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.