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 email@example.com. 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
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.
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.
Use the resources on this page to help you and your mentors make the most of your mentoring relationship.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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).
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 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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
(Bellows and Perry, 2005)
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:
Mentoring enables faculty members to:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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 are my strengths and weaknesses?
What is my preferred work style?
Graduate students can identify potential faculty mentors within or outside their departments using a variety of formal and informal means.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Make the transition from thinking of yourself as a bright student to seeing yourself as a potential colleague.
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..."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.")
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.