolve them.

Section VI. Mentoring Needs in a Diverse Community expands your understanding of the personal, demographic, professional, and historical factors that may influence your goals and challenges, both during and beyond the graduate experience.

Mentoring Resources provides sample worksheets to help you and your mentors implement the strategies and recommendations discussed in this guidebook. It also provides a list of further readings to expand your knowledge of mentoring and professional development.

We hope this guide serves all members of our graduate community — graduate students, faculty, departmental graduate chairs and assistants, heads of departments, schools and colleges, and our central administration — as a useful starting point for enriching mentoring as part of the graduate student experience and for ensuring vitality in graduate education at UNL.

Opening lines of communication

Talking regularly about issues beyond research or coursework, examining the multiple roles of a professional in a particular field, or jointly exploring funding avenues and future job possibilities are hallmarks of mentoring that many graduate students describe as high priorities.

The recommendations in this guidebook draw attention to useful concepts that will help students and mentors engage in productive and timely communication. This guidebook also addresses biases, assumptions, and perceptions that hinder such communication and offers ways to eliminate or minimize their negative effects on your relationships with mentors.

No single formula for successful mentoring exists, but we do know that frank and mutual exploration of expectations and interests should be the focus of the first meetings. While this guide cannot provide the answer to every question or scenario that may arise, it does address the factors that influence students' mentoring needs and suggests effective ways students and mentors can promote learning and professional development.

Mentoring resources

Use the resources on this page to help you and your mentors make the most of your mentoring relationship.

You're on your way!

Obtaining good mentoring is one of the best investments you can make with your time in graduate school. It takes effort and patience in the beginning, but the returns are great and will have a positive impact on you for many years after graduation.

Good mentoring will give you the edge as you prepare to enter the profession of your choice. Not only do good mentors help you gain solid knowledge and skills — more important, they help you maintain a positive attitude and acquire the self-reliance you need for embarking confidently on your path to success. Remember, many graduate students will follow in your footsteps. You, too, will mentor many others over the course of your professional life, whatever your career trajectory. The mentoring relationships you establish now will directly and indirectly benefit numerous individuals and institutions down the road. On this wonderful journey, we wish you every success!


Use these to help define your expectations, set goals, plan meetings, and move forward with your professional development.

Further Reading

Adams, H.G. (1992). Mentoring: An essential factor in the doctoral process for minority students. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, The GEM Program.

Anderson, M.S. (Ed.). (1998). The experience of being in graduate school: An exploration. New Directions for Higher Education, 26(101), Spring 1998. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Antony, J.S. & Taylor, E. (2004). Theories and strategies of academic career socialization: Improving paths to the professoriate for black graduate students. In D.H. Wulff, A.E.

Austin, and Associates. Paths to the professoriate: Strategies for enriching the preparation of future faculty (pp. 92-114). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Basalla, S., & Debelius, M. (2001). So what are you going to do with that? A guide to career-changing for MAs and Ph.D.s. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Bellows, L.H., & Perry, A. (2005). Assessing graduate student mentorship and development. Unpublished manuscript.

Brainard, S.G., Harkus, D.A., & St. George, M.R. (1998). A curriculum for training mentors and mentees: Guide for administrators. Seattle: Women in Engineering Initiative, WEPAN Western Regional Center, University of Washington.

Brown, M.C., Davis, G.L., & McClendon, S.A. (1999). Mentoring graduate students of color: Myths, models and modes. Peabody Journal of Education, 74(2), 105-118.

Chandler, C. (1996). Mentoring and women in academia: Reevaluating the traditional model. NWSA Journal, 8, 79-100.

Chao, G.T. (1997). Mentoring phases and outcomes. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 51, 15-28.

Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy. (1997). Adviser, teacher, role model, friend: On being a mentor to students in science and engineering. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press [On-line]. Available: readingroom/books/mentor.

Daloz, L.A. (1999). Mentor: Guiding the journey of adult learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Damrosch, D. (1995). We scholars: Changing the culture of the university. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Faison, J.J. (1996). The next generation: The mentoring of African American graduate students on predominately white university campuses. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (New York, NY, April 8-12, 1996). ERIC Document # ED401344.

Frierson, H.T., Jr. (Ed.). (1997). Mentoring and diversity in higher education. In Diversity in Higher Education, v. 1. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Gaff, J.G., Pruitt-Logan, A.S., & Weibl, R.A. (2000). Building the faculty we need: Colleges and universities working together. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Gaff, J.G., Pruitt-Logan, A.S., Sims, L.B., & Denecke, D.D. (2003). Preparing future faculty in the humanities and social sciences: A guide for change. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.

Gaffney, N.A. (Ed.). (1995). A conversation about mentoring: Trends and models. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.

Goldsmith, J.A., Komlos, J., & Schine Gold, P. (2001). The Chicago guide to your academic career: A portable mentor for scholars from graduate school through tenure. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Gray, G. (2000). Producing results: Effective management and mentoring in academic labs. AWIS Magazine, 29(1), 14-18. Gross, R.A. (February, 2002). From 'old boys' to mentors. Chronicle of Higher Education [On-line]. Available:

Heinrich, K.T. (1995). Doctoral advisement relationships between women. Journal of Higher Education, 66(4), 447-469.

Hoyt, S.K. (1999). Mentoring with class: Connections between social class and developmental relationships in the academy. In A.J. Murrell, F.J. Crosby, & R.J. Ely (Eds.), Mentoring dilemmas: Developmental relationships within multicultural organizations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Johnson, W.B. (2003). A framework for conceptualizing competence to mentor. Ethics & Behavior, 13(2), 127-151.

Johnson, I.H., & Ottens, A.J. (Eds.). (1996). Leveling the playing field: Promoting academic success for students of color. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kochan, F.K. (2002). (Ed.). The organizational and human dimensions of successful mentoring programs and relationships. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publications.

Lark, J.S., & Croteau, J.M. (1998). Lesbian, gay, and bisexual doctoral students' mentoring relationships with faculty in counseling psychology: A qualitative study. Counseling Psychologist, 26(5), 754-776.

Lentin, J. (2004). Strategies for success in mentoring: A handbook for mentors and protégés. Edmonton, Alberta: The Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists, and Geophysicists of Alberta (APEGGA).

Lovitts, B.E. (2001). Leaving the ivory tower: The causes and consequences of departure from doctoral study. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Luna, G., & Cullen, D. (1998). Do graduate students need mentoring? College Student Journal, 32(3), 322-330.

Mintz, B., & Rothblum, E. (Eds). (1997). Lesbians in academia: Degrees of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Moss, P., Debres, K.J., Cravey, A., Hyndman, J., Hirschboeck, K.K., & Masucci, M. (1999). Toward mentoring as feminist praxis: Strategies for ourselves and others. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 23(3), 413-427.

Murrel, A.J., Crosby, F.J., & Ely, R.J. (1999). Mentoring dilemmas: Developmental relationships within multicultural organizations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2000). National postsecondary student aid survey, 1999-2000. Graduate data analysis system. U.S. Department of Education. [On-line]. Available:

National Opinion Research Center. (2002). Doctorate recipients in United States universities: Summary report. [On-line]. Available:

Nerad, M. (1995). Beyond traditional modes of mentoring. In N.A. Gaffney (Ed.), A Conversation about mentoring: Trends and models. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.

Nerad, M., Aanerud, R., & Cerny, J. (2004). "So you want to become a professor!": Lessons from the Ph.D.s — Ten years later study. In D.H. Wulff, A.E. Austin, and Associates, Paths to the professoriate: Strategies for enriching the preparation of future faculty (pp. 137-158). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Newhouse, M. (1997). Cracking the academia nut: A guide to preparing for your academic career. Cambridge: Harvard University, Office of Career Services.

Newhouse, M. (1993). Outside the ivory tower: A guide for academics considering alternative careers. Cambridge: Harvard University, Office of Career Services.

Nyquist, J.D., & Woodford, B.J. (2000). Re-envisioning the Ph.D.: What concerns do we have? Seattle: University of Washington, Center for Instructional Development & Research.

Nyquist, J.D., & Woodford, B.J. (2004). Re-envisioning the Ph.D.: A challenge for the 21st century. In D.H. Wulff, A.E. Austin, and Associates, Paths to the professoriate: Strategies for enriching the preparation of future faculty (pp. 194-216). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nyquist, J.D., & Wulff, D.H. (1996). Working effectively with graduate assistants. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

President's Task Force on Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian and Transgender Issues. (2000). Affirming diversity: Moving from tolerance to acceptance and beyond. Seattle: University of Washington. Available:

Pruitt-Logan, A.S., Gaff, J.G., & Jentoft, J.E. (2002). Preparing future faculty in the sciences and mathematics. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.

Ragins, B.R., & Scandura, T.A. (1994). Gender differences in expected outcomes of mentoring relationships. Academy of Management Journal, 37(4), 957-971.

Rittner, B., & Trudeau, P. (1997). The women's guide to surviving graduate school. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Rossman, M.H. (1995). Negotiating graduate school: A guide for graduate students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Sandler B.R., Silverberg. L.A., & Hall, R.M. (1996). The chilly classroom climate: A guide to improve the education of women. Washington, D.C. National Association for Women in Education.

Sheffer, H., & Woodford, B. (August, 2002). How to plan for a career before you have one. Chronicle of Higher Education [On-line]. Available: 2002082601c.htm

Struthers, N.J. (1995). Differences in mentoring: A function of gender or organizational rank? Journal of Social Behavior & Personality: Special Issue: Gender in the workplace, 10(6) 265- 272.

Sudol, D., & Hall, A.M. (1991). Back to school: Warnings and advice to the older graduate student. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (Boston, MA, March 21-23, 1991). ERIC Document # ED332217.

Suedkamp Wells, K., & Fagen, A. (January, 2002). A little advice from 32,000 graduate students. Chronicle of Higher Education [On-line]. Available: 2002011401c.htm.

Syverson, P.D. (1996). Assessing demand for graduate and professional programs. New Directions for Institutional Research, 92, 17-29.

Tenenbaum, H.R., Crosby, F.J., & Gliner, M.D. (2001). Mentoring relationships in graduate school. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 59(3), 326-341.

Tierney, W.G., & Rhodes, R.A. (1994). Faculty socialization as a cultural process: A mirror of institutional commitment. ASHEERIC Higher Education Report No, 93-6. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University School of Education and Human Development.

Toth, E. (1997). Ms. Mentor's impeccable advice for women in academia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Vesilind, P.A. (2000). So you want to be a professor? A handbook for graduate students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wallace, J.M. (Ed.). (1999). Special reflections from the field: Mentoring apprentice ethnographers through field schools. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 30(2), 210-219.

Warner, A.B. (2001). Recruiting and retaining African American graduate students. ADE Bulletin, 1(128), 39-40.

Wulff, D.H., Austin A.E., and Associates. (2004). Paths to the professoriate: Strategies for enriching the preparation of future faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wunsch, M.A. (Ed.). (1994). Mentoring revisited: Making an impact on individuals and institutions. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 57, Spring. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Zachary, L.J. (2000). The mentor's guide: Fostering effective learning relationships. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Zelditch, M. (1990). Mentor roles. Proceedings of the 32nd Annual Meeting of the Western Association of Graduate Schools (Tempe, AZ, March 16-18).

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.

Thinking About Mentoring Needs

Good mentoring rarely just "happens." It develops from reflection, planning, and an understanding of a student's needs as well as a mentor's unique qualities.

This section helps students recognize their mentoring needs, as well as what good mentoring looks like, while also introducing faculty to several practical strategies to improve their own mentoring abilities and to be more responsive to the needs of their protégés. This section also synthesizes advice for establishing and maintaining mentoring relationships on solid footing.

Develop your own vision of good mentoring

By answering these questions, students begin to define the kinds of mentoring they need while faculty begin to define the kind of mentor they want to be and identify the building blocks for developing productive relationships with graduate students.

Ultimately, your vision will clarify the expectations you have about mentoring. Use Worksheet 1, Mentor Expectations to help you think about what you expect from a mentoring relationship.


Enhanced self-knowledge helps you articulate your goals and choose the people whose personality, expertise, and style are best suited to your needs.

To develop a vision of the kinds of mentors you should seek, reflect on others who served as mentors earlier in your life and answer candidly the following questions:

  • What kind of mentoring have I received in the past? Was it work-related? School-related? Both?
  • Would I describe my past mentoring relationships as collegial ones (as equals or near equals) or apprenticeship ones? What does this difference mean to me now? Which do I prefer at this stage of my professional development?
  • What did I find most useful about the mentoring I received? What did I find least useful?
  • How does the mentoring I received compare to the kind that others received who were different from me in terms of race, gender, age, ability, or family background?
  • How well would the mentoring I received in the past apply to my graduate school circumstances now? How might I need to alter my expectations?
  • What kind of mentoring did I not receive earlier that would be particularly helpful to me now?


To develop a vision of the kind of mentor you would like to be, reflect on your days as a graduate student and answer candidly the following questions:

  • What kind of mentoring did I receive?
  • How did it compare to the mentoring received by students who were different from me in race, gender, age, ability, or family background?
  • What did I find helpful and unhelpful about the mentoring I received?
  • How well would the mentoring I received apply to the graduate student population today?
  • How well did my mentors help me progress developmentally through my graduate program?
  • How do the people and questions in my field today present challenges that differ from when I was in graduate school?
  • How well did my mentors prepare me for my career?
  • What kinds of mentoring did I not receive that would have been helpful to me?

