Strengthening the Mentor Relationship

Published: Tues., March 24, 2020

Effective advising and mentoring are a cornerstone of successful graduate education. Advisers are responsible for supporting and overseeing students’ scholarly and professional development. Doing so requires careful listening in order to understand the student’s goals and provide useful and timely feedback and guidance for achieving those goals. The best advising can also include mentoring, an active process by which faculty advisers establish and foster structured and trusting relationships with graduate students by offering guidance, support, and encouragement aimed at developing their competence and character. Mentors act as advocates and role models for their students and are committed to helping graduate students meet their personal and professional goals.

When you first started graduate school, you may have been assigned an adviser or mentor. This is likely a faculty member in your department but you may also have a mentor who is another colleague or professional who you rely on for advice about teaching, professional or career goals, or for other reasons. Whether you already have a mentor and hope to build on that relationship or you want to establish a new mentor, there are many things you can do now.

Reflect on your strengths and needs

At the beginning of a mentor relationship it is important to evaluate your strengths and needs and how that mentor may be able to help you. However, if you already have a mentor it is equally important to touch base with where you are now and if and how your needs have shifted. By yourself first reflect on the following questions:

  1. What are your professional goals?
  2. What are your strengths?
  3. What skills could a mentor help you develop?
  4. What kind of relationship do you expect to have with your mentor?
  5. How often do you expect to talk with your mentor? What do you want to discuss with them?

Using an Individual Development Plan will help you answer some of these questions. We also recommend that you then bring that IDP to the meeting when you meet in person or virtually.

Discuss your expectations

What do you expect to get from the mentor relationship? What should they expect from you? These are all important questions to have with your mentor. How frequently do you plan to meet? If you only meet sporadically, what do you expect to happen in between meetings? Will you be working on a project together or will they mostly be there to help you identify and complete activities to build your skill sets. Outlining these expectations now will help ensure there are no miscommunications later on.

Communicate regularly

Good mentors and mentees talk regularly. This might be in person or via Zoom or Skype. Staying in close contact lets your mentor know what going on with you and makes sure that they can help you as you develop or if you encounter challenges or questions. Depending on your preferences and that of your mentor, some of this conversation might focus on your personal life in addition to your professional life. If there are things your mentor needs to understand about your background or personal life that might affect how they work with you, it is important to have an open and honest conversation about those topics. When problems emerge, talk through them. Lack of communication can often exacerbate existing issues.

Look for additional mentors as needed

Rarely can one mentor answer all of your questions. You may find that there are questions you need an additional mentor to help with. For example, maybe your mentor is excellent for supporting your research development, but is less knowledgeable for teaching skills. For this reason, you might seek a second mentor who you can talk with over teaching skills. This may be another professor in your department or it could be a professor, staff member or another colleague who you know in another capacity. Not all your mentors will come from the same place. You may have mentors from outside departments or from other universities.