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.