Recognize the basics of good mentoring

There are several ways to recognize good mentoring. Faculty who have received awards for outstanding mentoring are excellent models. Advanced graduate students and alumni are also excellent sources of insight into what helps them function optimally in graduate school.

A good mentor will do the following:

Engage students in ongoing conversations

  • Invite students to talk often, and welcome them to discussions during office hours, in the lab, department lounges, or hallways. Ask them how they are doing with coursework or projects.
  • Get in touch with students at least once a quarter. Reach out to those who seem remote and be sensitive to whether remoteness is a cultural way of showing respect or due to social isolation.
  • Share coffee or meals away from the office, if you are able, to engage students in informal and rich discussions without office distractions.

Demystify graduate school for students

  • Make sure students obtain the most recent copies of your program's guidelines and the Graduate Bulletin.
  • Clarify unwritten or vague aspects of your program's expectations for coursework, comprehensive exams, research, and teaching.
  • Help students grasp the finer points of forming a committee and how to approach a thesis or dissertation. At each stage of the graduate experience, discuss the formal and informal criteria that determine what counts as quality work.
  • Alert students to pitfalls well ahead of time, especially those that may affect funding or graduate standing.

Provide constructive and supportive feedback

  • Provide students with frank, helpful, and timely feedback on their work.
  • Temper criticism with praise when it is deserved, and hold students to high standards to help them improve.
  • Do not assume that students who falls behind in work lack of commitment. Instead try to assess, with the student, what is going on and offer ways to help.
  • Know the benefits of early intervention and address quickly any question about a student's ability to complete his or her degree.

Provide encouragement

  • Encourage students to come forward with their ideas at all stages of development.
  • Motivate students to try new techniques and expand their skills.
  • Remind students that mistakes lead to better learning.
  • Share less-than-successful professional experiences and the lessons you learned from them.
  • Know that many students experience anxiety about their place in graduate school (e.g., the imposter syndrome), and help them understand that even seasoned professionals experience this kind of anxiety.
  • Teach students how to break down potentially overwhelming projects into smaller, more manageable tasks.

Foster networks and multiple mentors

  • Help students locate assistance from multiple sources of expertise, and see UNL faculty, graduate students, alumni, department staff, retired faculty, and faculty from other universities as rich resources.
  • Introduce students to faculty and other graduate students with complementary interests, both on campus and at conferences.
  • Help students connect their work with that of experts in the community (e.g., graduate alumni) who can provide helpful career perspectives.
  • Build a community of scholars by coordinating informal discussion and interest groups or occasional social events among students who share interests.

Look out for students' interests

  • Convey through a variety of means that you want students to succeed.
  • Create opportunities for students to demonstrate their competencies by encouraging them to present at meetings, conferences, and in university forums.
  • Nominate your protégés for high-visibility fellowships, projects, teaching and internship opportunities.
  • Promote students' research and teaching projects inside and outside the department.
  • Be an advocate for all graduate students.

Treat students with respect

  • Minimize interruptions and distractions during meetings with students. Be aware of body language that students may interpret as inattention.
  • Remember previous conversations with students (perhaps keep notes on all your discussions and review them prior to meetings with your protégé).
  • Tell students what you learn from them, to help them see themselves as potential colleagues.
  • Acknowledge the prior skills and personal and professional experiences students bring to graduate school.

Provide a personal touch

  • Be open and approachable. Demonstrate caring, even when students need to discuss nonacademic issues.
  • Do not assume that all students experience the challenges of graduate school in the same way; help them find creative solutions to their challenges or problems.
  • Keep abreast of the mentoring and professional development resources at the Office of Graduate Studies and elsewhere designed to help students succeed.

Students say. . .

"The message my mentor sent was that I had value enough for her to spend time with me."

"The most important things my mentor did were spending time talking with me and taking an interest in things interesting to me."

"It has been extremely helpful to me to have a mentor who recognized that academic procedures and protocol — everything from how to select classes to how to assemble a panel for a conference — are not familiar territory for a lot of people."

"My mentor has been willing to answer the most basic questions without making me feel foolish for asking them."

"I wrote several drafts before he felt I had begun to make a cogent argument, and as painful as that was, I would not have written the dissertation that I did without receiving strong, if just, criticism, but in a compassionate way."

"Honest advice, given as gently as possible, is something all of us graduate students need."

"Mentorship is far more than a one-time conversation about your career plans or a visit to a professor's home. It is the mentor's continuous engagement in a student's professional growth and the ongoing support and encouragement of a student's academic endeavors."

"My professors encouraged me both to publish my work and to participate in conferences. Without their encouragement, I might not have made the effort to accomplish these things."

"My co-chair referred me to a faculty member doing related research at a time when my research was floundering and I really needed additional support. I could not have completed my dissertation were it not for this recommendation."

"My advisors really made a team of their graduate students, having regular meetings and informal parties and get-togethers, working on projects together, and forming interest groups. That comradeship was essential to my academic growth and my sense of having a community."

"My mentor allowed my tasks to grow along with me, offering appropriate opportunities and challenges at each stage of my education."

"I knew that I was not just an ordinary student when she invited me to co-teach with her. We worked together as colleagues, not as teacher and student."

"She treated me and her other students with respect — respect for our opinions, our independence, and our visions of what we wanted to get from graduate school."

"It sounds silly but the best thing my mentor did for me was to actually sit down and listen to what I had to say. When graduate students are allowed to feel that what they have to say is actually worthwhile, it makes interactions more rewarding."

"Having someone supportive when things go wrong is the difference, in my mind, between an adequate mentor and a great one."

"A few of my professors were always willing and eager to talk with me about my career interests, professional pursuits, and issues such as juggling career and family. This may not sound like much, but it truly makes a difference."

Student: Heed good advice

Finding suitable mentors for any new endeavor requires openness, patience, persistence, and creativity. As you continue to refine your vision of the mentoring you need throughout the various stages of your professional development, rely on the following basic advice for cultivating productive mentoring relationships.

Be proactive

The graduate faculty-student ratio at UNL may be unlike that of your undergraduate experience, especially if you studied in a smaller academic setting. At a large research university, you may need to take extra initiative to seek out interactions with faculty members. You should approach professors openly, as colleagues, and initiate discussions. If your personality, upbringing, or cultural background makes you less comfortable with direct approaches, visit professors during their office hours to initiate contact.

Seek out multiple mentors

Identify and cultivate multiple potential mentors. Rarely is one individual the perfect mentor for all of your educational and professional needs. Having multiple mentors increases the likelihood you will obtain the assistance and support you need from a range of expert sources — your "team." Multiple mentors can be faculty members within or outside of the University, departmental staff, current graduate students, alumni, and other professionals in the community with special knowledge or abilities related to your academic and career goals.

Develop realistic approaches to mentors

Invest time in assessing what you need from your mentors and then ask for that assistance clearly and professionally. It is more effective to request specific kinds of guidance than to make general requests for mentorship.

Be visible

Understand the importance of being visible in the life of your department. Office and hallway conversations help you build relationships and glean vital information. If you have an office in the department, use it as much as possible. If you have other responsibilities outside the department (such as a family or work), talk to your mentors about creative ways you can remain engaged in regular happenings, such as participating in or coordinating key events or gatherings.

Show commitment to your professional development

Demonstrate in various ways that you are involved in your programs, courses, teaching, research, and service. Professors commonly point out the importance of students "embracing their own work" — an important aspect of professional leadership. Initiate or lead study, writing, discussion, or interest groups among your peers. Asking a peer or a faculty member you admire to co-author a paper, identifying and seeking a grant opportunity, and applying your scholarship to civic concerns also are excellent ways to demonstrate professional commitment.

Faculty: Encourage departments to strengthen mentoring

Departmental faculty members, chairs, and graduate chairs share a collective responsibility to establish and maintain a culture of effective mentoring. While this culture will differ from department to department, there are some common elements of effective mentoring environments. Consider implementing the following strategies to help your department optimize its mentoring resources and nurture productive relationships between faculty and graduate students.

Develop a mentoring policy

It is wise for departments to construct a policy that focuses on effective mentoring as a core component of the graduate student experience. Such a policy is most effective when it emerges from the creative ideas and good will of the faculty, which a few interviews with mentoring focus groups can cultivate. In this way, all members of a department can identify principles of mentoring and agree on how they will institutionalize and reward good practice.

Assign a first-year, temporary adviser

Assign new students a temporary faculty adviser to help them initiate relationships with faculty during the first year of graduate school. Assignments can be based on shared interests and should require each temporary adviser to meet with advisees at least once a quarter to review any questions or concerns about departmental requirements, course selections, and how well the student is being socialized into department life. Such appointments should focus on ensuring that all students receive quality initial support in a systematic way. These temporary relationships allow students to learn the ropes without having to make premature commitments to a mentor. Later on, students' choices of long-term mentors or advisers will be better informed and based upon their developing research, teaching, and career interests.

Establish peer mentoring

In order to facilitate students' transition to life in graduate school, pair first-year graduate students with more advanced graduate students on the basis of similar interests. Peer mentors can help new students become familiar with departmental culture, strategies for success in the first year, and resources at the university and in Lincoln. Departments can support this effort by outlining the basic responsibilities of both peers to each other and to the mentoring process, and making funds available to support regular mentoring activities.

Establish multiple mentoring mechanisms

  • Rotate research mentors. Some departments require first- or second-year graduate students to work a certain number of hours per week on a project with a faculty member to receive specific training. The purpose of such experiences is for beginning students to gain exposure to different skills and intellectual problems, not to conduct independent research. Disciplines in the sciences and engineering often take this mechanism a step further by using a rotation system to expose graduate students early on to a range of professors' specializations.
  • Offer teaching mentors. Departments can assign a faculty mentor or two to observe TA classes periodically, help TAs progress instructionally, and offer suggestions for improvement. Some departments offer a special course for graduate students working as TAs. Faculty instructors lead group discussions on topics such as pedagogical issues, general or discipline-specific instructional techniques and curriculum development.
  • Connect with your graduate alumni. Your master's and Ph.D. alumni are prominent professionals in their fields with many resources, ideas, and energies to "give back" to your department and to current graduate students. Through speaker panels, alumni can share their visions of career prospects in academe, the public sector, and private industry. Through interactive workshops, alumni can help students explore the realities of a faculty career in different institutional contexts, or learn how to make disciplinary and intellectual skills marketable in various employment sectors.
  • Start a faculty-graduate student "brown bag" lunch program. Periodic faculty-graduate student lunches are a great way to help students develop relationships and discover mutual interests with a variety of professors. Lunches can be organized around topics, and departments can circulate professors' curricula vitae (or post them on department websites) to help students assess faculty members' research and teaching programs. Small groups that support individualized attention are most helpful.
  • Create community. Designate a special space, such as a lounge or a conference room, to foster a collegial and inviting atmosphere in which graduate students, faculty, staff, and their families can gather periodically for social opportunities. Use this space to honor the accomplishments of graduate students and faculty, such as publications, research, teaching and mentoring awards, or other professional and personal accolades.
  • Enhance professional socialization. Departments can do many things to help faculty mentors nurture the professional development of their graduate students. Invite students to participate on departmental committees, including hiring and admissions committees. Create formal opportunities for graduate students to present their teaching or research at departmental seminars or brown bags, and increase opportunities for practicing public speaking skills. Assigning one or two faculty members to provide students with constructive feedback increases the value of that feedback. Alumni speaker series, which celebrate the varied accomplishments of master's and doctoral alumni, are very effective for helping students network as well as construct ambitious yet realistic visions of their professional pathways.

And, finally, reward effective mentoring!

Departments that create rewards for excellent mentorship are usually in the best position to help their faculty turn good principles into action. For example, during reviews for merit increases, departments can take into account the quality and quantity of mentoring by asking faculty to document this information in their portfolio. Departments can also ask graduate students to assess their mentors. Another way to reward good mentors is to factor in teaching credits for faculty who have heavy mentoring responsibilities.

Getting Started on the Mentoring Journey

Mentoring relationships work best when all parties involved clarify their expectations and focus on the educational needs at hand.

This section offers strategies to get the journey started. We suggest students first do a self-appraisal to better understand their own needs and to help clarify expectations. From there we provide suggestions about topics to address early in your associations and ways to clarify mutual expectations.

Student: Self-appraisal

The person who knows your goals, needs, and passions best is you. Take a few minutes to reflect on the following questions. Jotting down answers to this self-appraisal will help you assess what you have to offer, and need from, your mentoring relationships.

For a more specific tool to help you assess your strengths and weaknesses and to identify opportunities and obstacles, see Worksheet 2, Strategies for success in mentoring: Personal evaluation.

What are my goals for graduate school and beyond?

  • What connects my prior experiences and my decision to go to graduate school?
  • What do I hope an advanced degree will help me do?
  • What type of training do I desire and what skills do I need to develop?
  • What kinds of research or creative projects do I want to work on?
  • What type of career do I want to pursue?
  • What kinds of networks might I need to develop?
  • What work or training experiences inside and outside my department might I need?
  • How do I want my learning to impact communities beyond the university?

What are my strengths and weaknesses?

