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

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

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

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

What are the student's strengths and weaknesses?

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

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

What is the student's preferred work style?

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

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

What does your protégé want to know about you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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