Thinking About Mentoring Needs

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

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

Develop your own vision of good mentoring

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

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

Students

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

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

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

Faculty

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

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

Recognize the basics of good mentoring

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

A good mentor will do the following:

Engage students in ongoing conversations

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

Demystify graduate school for students

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

Provide constructive and supportive feedback

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

Provide encouragement

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

Foster networks and multiple mentors

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

Look out for students' interests

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

Treat students with respect

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

Provide a personal touch

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

Students say. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student: Heed good advice

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

Be proactive

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

Seek out multiple mentors

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

Develop realistic approaches to mentors

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

Be visible

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

Show commitment to your professional development

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

Faculty: Encourage departments to strengthen mentoring

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

Develop a mentoring policy

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

Assign a first-year, temporary adviser

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

Establish peer mentoring

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

Establish multiple mentoring mechanisms

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

And, finally, reward effective mentoring!

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