  • What skills do I bring to graduate study (e.g., creative, analytical, organizational, etc.)?
  • What skill areas do I need to work on?
  • What experiences might help me strengthen my skills?

What is my preferred work style?

  • Do I like to work independently or collaboratively, or some combination of both?
  • Do I like to manage meetings with an agenda, or do I prefer to let priorities emerge during meetings?
  • How does my work style help or occasionally prevent me from learning?

Student: Identification of potential mentors

Graduate students can identify potential faculty mentors within or outside their departments using a variety of formal and informal means.

  • Familiarize yourself with professors' work to gain a sense of their past and current interests and methodologies.
  • Immerse yourself in departmental academic and social activities. Observe how faculty interact with colleagues and graduate students.
  • Enroll in classes being taught by faculty who most interest you. Attend their public presentations.
  • Ask advanced graduate students about their advisors and mentors. Share your interests and ask them for suggestions about whom you should meet.

Take the initiative

At a large research university, it can be daunting to approach a potential mentor at first. However, taking the initiative to explore discussions with faculty is a more helpful approach than waiting for them to approach you, especially in disciplines in which graduate students and faculty do not necessarily interact every day. Prospective mentors will appreciate your interest in their work and will be eager to talk to you.

Strive for diversity in composition

Consider the composition of your informal mentoring team. While it is common to choose potential mentors based on similar experiences and ways of thinking, you also can benefit from individuals whose backgrounds, characteristics, and perspectives are different from your own. Some of the most meaningful mentoring occurs when mentor and student explore different takes on research or teaching problems and yet focus successfully on what matters most: mutual interests and learning from each other. Beyond assessing rapport, inviting individuals of a different ethnicity or gender to serve as your mentors will help you develop a more reflective understanding of your own work and future possibilities.

Seek a balance between senior and junior faculty

As you begin to identify prospective mentors, look for a balance of senior and junior faculty members. Each can be of assistance, although possibly in different ways. Senior faculty, because they have been in the field for a long time, may be able to help you better with networking. Junior faculty, having been in graduate school relatively recently themselves, may be able to help you cope better with the stresses and strains associated with being a graduate student.

Seek individuals outside the discipline/university

Finally, seek potential mentors outside your department, or even outside the university, whose intellectual or professional interests relate to yours. These individuals will not only be able to provide you with a fresh perspective on the nature of your work, but can help you understand how it relates to exciting questions or practical problems in other disciplines or professional fields.

Student: Initial meetings

Having completed your self-appraisal, and having thought carefully about the range of individuals who can offer you mentoring, you have acquired deeper insight into your aspirations and the resources available to help you realize them.

You are now ready to initiate contact with potential mentors to discuss your aspirations and familiarize yourself with their professional accomplishments. In initial meetings, your goals are to make a positive impression, establish a good rapport, and assess whether the person is a good fit for you.

As you prepare for initial conversations, reflect on the following topics to trigger ideas about what is important to you and your mentor. Your first meetings should be exploratory: you are only taking the first step. Remember, a mentoring relationship evolves over time and often arises out of a particular need. You can extend more explicit mentoring invitations down the road, after some initial planning (see Worksheet 3, Planning for first meetings).


What potential mentors may want to know about you

Faculty look for a variety of qualities in graduate students. This list can help you better understand how to present yourself and may trigger ideas about topics of conversation for your initial meeting.

Mutual interests

Potential mentors will want to know if your intellectual interests are similar to theirs. Be prepared to share how your academic, professional, or personal experiences relate to theirs. Ask about their recent work, and explore ways in which their work interests intersect with what you envision for yourself.

Motivation and direction

Mentors enjoy protégés who are motivated and eager to move to the next level of their professional growth. State your goals as you see them right now. Ask about ways you can explore these goals together over time and about courses or key projects you should consider given your plan of study.


Potential mentors will want to know how well you will follow up with contacts and ideas they suggest. Be proactive. Ask them to suggest other people and experiences that will help you develop your skills and knowledge. Make those connections, then let your mentor know you have taken action.

Skills and strengths

Show potential mentors why they should invest their energies in you. Let them know the qualities you bring to this relationship — research or language skills, creativity, analytical techniques, computer skills, willingness to learn, enthusiasm, and commitment.

What you need to know about potential mentors

In addition to telling potential mentors about yourself, you need to seek further information about them. You are choosing to work with them, just as they are choosing to work with you. To assess the amount and type of support you can expect to receive from a potential mentor, find out what you can about his or her:


To understand how much time the professor will be able to give to you, ask about his or her other commitments. Also find out from other students how much time this person normally gives to students. Will that be enough for you? Ask prospective mentors if they expect to be at the University during the entire time you are a student here. If they plan to be away for extended periods (on sabbatical or on a research project), what arrangements could be made to stay in contact?

Communication style

You should be able to clearly understand the professor and feel you are able to effectively communicate your thoughts and ideas. Do you think you will be able to work closely with this person? Does he or she listen attentively to your ideas and concerns, and ask good follow up questions? Will you be able to adjust to his or her professional and personal style?

Workload and financial support

It's critical that you find out what a potential mentor considers a normal workload for graduate scholarship (outside your work as a teaching or research assistant).

  • How many hours per week does he or she believe you should be spending on your own research or creative projects?
  • Does the potential mentor have, or know of, funds to support you? Will that financial support remain available until you complete your program?
  • Is there potential for developing a thesis or dissertation topic from the mentor's research program that you would find interesting?
  • Especially for those in the sciences and engineering: Does the mentor have appropriate space and laboratory equipment for your needs? What is the size of the mentor's research group, and is this size optimal for you? If you desire to bolster your teaching experience, will this person support your search for teaching assistantships?
  • Especially for those in the humanities, social sciences, or professional schools: Will this mentor be able to help you obtain graduate assistantships or fellowships (if you do not already have these lined up)? Will he or she be able to help you achieve the professional development balance you want between teaching and research?

Does the professor co-author articles with graduate students? If so, be sure to ask about his or her philosophy on first authorship. Inquire whether the professor is willing to help you prepare your own articles for publication and whether he or she has publishing contacts that might be of assistance to you.

Presentations for performing and visual arts

If your field requires you to make public performances or exhibitions, it is important to know whether the professor is willing to collaborate. Also critical is the amount of time the professor has to work with you to prepare your projects for public presentation. Does the professor use his or her professional contacts to assist students in presenting their own work to the public?

Reputation with graduate students and departmental staff

Your mentor should have a history of giving proper attention to his or her protégés. An ideal mentor should be able to provide teaching and research opportunities, access to financial resources, guidance for completing your dissertation, access to professional networks, and assistance in career development. If possible, find out whether former graduate students who have worked with this mentor have completed their programs in a timely fashion. If you know of other scholars who have been mentored by the professor, do you know where they stand within the field? Ask yourself if this is where you are interested in being. If you'd like to be able to talk to your mentor about personal matters, find out if the professor is comfortable talking about issues of a personal nature. If you are interested in nonacademic careers, determine the professor's attitude about training and funding someone who is not necessarily going into the academy.

Reputation within the field

Seek out the opinions that others in your field hold about the prospective mentor's work. Read reviews of the potential mentor's work in scholarly journals or conference proceedings, or in nomination letters if the person has been nominated for awards. Inquire about the kinds of professional positions others mentored by this person obtained. Do you see yourself pursuing those kinds of career paths?


After your initial meetings with prospective mentors, follow up via e-mail or phone to thank them for their time and let them know that what you learned was fruitful. If you agreed to pursue an idea or topic, let them know your plans and when you will get back in touch. Initial meetings will probably give you a sense of a person as a potential mentor; however, you do not need to make any decisions immediately. Allow yourself and the person time to reflect. If you later decide to ask a faculty member to be a mentor, you both will have a better understanding of what each of you stands to gain from the relationship. If a mentoring relationship begins to take shape, this understanding will help you and your mentor create a professional development plan tailored to your needs (see Worksheet 4, Phases of your professional development, and Worksheet 5, Professional development plan).

Faculty: Initial meetings

Early in your mentoring relationship, encourage students to do a self-appraisal to better assess their own needs and begin thinking about the types of people who might best help them. Use the following questions as "talking points" to guide your first meetings with a protégé. Prior to your first meeting, you will find it helpful to fill out Worksheet 2, Mentor checklist. When you first meet with a new protégé, use Worksheet 4, Professional development plan, or create one of your own.

What are the student's goals for graduate school and beyond?

Find out about the student's prior educational and professional experiences, and how he or she connects these to graduate study. Learn what the student hopes to accomplish with an advanced degree. In the course of your early meetings, consider these strategies to create a connection with your new protégé:

  • Discuss your own research or creative projects and how they complement or diverge from the student's interests.
  • Offer suggestions about courses, other training, and work experiences inside or outside the department that would aid the student in reaching his or her goals.
  • Refer the student to colleagues inside and outside the university who could serve as additional mentors to assist the student's learning and professional goals.
  • Refer students to colleagues who have successfully bridged academic and community goals to help those who may want to use their graduate study to contribute positively to the community, either during or after graduate training.
  • Acknowledge that the student's career goals are likely to change over the course of graduate study. A student may seek to become a faculty member in a research institution, to have an academic career in other educational institutions, or to pursue a career outside the academy.

What are the student's strengths and weaknesses?

It is important to understand the qualities a graduate student will bring to a mentoring relationship — research or language skills, creativity, analytical techniques, computer skills, willingness to learn, enthusiasm, and commitment.

  • Ask the student to describe broadly the skills he or she brings to graduate study (e.g., creative, analytical, statistical, organizational, etc.).
  • Share your impressions about strengths and areas for improvement if you know the student well enough from classes or projects.
  • Suggest courses or experiences the student needs in order to improve important skill sets or gain broader exposure.

What is the student's preferred work style?

Be flexible enough to accommodate the varying work and learning styles of your graduate students. As you get started on the mentoring process, find out what motivates a student, how willing he or she is to take initiative, and what level of direction he or she needs from you at each stage of the process.

  • Discuss what type of guidance the student needs to learn most effectively (e.g., independent vs. one-on-one work).
  • Discuss your own work style and how you typically interact with graduate students (e.g., do you prefer to meet only during office hours? Do you hold informal meetings? Do you invite students to collaborate on teaching and research projects, and papers and presentations?)
  • Ask the student to describe people who have been valuable mentors in the past, and what these mentors did that helped him or her achieve important goals.

What does your protégé want to know about you?

It's important to remember that just as you are choosing to work with a student, that student is also choosing to work with you. In trying to understand the kind of support you can provide, the student may ask questions about your:

Availability. Make sure your potential protégé knows about the extent of your other commitments, especially if you plan to be away from the university for an extended period (on leave or on a research project). Make arrangements to stay in contact.

Communication style. You should be able to clearly understand your protégé and feel you are able to effectively communicate your thoughts and ideas. Do you think you will be able to work closely with this person? Does he or she listen attentively to your ideas and concerns, and ask good questions? Will you be able to adjust to his or her personal style?

Workload and financial support. It's critical that you explain what you consider to be a normal workload for graduate scholarship (outside your protégé's work as a teaching or research assistant).

  • How many hours per week do you believe the student should be spending on his or her own research or creative projects?
  • Is there potential for the student to develop a thesis or dissertation topic from your research program?
  • Especially for those in the sciences and engineering: Do you have appropriate space and laboratory equipment for your protégé's needs? What is the size of your research group, and is this size optimal for your protégé? If your protégé desires to bolster his or her teaching experience, can you help him or her find teaching assistantships?
  • Especially for those in the humanities, social sciences, or professional schools: Will you be able to help your protégé obtain graduate assistantships or fellowships (if he or she doesn't already have these lined up)? Will you be able to help the student achieve the professional development balance he or she wants between teaching and research?

Publishing. Do you co-author articles with graduate students? If so, be sure to explain your philosophy on first authorship. The student also may want to know whether you are willing to help him or her prepare articles for publication and whether you have publishing contacts that might be of assistance.

Presentations for performing and visual arts. If your field requires students to make public performances or exhibitions, it is important for them to know whether you are willing to collaborate. Also critical is the amount of time you have to work with students to prepare your projects for public presentation. Are you willing to use your professional contacts to assist students in presenting their own work to the public?


You and your potential protégé should take some time to reflect on whether the two of you will be a good mentor-protégé match. If you decide to agree to be a mentor, you both will have a better understanding of what each of you stands to gain from the relationship. If a mentoring relationship begins to take shape, this understanding will help you and your protégé create a professional development plan tailored to the student's needs (see Worksheet 3, Phases of graduate student professional development and Worksheet 4, Professional development plan).

Set realistic expectations

One of the strongest themes expressed by graduate students, on this campus and in national studies, is the desire for greater clarity about expectations, roles, and responsibilities. When students and mentors have clear expectations of one another, relationships are more likely to be productive, enjoyable, and mutually beneficial.

To prevent misunderstandings, discuss the expectations you and your mentor have of each other, including how they may change over time. Not all mentors and protégés establish formal contracts. Some find formal agreements useful while others prefer to work under informal agreements. See Worksheet 6, Sample mentoring agreement.


  • Be realistic about what any one mentor can do for you, and avoid requesting too much assistance or assistance that is too broad. That is why having multiple mentors is so helpful.
  • Remember that mentors can respond better to requests for specific types of assistance than to requests for general mentoring. Analyze what you need from a given mentor and explicitly ask for those things.
  • Finally, remember that part of your task as a graduate student is to develop and demonstrate your abilities as a colleague and a professional. Discuss with your mentor ways that you can take on more responsibility over time.


  • Be realistic about what you can do for your protégés and help them understand what kinds of assistance they can expect from you. Assist your students in their search for multiple mentors.
  • Analyze what your protégés need and help them develop a productive balance between seeking help from you and taking on more responsibility over time as they develop professionally.
  • Your protégés will differ in their needs and willingness to seek your help, and some may not have a firm grip on their goals or needs. While you should establish standards of excellence and professionalism for all your protégés, adjust your approach depending on the developmental stage of each student.

Clarify roles and responsibilities

No matter how formal or informal the agreements between students and mentors may be, as the student progresses through a program you might need to revisit the roles and responsibilities each of you has assumed. Some responsibilities that pertain to students and to faculty members are matters of departmental policy and are not negotiable. Nonetheless, you should fully explore your expectations of each other on several dimensions, especially when a mentor is also an advisor or thesis/dissertation chair.

Goals and work plans

Students should develop and share with mentors a work plan that includes short- and long-term goals within reasonable (achievable) timelines.  Make sure these plans are feasible and meet the academic program's requirements.  At least once a quarter, meet to discuss progress, as well as any obstacles encountered. Discuss any additional training and experiences students need to achieve their goals. If adjusting timelines becomes necessary, work together to agree upon new plans.


Discuss how often you'll meet and what other modes of communication, such as emails, can keep your conversations going.  Identify issues you feel require a face-to-face meeting and those that can be dealt with in other ways.  Each of you should identify the circumstances, if any, under which you feel it is appropriate to be contacted at home by phone, instant message, or other means.

Students, be sure you request the amount of meeting time you believe you need to progress on your goals.  While a mentoring relationship is one of mutuality, be prepared to lead meetings with an agenda to maximize your time together.

Some professors prefer students to take responsibility for arranging and leading meetings while others prefer to share the responsibility. Some prefer students to prepare agendas in advance so as to maximize time together. Mentors should communicate their preferences and extend a clear invitation to contact them when they need help.

Mentors, be explicit if you have a heavy travel schedule, are about to take a sabbatical, or will be assuming an administrative position.  If you are unable to meet often enough to satisfy students' needs, discuss alternative means of communication such as e-mail, and suggest other people or resources to consult.


Discuss how often the mentor will give feedback on the student's progress and how long he or she typically needs to return papers or drafts of articles.  Communicate about current workloads so you can plan deadlines appropriately, and offer sufficient lead time.

Mentors should tell students whether to expect lots of feedback or sparse feedback, and explain how they intend that feedback to help the student's intellectual and professional growth.


Agree in advance on the best way for the student to remind the professor about getting work back to them. For instance, students can ask: "When you are very busy, how should I remind you about a paper of mine that you have? Should I email you, call you, or come by your office? How much in advance should I remind you — one week ahead, or would you prefer two?"

Mentors, explain how long it generally takes you to review students' work, and let them know how they can best follow up if you are unable to reply within the specified time frame. For instance, you might like an e-mail or phone reminder a few days before the agreed-upon date. Each time students submit work to you, let them know when they can expect you to return it. Take these opportunities to remind students of your feedback style and your expectations.


Discuss expectations for drafts of work to be submitted for feedback. Some professors prefer not to receive very rough drafts and might suggest that they first be shared with a trusted peer or writing group and revised before being handed in.  Students should help mentors be more expedient by highlighting revised sections with each document version.

Publishing and presenting

Mentors, communicate your philosophy and expectations about co-authorship, as well as your willingness to help prepare work for submission to journals and conferences.

Students, explain the kinds of publishing or presentation opportunities you seek. Your mentor's position as a senior or junior faculty member might influence his or her perspective.  You may be able to work out a plan that alternates credit for first and second authorship (or first and second presenters) depending on the nature of the joint project and the roles you might play over time.

Intellectual property

If you are working closely on a research project, clarify who owns the data being collected and whether others will be able to have access. Consideration for the ownership and sharing of research is important in all disciplines. Discuss the ownership of any copyright and patent agreements that might result from a project. For further information, contact the UNL Office of Research.

Research and human subjects

All research involving human subjects performed or supervised by UNL faculty, staff, or students must be reviewed by the UNL Research Compliance Office. It is your obligation as a researcher to seek Human Subjects review and approval prior to the beginning of research activities. Research with human subjects cannot be retroactively reviewed and approved. Moreover, performing a human subjects study without prior review and approval is considered "serious non-compliance" according to federal regulations, and must be brought to a full Institutional Review Board for inquiry and action. More information is available from the Office of Research Responsibility.


Students and mentors who develop close relationships sometimes discuss confidential issues. Be explicit about the confidentiality you would like accorded to you regarding sensitive issues you might speak about, and offer strict confidentiality in return. An exception to confidentiality is the obligation of all UNL employees, including graduate assistants, to report instances of sexual harassment to organizational superiors.

Recommendation letters

Students, before you approach the job search phase of your graduate experience, think about the letters of recommendation you might need and identify people in the best position to speak to your abilities and achievements. Ask your mentors how much advance notice they like to receive for writing a recommendation letter, and how you can remind them. Be sure to provide key details about the fellowship, grant, program, or job the letter of recommendation supports, and identify any areas of expertise that you would like your letter writer to emphasize. Attach an updated copy of your curriculum vitae, highlighting key sections. Ask one or more mentors to visit the classes you teach or labs you run so they can reflect knowledgeably on your professional abilities.

Mentors, let students know how much time you need to write letters on their behalf and what supporting information would be useful to you. In your letters, try to address multiple facets of students' work. Some faculty visit classes or labs taught by their graduate students so they can address teaching abilities in their recommendation letters.

Student: How to be a good protégé

Having thoughtfully established a mentoring team, you must then maintain these relationships in a professional manner. It is imperative to show by your attitude and actions that you are a responsible junior colleague. Faculty have offered the following tips on how to be a good protégé.

Be efficient in your interactions with faculty

  • Arrive on time for scheduled meetings.
  • For each meeting, be prepared with an agenda of topics to discuss and prioritize them so you ask your most important questions first.
  • At the conclusion of the meeting or through e-mail, summarize any agreements you have reached. Also restate what you will be doing and what the professor committed to doing for you. Ask for a response if there is any disagreement with anything you have stated.
  • If your mentor is facing a work emergency at the time of your meeting, offer to reschedule, shorten the meeting, or handle the matter via e-mail. Be flexible, but stay committed to getting what you need in a timely manner.
  • If you need to cancel a meeting, make sure your message reaches the professor. (Don't rely only on e-mail, since many people don't check e-mail regularly.)
Papers, proposals or creative works
  • Seek the professor's input once you are confident you have a presentable draft. Be sure to proofread the document carefully. If you have doubts about the quality of your work, ask a friend to read your paper first. Ideally, this person should be familiar with both the professor and the topic so s/he can make remarks about the content and style.
  • Do not ask professors to re-read an entire paper if only certain sections have been revised. Instead, mark the new or edited sections by underlining them, putting them in boldface, or by using a different font.
  • It may be useful to create or join a group in which students present their work to each other for feedback.
Recommendation letters
  • Provide updated copies of your curriculum vitae.
  • Leave clear written instructions as to when the letters are due and to whom to send them.
  • Attach a stamped and addressed envelope for each letter. If you have several letters, create a calendar for your mentor that lists application deadlines.
  • Provide a short description about the fellowship, grant, or program for which you are applying.
  • Provide details about how you are structuring your application and what points you would like your mentor to emphasize.
  • Submit these materials with enough advance time for your mentor to write a letter.
  • In case the professor misplaces the application materials, keep extra copies of all forms.

Take yourself seriously

Make the transition from thinking of yourself as a bright student to seeing yourself as a potential colleague.

  • Attend departmental lectures and other activities.
  • Join professional associations and societies.
  • Attend conferences and use these opportunities to network with others.
  • Seek out opportunities to present your work (in your department or through outside conferences, publications, performances).
  • Attend teaching workshops and discipline-specific pedagogy classes.

Receive criticism the right way

A core part of intellectual work is exchanging ideas and debating their merits. You need to accept criticism of your work in a professional manner. Accepting criticism does not mean agreeing with everything that someone says about your work; rather, it reflects your willingness to consider and evaluate the merits of other points of view. If you disagree with certain criticisms, you should defend your ideas in a professional style, by saying, for example, "Thank you for sharing your perspective. Although I understand the reasoning behind your view, I would like to explain why I disagree..."

Let mentors know you appreciate their advice

Be sure to let your mentors know you value the time they spend with you and that you use their input productively. After reading books or making contacts your mentor suggests, talk about the results of what you learned, perhaps via e-mail or in a subsequent meeting. You should not feel compelled to follow every bit of advice you receive, but do inform your mentors when their advice is particularly helpful, even when it leads you in an unexpected direction. When you share this information constructively with your mentors, it is a sign of your collegiality and growth.

Be responsible

Update your mentors about your progress and your struggles. As one faculty member said, "Take charge and own your education." Never give the impression that you are avoiding your mentors.

Respect boundaries

Although friendship is not a necessary component for mentorship, friendships between faculty and graduate students can and do develop. This can be especially true with junior faculty who may feel they have more in common with graduate students than with their new faculty colleagues. Although such relationships can have lifetime benefits for both parties, some faculty have voiced concerns about potential problems that can arise. Sometimes it is more difficult for graduate students to accept criticism of their work from faculty they consider to be their friends.

  • Be mindful that although you may have a friendship with a particular faculty member, a hierarchical arrangement still exists. One can even say it exists for your benefit since your faculty mentors need to be critical in order to help you do you best work.
  • Do not be tempted to drop in on professors for casual conversation without their approval each time. Periodically check to see whether you are overstaying your welcome.

Faculty: Basic advice to give your protégés

Mentors, remember that students must invest patience, persistence, and creativity in their search for lasting mentoring relationships. Because there is no one formula for finding great mentors, students always welcome good advice. Reinforce these messages by reminding your protégés of these tips regularly in your classes, meetings, and hallway conversations.


Encourage students to be proactive

Ideally, all students should feel they can approach their professors openly and candidly. But at a large research university like UNL, some students may find the faculty-student ratio quite different from their undergraduate experience and may need to make extra efforts to seek out interactions with professors. In some cases, personalities or cultural backgrounds may make students feel less comfortable with direct approaches. Remind your students that visiting you during office hours is a great way to maintain contact. At the same time, invite your students to suggest other times and places for discussions, or offer them yourself.

Explain the advantages of multiple mentors

Because one individual is rarely able to meet all of a student's mentoring needs, graduate students need to find and cultivate multiple mentors. Mentors can be faculty members within or outside the university. They might be departmental staff, current graduate students, or graduate alumni. They can even be professionals in the community with special knowledge or abilities related to a student's goals. Students with multiple mentors increase the likelihood that they will obtain assistance and support from a range of expert sources — their "team." This approach is especially helpful for students who want to explore diverse career opportunities.

Help students develop realistic approaches to mentors

Students will find that developing mentoring relationships is more effective if they request specific kinds of guidance, rather than make general requests for mentorship. Help your students understand they need to invest time in identifying what they need from their mentors and request that assistance clearly and professionally.

Remind students to be visible

Help your students become aware of the importance of being visible in department life — that office and hallway conversations build and maintain relationships as well as help people glean vital information. If students have a departmental office, encourage them to use it as much as possible. Many students have other responsibilities outside their departments. Help them find creative ways to be visible, by getting involved in key events or gatherings, or taking a leadership role in coordinating certain events each year.

Empower students to take themselves seriously

Graduate students need to see themselves not only as bright students, but as potential colleagues. Talk to your students about the full range of professional activities that build career potential and facilitate that transition: participating in departmental lectures or other activities, joining professional associations and societies, networking at local or national conferences or campus events, and seeking opportunities to present work projects.

Encourage students to be responsible

Students should understand the value of "owning" their education, which includes responsibility for developing a vision of the future and attending to ordinary, everyday details. These details include being prompt for scheduled meetings, preparing meeting agendas, and updating mentors at least once a quarter about their work, progress, and plans.

Encourage students to show commitment to their professional development

Students need to demonstrate involvement in their programs, courses, and research. Many faculty underscore the importance of students "embracing their own work" or "deciding to be the world's expert in a particular area." You can help students show commitment in ways that fit their professional goals and individual circumstances. Talk with your students about the kinds of professional activities they would like to take part in and encourage them to take a lead role in departmental or campus initiatives they care about.

Invite students to receive criticism in a professional manner

Students need to accept criticism of their work in a professional manner. Accepting criticism does not mean agreeing with everything that is said, but rather reflects a willingness to consider other points of view. If students disagree with certain criticisms, it is appropriate for them to defend their ideas in a professional manner.

Invite students to comment on your advice

Help graduate students learn to share information constructively. Sharing different opinions is a mark of collegiality and growth. For example, after students read books or articles that you have suggested, ask them to offer you their reactions. You can also ask students to tell you whether the feedback or advice you give is useful, and how it could be more useful. Remember, students do not necessarily follow their mentors' advice in every instance. In fact, sometimes not taking your advice can be a sign that your protégés are seeking opportunities for thinking on their own, and thus a sign of the kind of growth you are helping them to achieve.

Student: What to do if problems arise

All the recommendations in this guidebook have one purpose: to help you complete your graduate studies smoothly and efficiently. Occasionally situations arise that hinder timely completion of your work, such as the birth of a child or an illness that befalls you or someone in your family. If this happens, take the initiative and contact your mentors. Discuss your situation with them and give them the information you feel they need to know. As soon as possible, get back to them with a new timeline for completing your degree. Be sure the final plan is realistic, with deadlines you can meet.

Be aware that situations occasionally arise for mentors, too, that can potentially impede your work and progress. For instance, other demands on your mentor may hinder his or her ability to meet with you or provide prompt feedback about your work.

If significant delays happen often, or if other difficulties arise, talk with one or more of the following individuals who are in an excellent position to help you to resolve them.

The mentor

Your first step is to politely and diplomatically remind the professor of your needs. If you are not getting satisfactory results, we urge you to meet with your mentor in person as soon as possible. Face-to-face meetings can lead to more satisfactory results than e-mail, since one's tone and message can be easily misconstrued in electronic communication.

Other mentors or supervisory committee members

Even if other mentors on your team do not know the individual with whom you are experiencing difficulties and may or may not know your department's norms and policies, they will be able to offer you a fresh perspective, and suggest solutions they have found helpful.


Other students who have frequent contact with a particular faculty member can tell you if the issue is typical and may be able to suggest possible resolutions. Your peers also can explain the norms in your department regarding frequency of meetings, turn-around time for feedback, and general availability of faculty.

Departmental staff

Graduate program coordinators and assistants can help you clarify departmental expectations and policies. They also can offer suggestions on how to resolve problems and usually know about other people or offices on campus who can assist you.

Other faculty

Other trusted faculty can give you advice on how to deal with challenges that arise with one of your mentors. If you want someone to intercede on your behalf, senior faculty may be in a much better position to do so than junior faculty.

Graduate or department chair

If you are not able to resolve issues with your mentor on your own, you may find it advisable to talk to the graduate chair or your department chair. As always, focus the discussion diplomatically and objectively on the assistance you need to meet your goals in your graduate program. Avoid making the discussion about personality or interpersonal style differences.

Office of Graduate Studies, Professional Development

At any point, you may find it helpful to talk things over with the Graduate Student Professional Development staff in the Graduate Studies Office at 402-472-2875 or

Student: Changing mentors or advisors

At some point in your graduate career, you might face the question of how to acquire a new mentor or advisor. The issues can be more complex if the same person fulfills both of these roles for you. Because of the relatively informal nature of mentoring, there is no formal policy for acquiring mentors as there is, in most departments, for acquiring or changing a research or dissertation advisor. It is important to know the differences between the two processes, and the basic guidelines applicable to each.

Changing mentors is not an issue if the relationship is an informal one (i.e., the person is not your thesis/dissertation advisor). Also, changing mentors does not necessarily imply any difficulties in your relationship. In fact, as you progress through various phases of your professional development, your priorities for mentoring will change, possibly making it beneficial to select a different mentor or combination of mentors. This change is more likely to be motivated by your personal and professional growth than by misunderstandings. A good mentor will support you in your search for others who can assist you.

Changing advisors is common in some fields of study and less so in others. It usually requires that you follow departmental procedures. It is easier to change advisors if your department encourages students to work with multiple faculty members, and making changes earlier in your career is generally easier than later. However, you will need to do extra thoughtful planning if you came to UNL to work with a specific faculty member and down the road find that your interests change or the relationship begins to suffer.

If you are changing an advisor, you can accomplish the task best if you adopt an attitude of respect for the person who has assisted you. The following are general guidelines, but first, always consult your department for the specific policies and procedures that apply to your case.

Guidelines for changing advisors

  • Begin by doing an objective analysis of the pros and cons of changing advisors.
  • Refer to the list of people who can help you with this assessment.
  • Try to work through any differences with your advisor before you make a final decision.
  • Seek advice from a trusted faculty member or peer to assess your needs and determine whether a different advisor would be good for you. This advice is especially important if you are attempting to change advisors toward the final phase of your graduate program.
  • Approach another faculty member about being an advisor for you. Frame your approach with positive information, such as new interests and new possibilities.
  • Be professional at all times. Focus discussions on your interests and goals and not on negative incidents or difficulties. Avoid doing or saying anything that could have negative ramifications for your future.
  • Practice diplomatic ways to express to your advisor or mentor, and to others, why you are considering a change.
  • Discuss and arrange a timeframe for completing any remaining work with your current advisor before the change takes place.
  • Complete or update any formal paperwork that contains information about your advisor (e.g., internship paperwork, thesis, general exam, or dissertation committee forms).

Common Themes Among Graduate Students

While all graduate students have unique needs, goals, and expectations, they do share some common concerns about their graduate experience.

Good mentoring can help to address and resolve these concerns.

Balancing work and lifestyle

Students from all disciplines observe that professors devote large parts of their lives to their work in order to be successful in the academy.

In turn, students who feel that faculty expect them to spend every waking minute on their work can become overwhelmed. This feeling causes concern for those seeking to balance success in their graduate career with other interests and responsibilities. To help keep the pressures of graduate school in check, consider these suggestions.


Suggestions for Students
  • Ask faculty you admire as role models about their interests and hobbies, and how they balance their professional and personal lives. Ask them to help you balance tasks among your obligations.
  • Ask your peers how they balance family or personal problems and what they do when they encounter difficulties.
  • Demonstrate through your behavior and work that you are focused and productive when in your office or lab.
Suggestions for Faculty
  • Demonstrate to students that you value each dimension of your life. Be open to bringing up your interests and hobbies. Share your thoughts about the benefits of balancing work and life to refresh and regroup.
  • Offer your students tips on managing time wisely and help them understand that large tasks can be broken down into more time manageable components.
  • Recognize that students work hard to balance school and home demands. Those with family responsibilities are not able to spend as many hours on campus as other students, but often can be better focused when they are there.
  • Learn something about the demands your students face beyond the department. If you sense that a student is encountering difficulties, listen first and offer ideas for solutions. Or, guide the student to appropriate campus resources.

Burden of being a spokesperson

It is unfair to assume that any one student represents the experiences or beliefs of an entire group.

When certain issues arise in classroom or theoretical discussions, especially those relating to race, class, or gender, the pressures of being a spokesperson arise. These pressures tend to burden underrepresented students more than others. Consider the pressures put on a woman in an engineering seminar if she were asked, "How would a woman approach this design problem?" or on the man in a feminist theory class if he were asked to provide "the male perspective."

Suggestions for Students
  • Avoid asking your peers and professors to speak as spokespersons for a group to which you think they belong. Simply ask for their perspective.
  • Avoid assuming that the "white male" experience is the norm. Seek to understand how race, gender, and other characteristics are factors that can influence people's perspectives on intellectual problems or issues.
  • Emphasize, when called upon, that you speak from your own perspective. If you voluntarily take on a spokesperson role for an issue you feel strongly about, explain that there may be others present who do not feel the same way.
  • When you hear other students voluntarily taking on spokesperson roles, acknowledge what you have learned from their contributions to the discussion.
Suggestions for Faculty
  • Avoid assuming that the "white male" experience is the norm. Understand how race, gender, and other characteristics influence, but do not predetermine, your students' perspectives on intellectual problems or issues.
  • Avoid asking students to speak as spokespersons for the group to which you perceive they belong. Simply ask for their perspective.
  • When you hear students voluntarily taking on spokesperson roles, acknowledge what you have gained from their contributions to the discussion.

Fear of being categorized as a "single-issue" scholar

Some students are concerned that if they select questions of gender, race, sexual orientation, or the content of marginalized cultures as their thesis/dissertation topics, faculty will assume they are interested in pursuing only these topics for their entire career or will question the relevance of their work.

Students who are passionate about such questions in their research and teaching should not feel apologetic. Instead, they should consider these ways to bolster the scholarly nature of their agenda.

Suggestions for Students
  • Articulate clearly and compellingly to potential mentors the value of your research interests and strive to make connections to others' work, as well as to other major topics and questions in the discipline.
  • Discuss with your peers and faculty members the ways that race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and other characteristics expand questions asked in your discipline and the approaches used for answering them.
  • Seek assistance from faculty and advanced graduate students on how to frame the issues that drive your intellectual curiosity.
  • Practice job talks and interview responses that demonstrate the depth and breadth of your research interests.
  • Understand that some people who are uninformed about your topic may perceive it as narrow or limited, so practice effective ways to address questions from skeptics.
Suggestions for Faculty
  • Ask students what their research interests are rather than assume that their interests are driven only by personal characteristics.
  • Find out what motivates your students. Then, help them learn how to use sound disciplinary concepts and theories to frame the issues that drive their intellectual curiosity.
  • Discuss with your students how race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and other characteristics expand the types of questions asked in your discipline and the tools used for answering them.
  • Help students practice job talks and interview responses that illustrate the depth and breadth of their research interests.
  • Encourage students to anticipate skeptics' responses to their topics and to plan ahead for addressing them.

Feelings of isolation

At times, graduate study may seem to be an isolating endeavor. Isolation, whether from other students or one's home community, is a difficulty all graduate students face at one time or another.

If it goes unchecked, isolation can lead to loneliness and self-doubt, or, in more severe cases, to depression or dropping out. Depending on the discipline, students from historically underrepresented groups or women might feel more isolated than other students, especially if the composition of students, faculty, and content in the department is highly homogenous.

Suggestions for Students
  • Ask advanced graduate students and faculty to introduce you to peers and potential mentors with complementary interests, whether academic or personal.
  • Attend as many departmental functions as you are able. Offer to organize functions or form groups (e.g., interest, study, or writing groups) to become known as a contributor to department life.
  • Invite mentors to join these activities when appropriate.
  • Be aware of students who seem to find it difficult to take active roles in academic or social settings and find ways to include them. Take the initiative to talk with them by asking about their research interests, hobbies, and activities outside of school.
  • Get involved with the wealth of organizations within or outside the University that can increase your sense of community, such as cultural and religious groups, reading groups, and professional associations.
Suggestions for Faculty
  • Encourage students to attend departmental functions and form study or writing groups.
  • Be aware of students who seem to experience difficulty taking active roles in departmental settings and find ways to include them. Ask them about their research interests, hobbies, activities, and avocations.
  • Introduce your students to others with complementary interests, regardless of their background.
  • Remind students of the wealth of organizations on and off campus that provide a sense of community, e.g., cultural and religious groups, reading groups, professional associations, and varied resources of the Office of Graduate Studies.

Need for role models

All graduate students benefit from role models they can admire — professionals whose lives they may want to emulate. Quite often, people identify role models based on shared outlook and connections to similar experiences.

Although the composition of faculty at UNL is becoming more diverse, students from historically underrepresented or marginalized groups, and women in some disciplines, can face greater challenges finding faculty role models who have had experiences similar to their own. Some students convey that they hope to find "someone who looks like me"; "someone who immediately understands my experiences and perspectives"; "someone whose very presence lets me know I, too, can make it in the academy." Even so, while shared background and experiences are important, they do not "guarantee" a good mentoring relationship. What is key are shared interests and interpersonal compatibility. All students also benefit from reaching out to potential mentors who are different from them in race, gender, or other characteristics.

Suggestions for Students
  • Expand your knowledge of people within your department, across UNL, or at other universities, who may help you obtain the kinds of experiences and resources you need.
  • Ask other students with whom you have common experiences or interests to identify faculty in the department they hold as role models, and why.
  • Hold occasional discussions with other students and faculty, either informally or through your graduate student association, on how well your department's educational and work climates welcome all contributions.
  • Know that you can receive very good guidance from mentors who are of a different gender, race, or culture from you. What is important is to focus on what you need in order to learn and make progress.
Suggestions for Faculty
  • If the composition of faculty and graduate students in your department is homogenous, help identify and recruit new members who represent diverse backgrounds.
  • Hold departmental discussions on how to provide educational and work climates that welcome contributions from all members.
  • Become familiar with people across the University or at other universities who can help your protégés.
  • Know that you can provide excellent mentoring to students of different gender, race, or culture from you. What is most important is focusing on what students need in order to learn and accomplish their goals.

Questioning the canons

To do adventuresome academic work, students may need to question the implicit assumptions and ways of knowing in their disciplines.  Indeed, it is because of this kind of questioning that disciplines evolve.

Sometimes students find that their perspectives or intellectual interests do not fit neatly into the current academic canons. For instance, interest in interdisciplinary questions and the social applications of knowledge is growing, but the structure of some programs makes it difficult for students to pursue these questions in their research and teaching. Studies suggest that underrepresented students experience this disjuncture more keenly; however, majority students face it as well.

Productive scholarly environments value new ways of thinking and encouraging students to explore, and possibly challenge, different models of inquiry.

Suggestions for Students

  • Be open to hearing about other students' and faculty members' experiences and perspectives.
  • Convey your interests by sharing an essay or scholarly article that exemplifies the kind of work you would like to do.
  • Be prepared to formulate and present strong, compelling arguments for the importance of a new or nontraditional line of inquiry. Seek feedback on your arguments, identify their weaknesses, and work to strengthen them.
  • Check out interdisciplinary programs and research centers across campus that can provide a community of scholars whose interests cross traditional boundaries. For instance, find out more about Programs in African American and African Studies, Latino and Latin American Studies, Native American Studies, Women's and Gender Studies, and the Institute for Ethnic Studies.
  • Identify content that is traditionally excluded or marginalized in your discipline and help develop strategies to address that content via teaching and research.
  • Throughout your graduate school career, demonstrate the breadth of your intellectual curiosity through your contributions in classes, seminars, brown bags and lectures.
  • As you develop your mentoring relationships, be clear with the faculty about the range of your research interests.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Listen to students' experiences and perspectives. Ask them to share scholarly articles or essays that illustrate the work they would like to do.
  • Identify content that is traditionally excluded or marginalized in your field and expand the boundaries of your discipline by addressing it.
  • Help your students learn about the many interdisciplinary communities of scholars that exist on campus.
  • Foster ongoing departmental discussions on how disciplinary and interdisciplinary theory and methodology are changing because of the inclusion of more diverse content, approaches, and perspectives.

Mentoring Needs in a Diverse Community

The Office of Graduate Studies strongly believes that a graduate student population diverse in its origins, beliefs, lifestyles, experiences, and intellectual perspectives greatly enriches the scholarly, cultural, and social activities of the University. In particular, we are committed to enhancing the presence and mentoring of students from historically underrepresented or marginalized populations with the knowledge that these improvements will make the University a more democratic community and benefit the entire graduate student body.

The purpose of this section is to increase your awareness of the factors that shape how a student faces the challenges of pursuing an advanced degree. No two students experience advanced study in exactly the same way. Even students with similar backgrounds and personal characteristics can experience very different challenges. Conversely, some graduate students of very different backgrounds share similar concerns, such as presenting or publishing papers and job searching.

Thus, rather than assume that students are members of discrete groups, we have chosen to discuss gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, race and ethnicity, disabilities, age, prior work experience and career aspirations, family responsibilities, and socioeconomic background as important factors that influence (but do not determine) the graduate experience. To be empowered, students should reflect on how these factors shape their particular circumstances as a graduate student. Recommendations provided here are general enough to apply no matter what your discipline, although we attempt to draw disciplinary distinctions where pertinent.


Older students can be more focused and aware of their goals for graduate school than their younger colleagues. Their maturity is an especially strong asset for graduate study because their life experiences make them familiar with complex problems and independent thinking. Even with this important advantage, older students sometimes face challenges that are less common among younger students.

Fear of having "rusty" skills

Older students, especially if they have been in the workforce for several years, might worry about how they compare academically to their younger counterparts, who might be more up-to-date in the discipline or possess more experience with recent educational computing technologies.

Devaluation of life experiences

Many older students pursue graduate school after spending a number of years running a business, leading developments in industry or the public sector, or raising a family. A difficult issue they sometimes face is learning that their hard-won, "real life" knowledge is devalued during the graduate experience. This is particularly frustrating when older students' experiences contradict the research or theory they are studying.

Invisibility in the classroom

Older students commonly describe feeling excluded when a professor refers to an event or popular film from many years ago and then says to the entire class, "And, of course, none of you would remember that." Although not intended to be harmful, this kind of remark makes older students feel overlooked.

Isolation from fellow students

Because of the age differences between them and their peers, older graduate students can sometimes feel socially isolated. Many prefer to socialize in environments different from those of younger students. Also, although they do develop friendships with younger colleagues, older students are aware that some of them may be the same age as their own children.

Awkwardness with faculty

Some students are close in age or even older than their professors, and may worry that their professors are more accustomed to interacting with younger students.

Suggestions for Students

  • Talk to your peers and mentors about how your prior professional and educational experiences are transferable to graduate study. Whenever possible, link real world examples to theory.
  • Visit faculty members regularly during office hours or set up appointments with them. Few ways are better to help professors and potential mentors understand who you are and what you are about.
  • If you have been in the workforce for several years, jot down your five most polished skills and identify their correlates in academic work. Advertise these skills in your interactions with faculty and peers.
  • Take the initiative to lead discussion groups or projects that mix people of different ages and experiences. Avoid always joining or forming study teams that consist only of same-age students.
  • Ask younger graduate students for suggestions on readings or for technological assistance (if you need it).
  • Offer technological assistance to your graduate student peers if your prior experience exposed you to useful computer applications and tools. Students and faculty alike will be drawn to your special skills.
  • Initiate social activities on and off campus, such as dinner parties or community events.
  • Start an interest group or a writing group.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Value older students' knowledge by asking how their life experiences inform their graduate scholarship.
  • Link theory and practice so that all graduate students can understand how information learned in their program transfers to the world outside.
  • Explore the disconnects between theory and practice that arise for your students. Older students welcome opportunities to use their experience as a resource and to test their assumptions as they grow as scholars.
  • Welcome the contributions older students make by occasionally asking them to lead discussion groups.
  • Develop ways to ensure that older students are integrated into work groups or teams so that they do not end up always working with other older students.
  • Include older students in out-of-class study and writing groups.

Career aspirations and prior work experience

Regardless of their reasons for pursuing advanced studies, students enter graduate school today with more experience and more diverse career aspirations than ever before. For many, it is common to have had one or more career-track jobs before beginning advanced study.

Often such prior work experience sparks a person's decision to pursue a graduate degree, whether it is for love of the discipline, advancement in a current profession, entrance into a new profession, or a combination of these reasons. Thus, if real world perspectives or examples are not valued in the graduate experience, students with prior work experience can feel especially disappointed. Many graduate students want to feel valued for their prior work accomplishments, especially if those experiences were as teachers or practitioners in a field that they are now researching.


  • The Preparing Future Faculty Program, offered through the Office of Graduate Studies, helps graduate students prepare for academic careers by offering structured opportunities to observe and experience a full range of faculty roles and responsibilities.
  • Career Services supports students in exploring a variety of career options and employment services.

Suggestions for Students

  • Discuss with your mentors and peers how your prior work experience influenced your decision to pursue graduate study or relates to your research and teaching. Understand that your career aspirations might not reflect the same interests that motivated your professors. Explain to them how the concepts, theories, and tools you are learning support your own career aspirations.
  • Ask your mentor to help you explore a wide range of professional development opportunities, such as serving on graduate student or department/university committees, and doing service, teaching, or research internships on or off campus.
  • Be aware of new opportunities for knowledge workers and periodically check on the condition of the academic and non-academic labor market in your discipline.
  • Consult your disciplinary association, or the Occupational Outlook Handbook of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for current data and trends.
  • Offer your mentors periodic updates about how your professional goals are developing, changing, and being enriched by graduate study.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Ask students about their career aspirations and how they expect graduate education to help them achieve their goals.
  • Ask students how their prior work experiences relate to or have influenced them to pursue graduate study. Have students write about these understandings and invite them to make periodic observations about how they are developing professionally.
  • Ask students how their current scholarship informs their perspective on prior work experiences.
  • Provide opportunities in seminars or group work for students to link theory and practice.
  • Remind students of the "wisdom of practice" and its importance in scholarly and professional development.
  • Realize that career aspirations may shift several times over the course of students' degree programs, so be prepared to help your protégés seek out a variety of job opportunities.
  • Tune in to new economic opportunities for "knowledge workers" by periodically checking on the condition of both the academic and nonacademic labor markets in your discipline. Consult your disciplinary association or the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook for current market data and trends.
  • Help students pursue a healthy balance of professional development opportunities such as research assistantships, teaching assistantships, and special leadership opportunities, such as university or student committees. Whatever their ultimate career choice, your mentees will benefit greatly by learning how their skills apply in multiple arenas.


Students with disabilities have differing needs and concerns, depending on their type of disability. Disabilities vary greatly; some are visible while others are not. Some students experience physical disabilities, learning disabilities (such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia), chronic disabilities (such as lupus and multiple sclerosis), and psychological disabilities (such as depression and bipolar disorder). Students' needs vary depending on whether they have had a disability since birth or whether it developed later in life.

Given such a wide variety of disabilities, it is important that students work collaboratively with their professors and with the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) to ensure that their needs are met. The SSD office is charged with establishing eligibility for disability-related services, such as academic adjustments and auxiliary aids for qualified students with disabilities, and can help students and faculty determine effective ways to meet disability-related needs in courses or programs.

Be aware of the following factors that can influence mentoring needs.

Reluctance to ask for help

Some students with disabilities fear appearing or becoming too dependent if they ask for help. Those whose disabilities are of recent onset or are "invisible" may be unaccustomed to asking for help or may fear being stigmatized as less capable due to the accommodations needed.

Effort exerted just to keep up

For many students with disabilities, meeting basic requirements demands more time and energy than it does for other students. A student with multiple sclerosis, for instance, may only have a certain number of hours in the day for school and studying before fatigue, vision problems, and cognitive deficits flare up. A student who is hard of hearing and uses a real-time captioner (like a court stenographer) may have to review several pages of notes from the captioner in order to create suitable study materials. This process requires additional preparation and study time. Some students find it challenging to participate in certain professional activities as much as they would like to (such as submitting papers for conferences) because they need to devote all their time and energy to meeting the demands of their programs.

Problems that arise from last-minute changes

Changes in reading assignments can be very difficult for students who are blind or visually impaired or have a learning disability in reading. As much as six weeks prior to the beginning of the semester, these students may submit requests to the Services for Students with Disabilities Office to render course reading materials in alternate formats. If any readings are added at a later date, it may take up to two weeks for students to get these new materials translated into accessible formats. It may not be feasible to meet reading deadlines if the conversion process cannot occur quickly enough.

Classroom relocations also may cause hardships for visually impaired students or students with mobility limitations, such as students in wheelchairs or with conditions that impact walking distance. (Note: People with disabilities prefer not to use language such as "physically challenged.")


For further information and advice:
  • Services for Students with Disabilities
    SSD has developed handbooks for both student and faculty about services and advice for possible accommodations.
  • Accommodation Resource Center
    The ARC has various computers, readers, speech dictation machines and scanners that can be of great assistance for students who are visually impaired or blind, have mobility impairments (including repetitive stress syndrome), or are learning disabled.

Suggestions for Students

  • If you are a student with a disability, inform your professors and contact the SSD Office as soon as possible to determine how your needs can be accommodated to ensure equal access.
  • Get a head start on readings by requesting syllabi in advance from your professors. Ask them to prioritize readings or task assignments if you anticipate difficulties completing them within the assigned time.
  • Ask your professors to put an outline on the board for each class or seminar so that students with attention disabilities can follow the learning goals that day. Such an outline will benefit all students.
  • Ask your professors how flexible they can be with deadlines. If you need additional time to complete tasks due to the nature of your disability or the accommodations you utilize, discuss this with your professors. Also, alert your professors to the additional steps or time you might need to take to deal with sudden changes in syllabi or research assignments.
  • Focus on your and your peers' abilities. For example, if you use a wheelchair for mobility, demonstrate how you are able to use overhead projectors, blackboards, and other instructional tools or laboratory equipment. This is especially useful in job interviews.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Assume that there are students with disabilities, including invisible disabilities, among your graduate students.
  • If you have a student in a wheelchair, know whether your office, lab, or seminar room is accessible. If not, work with the student and SSD to determine what accommodations will ensure equal access.
  • Be explicit in your seminars and on your syllabus that you want students with disabilities to contact you as soon as possible about accommodations they may need. Be sure they know how best to contact you.
  • Put your syllabus together as early as possible so that students with disabilities who need a head start on readings, or need reading materials converted, can do so. Mark which readings are required or optional, those of highest priority, and the due date for all reading assignments.
  • Write an outline on the board for each class so that students with learning disabilities can follow the larger context of the learning goals that day.
  • Plan creative group exercises so that students with various kinds of disabilities can participate and accomplish the exercises.
  • Be as flexible as possible with deadlines. Students with disabilities do not want requirements lowered for them but may need additional time to complete tasks.
  • Develop accommodations for missed seminars and meetings in advance and communicate them clearly.
  • Focus on your students' abilities, not their disabilities.
  • Do not hesitate to ask a student with a disability if she or he needs assistance.
  • If you suspect a student might have a disability, or you are not sure how to meet the needs of a student with a disability, contact SSD.

Family responsibilities

As the graduate student population increases in age, so do family responsibilities, such as raising children (whether with a partner or single) or becoming the primary caregiver for elderly parents or relatives. Graduate students who have children or parents who depend on them for support may find that the structure of graduate education in a large research university still presumes an ability to be on campus at any time, which can conflict with other responsibilities.

Dual commitments

Students with family responsibilities often are highly organized and intensely focused during the blocks of time they carve out for their graduate work. Unfortunately, students may fear that their professors might misconstrue their attention to other responsibilities as a lack of commitment to scholarship. Emergencies, such as an ill child or parent, occasionally prevent them from attending a class or a meeting and can exacerbate that misperception. Even after a child enters school, childcare demands do not lessen. Other demands arise, such as picking up or dropping off children and attending school functions.


Students with family responsibilities might find it difficult to attend some social, academic, and professional functions. As a result, they may begin to feel isolated from their cohorts and departments, missing out on the "academic business" that takes place in those functions.

Time constraints

Students with family responsibilities often need to be home in the evenings to tend to those in their care. For this reason, study group assignments or research projects that require meeting in the evening can present difficulties, as can evening lectures.

Cultural differences

Cultural beliefs influence the ways graduate students deal with family responsibilities. During the mourning for a family member, for example, some students may be expected to spend a considerable amount of time consoling relatives at home. You can ask your mentor to help explain to other faculty the need for participating in family activities different from mainstream practices. On another note, some students enter graduate school without the full support of their families, who might question how graduate study is beneficial to the entire family, particularly if it has been experiencing economic hardships. Your mentors can help all their students communicate how a graduate degree can bring long-term benefits to them and their families.

Suggestions for Students

  • Help your mentors and others understand that family responsibilities may take away from class sometimes or mean you are able to work in the department only during certain hours.
  • Ask professors to distribute a schedule of assignments in advance so you can integrate them into an already demanding schedule.
  • Alert your professors and peers in advance if you use a cell phone or beeper for the purpose of staying connected in case of family emergencies.
  • Seek out graduate students and faculty who can share strategies and resources for balancing family and academic life.
  • Ask your peers to be flexible with study group times or invite them to meet at your home if you live locally.
  • Explore the use of e-mail, listservs, or discussion boards to facilitate group discussions away from the department.
  • Be open with others about your family responsibilities. When appropriate, consider bringing your children to your department's social functions or to the office to help your peers and professors understand what your life is like beyond the department.
  • Use various means to demonstrate professional commitment and productivity. Be highly focused and productive when you are in the classroom, office, or lab. When you cannot be there, provide advanced notice and use other means, such as e-mail, to stay in touch or contribute your ideas.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Develop accommodations for students with family responsibilities who might need to miss some seminars.
  • Distribute assignments well in advance so students can fit them into demanding schedules. Because some students must set aside significant time for their families on weekends, you are not providing enough advance notice if you assign work on Thursday and say it is due on Monday.
  • Identify ways to accommodate students' requests to work in groups that meet during the day. Encourage students to explore e-mail, listservs, and discussion boards to facilitate group work.
  • Discuss your own family responsibilities with your graduate students. If you have children, bring them to the office or to departmental social events now and then. Doing so reinforces the fact that it is possible to have a family and a successful academic career.
  • Plan some departmental, family-friendly social events. Pick a time of day when families can attend, and be sure the invitation states specifically that children are welcome.
  • Help students to communicate how a graduate degree can bring long-term benefits to them and their families.


Women are as ambitious as men in pursuing success in graduate school. Women and men demonstrate their ambition in their day-to-day persistence, interest, and intellectual contributions, which are changing the face of graduate education. Even though the graduate community is more enlightened than ever about the benefits of having both sexes well represented in teaching and research, it is still working to transform the traditionally male-centered structure of advanced study.

When sexism and other unconscious biases surface, women graduate students may experience the negative effects more pointedly, although men also report negative effects. For this reason, while students share many concerns about academic interactions, women express some concerns that differ from those of men.


The unspoken code in graduate education is that, aside from being intelligent, students who are assertive in classroom discussions or conference presentations attain success. However, students from marginalized groups often demonstrate a different approach to academic interactions. Many women and racial minorities, and even international students, express concern about difficulties they experience making their contributions heard. For example, in classroom discussions, women have noted that to contribute an idea, often they have to interrupt another student. They tend to interpret interruptions as rude and disrespectful, yet fear that professors and peers will wrongly attribute lack of participation to having no ideas at all. Many women report that when they do assert their ideas strongly, they feel subjected to criticism in ways their male counterparts are not — even though the assertive behavior is the same.


Research has shown that an overly competitive and critical atmosphere in graduate programs can alienate minority students, and that women, in particular, feel such alienation more intensely. There is no doubt that women are capable of providing insightful criticisms of others' work when warranted. But some interpret critical behavior as an attempt to appear intellectually superior, and thus as a form of insecurity. Women, and indeed a growing number of students in general, lament that the system does not reward one for praising the contributions of other scholars. More opportunities for collaborative work would help balance the competitive culture of graduate school.

Importance of positive feedback

Many students desire to receive frequent constructive feedback on their work. Although lack of feedback is problematic in its own right, the lack of constructive feedback can lead students to doubt their capabilities. Women tend to attribute negative experiences in graduate school to personal deficiencies, whereas men tend to attribute them to insufficient guidance or problems within the department. Regarding their mentor's personal style, men are more content than women with mentors who may be impersonal but offer solid instrumental advice. Women may interpret a professor's distance as an indication that he or she has a negative opinion of them. Studies suggest that these nuances hold true for racial minorities as well.


For special programs and workshops focusing on women:
If you need to discuss issues of sexual harassment and/or a hostile working environment:

Suggestions for Students

  • Discuss with your mentor or professor what kinds of interactions make your participation in seminars or collaborative projects difficult. Suggest concrete ways he or she can help you participate more, such as by directing questions to you more explicitly.
  • Experiment with ways of influencing class discussion so a few students don't monopolize the conversation. Encourage those who have participated once in a discussion to wait until others have had a chance to talk before contributing again.
  • Point out, if a professor or peer interrupts you, that you would like to complete your thought or contribution.
  • Avoid addressing your peers or professors as spokespersons for their gender. Invite your peers to offer their perspective, and, if appropriate, ask how gender may or may not influence them.
  • Try to influence the tenor of group discussions that become excessively critical by asking, "What contributions does this particular article/person/report make?"
  • Participate in discussions and projects in multiple ways if you find you contribute better outside of large groups (e.g., small group or pair work, e-mail discussions or discussion boards, journal comments, informal discussions, and office hours).
  • Be aware of how peer or discussion groups form and try to include all who want to participate.
  • Ask your mentors and/or professors to provide clearer feedback on your work, if you find their comments vague.
  • Convey feedback on your peers' projects in concrete terms. Saying "this paragraph exposes the research problem succinctly, but leaves out one important point" is clearer than saying "not bad" or "I don't have any major problems with it." Ambiguous feedback can hinder others' performance.
  • Remember that you have recourse to departmental resources and representatives from the Graduate Studies Office if you feel you are being treated in ways that negatively impact your graduate work.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Set ground rules with your students for group discussions in your courses or labs, and explain how your expectations for participation will advance students' learning goals.
  • Experiment with ways of preventing a few students from dominating your seminars. For example, encourage students who have participated once in discussion to wait until others have had a chance to talk before contributing again.
  • Avoid calling on male or female graduate students to be spokespersons for their gender. Invite students to offer their perspectives, and, if appropriate, ask them to share how they think gender may or may not influence them.
  • Adjust the tenor of discussions that become overly critical. Remind students that it is always easier to criticize a work than to produce one, and follow up with: "What contributions does this particular piece make?"
  • Acknowledge multiple forms of participation, e.g., group or pair work, e-mail discussions or discussion boards, journal comments, informal discussions, and office hours. Some students contribute better in small groups.
  • Be aware of how discussion groups form in your seminars and determine ways to intervene if students become excluded or marginalized.
  • Make sure graduate students know how to contact a departmental or Graduate Studies representative if they feel they are being treated in ways that negatively impact their work.
  • Use concrete language to convey feedback on students' work. Saying "this paragraph exposes the research problem succinctly, but leaves out one important point" is clearer than "this is not bad" or "I don't have any major problems with it." Ambiguous feedback hinders students' performance.

International status

International students who attend graduate school in the United States recognize the many advantages of our graduate education system and arrive with appreciation and energy to accomplish great things with their faculty and peers. At the same time, these students experience significant challenges that go beyond adjusting to living, learning, and working in a foreign language, and vary depending on the background of the student — whether he or she is new to graduate study in the United States or has experience in this system.

Students and mentors alike will benefit from understanding that no matter where a student is from, there are cultural, educational, and social norms to be learned in graduate school.

Language and culture in the classroom

Despite their abilities and accomplishments, international students can feel less competent in the early stages of their programs. Lack of linguistic proficiency or lack of knowledge about the U.S. academic system can be hurdles to overcome in the initial stages of a research or teaching assignment. Most international students have experienced very different classroom communication patterns. For example, in the educational systems of East and Southeast Asia students are passive in interactions with professors, whose authority goes unquestioned. International students can be taken aback when U.S. students speak up without being called upon or challenging their professors' views.

Interaction in graduate seminars can seem unnecessarily competitive to international students, who fear that if they do not exhibit these same behaviors, professors will judge them as less capable or less intelligent. Finally, many international graduate students come from countries in which only a small number of high school graduates are admitted to university, so the different level of preparation of first-year undergraduates in the United States can be a new challenge for international teaching assistants.

The rules of the academic game

When international graduate students arrive on campus, they need to demystify three cultures: the U.S. culture, the culture of the university, and the academic culture in their departments. They discover that policies in graduate departments can be quite different from those in their home institutions, or are opaque or difficult to interpret. For instance, some may find it hard initially to understand why they can accept teaching or research assistantship "work" but are not permitted to work off-campus. On a subtler note, international graduate students might rely on different assumptions about how faculty members and graduate students should relate to each other. Many East Asian graduate students, for example, have reported sensing a kind of interpersonal "coldness" from some U.S. faculty who, while informal and jovial with students during seminars, remain distant regarding students' personal or family lives. In other countries, the faculty-graduate student relationship often extends beyond academic discussions and may include various types of non-academic interactions with students and their families.

Social stresses

In moving far away from families and friends, many international students can feel a great sense of displacement. Those who are new to this country and who bring their partners and children with them worry about how well they or their families will adjust to life in the United States. Even for students from countries with a large number of fellow nationals studying at UNL, uncertainties about how to socialize with Americans can raise stress levels. After a while, some students may begin to wonder about how they will be accepted at home when they return with different dress, talk, and behavior. In essence, they worry about becoming foreigners in their own countries.


  • The Institute for International Teaching Assistants, a summer program offered by the Office of Graduate Studies, helps prepare international students for their roles as graduate teaching assistants.
  • The International Student and Scholar Office (ISSO) helps international students maintain their immigration status and comply with U.S. employment regulations, and assists UNL departments to retain their international students and researchers.

Suggestions for Students

  • Learn about American academic rules and regulations. Read the UNL Graduate Bulletin and make sure you understand what is expected. If you don't understand, ask your mentor, advisor, or someone in the Graduate Studies Office.
  • Although you may be tempted to spend social time with peers from your home country, look for opportunities to interact with other students as well. If you are still learning English, these interactions will help you practice and improve your language skills. You also may benefit from participating in a Conversation Partners Program.
  • Ask advanced graduate students to offer advice on how to navigate the UNL system. Their experiences will be recent and relevant.
  • Ask your peers or the professors themselves about the best ways to interact with your professors and mentors: in person, e-mail, phone, office hours, or group meetings. It is important to feel that your lines of communication are open as you adapt to a new environment.
  • Help your peers and faculty mentors learn that even international students who speak English very well can still experience cultural dissonance or confusion about U.S. graduate education.
  • Be aware that the rules governing graduate studies and funding in the United States may be different from those in other countries. Most students have a single country visa that prohibits them from traveling freely outside the United States. Also, they cannot work for pay, except for TA or RA positions. If you have questions about your program's requirements, speak with your graduate program coordinator or department chair. If you have questions about international student travel or work, contact the International Affairs Office.
  • Talk with faculty about your past training and point out the new demands you face from the American educational system. If it is hard for you to jump into classroom discussions, ask if they will help you acclimate by calling on you for specific responses, or suggest some other strategy.
  • If you find it difficult to converse via e-mail, let faculty know that seeing facial and body expressions helps your understanding. Most faculty will be willing to accommodate your needs, but first they must know what those needs are.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Encourage international students to read the UNL Graduate Bulletin and be available to help them understand what is expected if they come to you for advice.
  • Help international students acclimate to your seminars by occasionally calling on them to participate in discussion. Assure them, especially those who are the most quiet, that you are stimulating dialogue and not singling them out.
  • Reserve extra time outside of seminars or labs to interact with international students. Ask them about their research and outside interests, their families, how they are adjusting, and what education is like in their home countries.
  • Realize that not all international students have difficulties with English; many of them were trained in English-speaking institutions, and for others, English is their first language.
  • By the same token, avoid assuming that if an international student speaks English well, he or she does not experience cultural dissonance or confusion about how U.S. education works.
  • Offer a variety of ways for international students to meet with you so students with different levels of linguistic competence can choose how to communicate with you comfortably: in person, by e-mail, phone, scheduled office hours, or group meetings.
  • Make it a point to introduce new international graduate students to more advanced international students, and to U.S. graduate students with international experience.
  • Be aware that the rules governing graduate studies and funding in the U.S. may be different from those in other countries. Most students have a single-country visa that prohibits them from traveling. They also cannot work for pay, except for TA and RA positions, and are excluded from many U.S.-based fellowships. If you have questions about your program's requirements, speak with your graduate program coordinator or department chair. If you have questions about your students' travel or work, contact the Office for International Affairs.
  • If you have ever traveled to another country, recall how you had to rely on others' assistance to acclimate to the language and customs. Offer international students the same courtesies you found helpful.

Race and ethnicity

Race and ethnicity are important factors that shape the academic, social, and professional experiences on campus of faculty and graduate students alike. Although the racial and ethnic diversity of the UNL graduate student population has been increasing over the last 20 years, the campus community as a whole remains relatively homogenous.

One reason is that efforts to enhance the pipeline of students at primary and secondary levels preparing for higher education have been well-meaning, but sporadic and limited. Another reason is that disciplinary programs are still learning how to expand their student recruitment and outreach efforts. Thus, ethnic minority graduate students at UNL can feel marginalized, not only in the student population but in how research problems and curricula reflect, or fail to reflect, their scholarly influence and experiences.

We need more role models of faculty and students who engage in multicultural scholarship, research, and teaching so as to make diversity awareness and support structures in graduate training more explicit.

Role models

When students enter a large and complex research university, they can experience feelings of isolation or become overwhelmed. One of the first things students do is seek out people with whom they can identify in order to temper those feelings. This search can be especially challenging for students of color because the dearth of minority faculty, and of white faculty who resonate with their academic and sociocultural experiences, makes it difficult to find role models in their fields. It is not the case that ethnic minorities only want other ethnic minorities as professors and mentors. Rather, they seek to find affinity with role models who have "paved the way," who actively work through the dissonances between their home communities and the academic community, and who can help students do the same. Mentors help students see pathways to their own futures more clearly. When one of the few faculty of color leaves UNL for another university, minority students can feel the impact — it often means losing a potential supporter of their work.


Stereotypes still exist on campus and there is a great need to eliminate unexamined assumptions. Stereotypes are particularly burdensome to graduate students of color, not least because many have worked hard to overcome significant barriers to get to graduate school. A stereotype they worry about is whether other graduate students and faculty will have low expectations of them. This stereotype makes minority students feel awkward when seeking advice and guidance. Another harmful stereotype is that "all ethnic minorities are alike" or have the same goals for graduate school and thus experience the same challenges. This lumping together of outlooks or abilities creates an environment that compromises collegial interaction and undermines students' individual needs and talents.

Lack of an explicit support system

At least two kinds of support are necessary for students, and students of color in particular, to succeed. The first is sufficient financial support and the other is environmental support, including mentoring and networking. It is dangerous for departments to assume that students automatically "know" how to navigate the system or pursue support in such areas as grant writing, locating assistantships, and establishing networks with potential mentors. Marginalized students may have fewer direct channels to such sources. Students in a number of programs have found ways to form groups to address these issues.

Exclusion from support networks

Underrepresented students on fellowships often are inadvertently overlooked for teaching and research assistantships. As a result, they experience fewer opportunities for collegial, career-building interactions with faculty and peers who may be student instructors or research assistants. They also miss out on how such teaching and research assignments can enhance graduate training and strengthen their curricula vitae.


If you find that stereotyping exceeds your ability to manage it:

Suggestions for Students

  • Reflect on how you have been socialized to think about race and ethnicity. Increase your awareness, socially and academically, by attending some of the numerous diversity forums on campus each year, and bring ideas for community building back to your department.
  • Understand that graduate students from different racial and ethnic groups confront different issues and challenges in their programs, without assuming all students from a given racial or ethnic group have the same perspectives or needs.
  • Eliminate stereotypes in your behavior by recognizing your peers' unique strengths.
  • Inform yourself about scholarly advances that have resulted from the inclusion of multicultural research, knowledge, and perspectives in your discipline. Become aware of the challenges such advances pose to faculty and students pursuing them.
  • Reach out to students of color in seminars, discussions, and group assignments. Collaborate on research or teaching projects and look for opportunities to present these projects in departmental forums or disciplinary meetings.
  • Ask your department to offer workshops on financial support, mentoring, diversity, community building, success strategies, and other matters important to your success. Offer to help department personnel organize these kinds of events.
  • Consult the Graduate Studies web pages for listings of academic, professional, and community resources you can use to navigate the graduate student experience.
  • Talk with your mentors about ways they can help you achieve a broad range of professional development experiences. If you are a student of color on a fellowship, let faculty and peers know you are interested in guest lecturing or collaborating in different lab groups.
  • Familiarize yourself with minority peers and white peers inside and outside your department who can help expand your networks.
  • Gain exposure by joining student policy, curricular, or cultural groups. Serve and shape the needs of your community by being a student representative at faculty meetings, joining the Graduate Student Organization, or leading writing, study, or teaching groups.
  • Become involved with national networks for underrepresented minorities and women students. Identify national conferences for underrepresented groups and share these with your department chair. Consider asking for financial assistance to attend.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Reflect on how you have been socialized to think about race and ethnicity and make efforts to increase your awareness, socially and academically.
  • Inform yourself about scholarly advances in your discipline resulting from the inclusion of multicultural research and perspectives. Think about the challenges these advances pose to your discipline and to scholars.
  • Become a role model for students of color, regardless of your ethnic background. Learning more about minority students' needs will enable you to carry out this role. Also, build more explicit connections to faculty of color in or outside your department and expose your students to their work and ideas.
  • Seek, first and foremost, to understand students' individual needs. Students from different race and ethnic groups face issues and experiences differently than white students. At the same time, avoid assuming that all students from a given racial or ethnic group have the same perspectives or needs.
  • Be aware of negative classroom dynamics and the ways they may affect the experiences of all students.
  • Explicitly recognize each minority student's unique strengths and scholarly promise. Talk to students about their strengths and help them improve in other areas.
  • Offer minority students a breadth of possibilities for scholarly interactions: leading discussions, collaborating on projects, designing workshops, and presenting research at campus forums or disciplinary meetings. This allows students to show their strengths and learn new skills.
  • Make sure your department offers at least one workshop per quarter on financial support, mentoring, community building, success strategies, and other issues of importance to all students, particularly those of color. Use e-mail, newsletters, or posters to publicize helpful resources available from the Graduate Studies Office and other campus units.
  • Help your department create a policy of providing varied and developmental assistantships to all graduate students, including students of color on fellowships. Broad exposure to different kinds of academic work is just as important as deep exposure to a research problem.
  • Use informal assignments to broaden graduate students' experience, such as being student representatives in policy, curricular, and faculty meetings, or leading various writing, research, or teaching groups.
  • Familiarize yourself with minority colleagues and white faculty both in and outside your department who may help extend all students' networks.
  • Learn about national networks for underrepresented minorities in your discipline and participate in them.

Sexual orientation and gender identity

Many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) students are members of our community. Unlike other underrepresented students, many GLBT students are "invisible" because sexual orientation and gender identity are not always determined through physical expression, or because some students choose not to be out. Some students do talk about their sexual orientation or gender identity openly. Mentors have the responsibility, regardless of their own sexual orientations, to maximize learning and professional opportunities for all their protégés. You can help your academic community eliminate, or be more aware, of the following:


Even within a fairly accepting climate such as ours, GLBT students can still encounter homophobia around campus. Behaviors can range from the blatantly offensive, such as verbal or physical threats or attacks, to the less obvious, such as the casual remark "that is so gay" in classroom or hallway conversations.


Many graduate students and professors discuss topics with the unconscious assumption that everyone is heterosexual. Even some straight faculty and students who have a heightened awareness of gender issues might still talk about the world from a heterosexual perspective. GLBT students experience such scholarly discussions as biased, and the absence of GLBT perspectives can make them feel isolated from opportunities for intellectual engagement.


Similarly, many people on campus assume that all individuals identify fully with the gender in which they were raised. Genderism is the assumption that male and female assignments of gender are fixed at birth. This is not the case for every person. Gender biases in classrooms and departments (e.g., saying "it" to refer to individuals of ambiguous gender; gendered bathrooms) are oppressive to individuals who feel the need to alter their gender identity.


Being out as a GLBT student is not a one-time event, but a decision experienced in each new social situation. Each new interaction comes with the burden of having to assess the personal, social, and political ramifications of disclosure. Heterosexual students do not bear this weight when interacting with peers and professors.


To learn about special programs and activities for GLBT graduate students:

Suggestions for Students

  • Assume that GLBT students or faculty are present in every classroom, lab, seminar, or campus meeting, and that they might not feel safe being out.
  • Assess your department's environment and your level of comfort with being out if you are a GLBT student. Find out who your allies are and utilize them.
  • Ask peers and mentors whom you know to be out to suggest how department members can create an environment conducive to everyone's learning and professional needs.
  • Establish standards for inclusive language and communication collaboratively with your peers and professors.
  • Avoid homophobic, gendered, sexist, or other discriminatory comments. For example, when talking about families, avoid talking as if every family were composed of a husband, wife, and children. Use words like spouse and partner instead of just spouse or husband or wife. These terms go a long way in letting GLBT students and unmarried students know they are represented in discussions.
  • Treat sexual orientation as a multidimensional phenomenon in your relationships with peers and mentors. Understand that homosexuality is only one of several expressions of sexual orientation, and that gender identity may not be fixed for everyone.
  • Encourage your department to put GLBT concerns on the agenda for graduate student orientations and training programs for faculty and staff.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Assume that GLBT students are present in every classroom, lab, seminar, or campus meeting in which you participate and that they might not feel safe being out.
  • Establish standards for language use and communication when you interact with graduate students. Convey that your goal in doing so is to ensure an environment that is conducive to effective learning and achievement.
  • Avoid using examples that are exclusive to heterosexual experiences. For example, when talking about families, avoid talking as if every family were composed of a husband, wife, and children. Words like "spouse" and "partner" instead of just "spouse" or "husband" or "wife" go a long way in assuring that GLBT students and students who are single are represented in discussions.
  • Ask students whom you know are out to discuss with you how best to address their learning and professional needs. Ask them if they are willing to foster discussions about how sexual orientation in academic settings can be handled productively.
  • Realize that your mentoring is more effective if you develop sensitivity to sexual orientation as a multi-dimensional phenomenon. That is, homosexuality is only one of several expressions of sexual orientation.
  • Discuss how discriminatory remarks impede the learning process, not only of GLBT students but of all students.
  • Encourage your department to put GLBT concerns on the agenda of graduate student orientations and faculty and staff training programs.

Socioeconomic background

Students come to graduate school from a variety of socioeconomic trajectories, determined either by their parents' educational and occupational circumstances or by their own occupational histories. Some students delay higher education in order to earn and save money, gain professional experience, or support their families. Socioeconomic background is a largely "invisible" but important factor that influences students' mentoring needs. Rural or inner-city origins; growing up in a blue-collar family; being raised by a single, struggling parent or in a very large family; low family income; and family unemployment are all factors that can put students at an educational disadvantage.

Quite often, graduate students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are the first in their family to complete an undergraduate degree.  The fortitude these students develop to perseverance and pursue their academic ambitions is a highly desirable quality for success in graduate school. The effects of a disadvantaged background do not stop, however, just because a student has entered graduate school. Students who experienced hardships earlier in life need mentoring that is attentive to their concerns.

Economic concerns

Students from working-class backgrounds often cannot turn to family members for monetary support throughout graduate school. What is more, some students carry responsibilities for financially or physically supporting their parents, siblings, or other relatives while obtaining a degree. It is common for these students to feel the need to work additional jobs outside of their departments, even if they have graduate fellowships or appointments.

Access to professional networks

Graduate students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds can experience greater difficulties accessing or creating professional networks in academe. They might not have had as many opportunities to develop these relationships as their peers from more advantaged backgrounds, especially those peers who grew up in academic families. This disparity surfaces most pointedly when students struggle with the costs of financing travel to professional conferences or the need to seek summer employment each year.

Summer professional opportunities

Students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds often face having to disrupt their academic training during the summer. Because of financial constraints, they may seek better-paying jobs off campus instead of accepting low- or no-pay (but academically relevant) internships. Outside employment temporarily distances them from their studies, and fears of falling behind can arise. Professors who are unaware of their students' financial situations can inadvertently misconstrue interest in outside employment as a lack of commitment to academic study.

Difference in background experiences

Some students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds can find it intimidating to hear about the spring break or summer travel experiences of fellow students. Those in the arts, humanities, and social sciences can feel especially vulnerable knowing that some of their peers have traveled to, or even lived in, the foreign countries they are studying.

Disconnection with family and friends

Like many other graduate students, those from disadvantaged backgrounds probably have had to move away from their families. Once a student becomes socialized into the discipline, talking with old friends and family about scholarship or academe may be difficult. Some relatives might have trouble relating to the way a student talks about scholarly endeavors or might wonder why the student is not working in a "real job." This communication gap can cause graduate students to feel disconnected because they feel less comfortable in their old worlds but not yet settled into their new ones.

Suggestions for Students

  • Try to learn from faculty and more experienced students about the ways academic networking works.
  • Be alert to and creative about funding opportunities, especially for the summer period. Well before the spring semester, be sure to ask your mentors and professors about their resources and how they can help you strategize for continuous support during your degree program.
  • Ask your professors to put books or course packets on reserve at the library or in the department to help reduce expenses.
  • Take pride in your scholarly accomplishments and share the news of your work in language that your friends and family back home can relate to.
  • Encourage and support all your peers' dreams and aspirations, just as you expect your mentors and peers to support yours.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Be aware that not all students have had the same opportunities to learn how to create networks to support their academic and career goals. Make an extra effort to introduce your students to people you know can help them expand their networks.
  • Be alert to funding opportunities for your students, especially for the summer period, and alert them to opportunities as far in advance as possible so they can plan effectively.
  • Put books or course packets on reserve so that students do not always have to buy their own copies.
  • Enrich the discussions students have with you and with each other by having them share perspectives from a variety of experiences — travel, study, work, international friends, family stories, etc.