Skills in this area are easier to develop as a graduate student than you think. Like teaching, mentoring requires skills that emphasize support, respect, constructive feedback, character and integrity. Mentors help mentees clarify goals (career, learning, educational) and carry out a plan to achieve those goals. Mentors guide and direct, share insights and knowledge, and show interest and enthusiasm in the development of their mentees. For more, see the UNL Mentoring Handbook. It's written for both mentors and mentees.

a mentoring discussion
Image by Janne Moren, under Creative Commons by-nc-sa 2.0
For more, see the UNL Mentoring Handbook.
It's written for mentors and mentees.

A skillful mentor…

  • Supports others.
  • Encourages excellence.
  • Is enthusiastic.
  • Demonstrates respect and professionalism in all interactions.
  • Employs effective listening skills.
  • Builds constructive relationships characterized by mutual respect and cooperation.
  • Shows sensitivity to the needs of others.
  • Is interested in sharing expertise.
  • Uses good judgment.
  • Resolves difficult or complicated problems.
  • Thinks creatively.
  • Holds both him/herself and the mentee accountable.
  • Has an ongoing commitment to learning and development.

If you’re teaching a course or working with an undergraduate student in a laboratory or on a research project, here are guidelines for good mentoring. Use them to determine what mentoring skills you have and those you still need to develop.


  • Encourage students to discuss their ideas; even those ideas students might fear are naïve or "crazy."
  • Work with students to set specific goals and measures of accomplishment. For example, help students set reasonable writing deadlines that ensure successful completion of a journal article or research paper.
  • Teach students to break large tasks into smaller ones to avoid being overwhelmed by the nature of school/research work.
  • Give students enough space to be creative. Don’t rush in too quickly with interpretations of data or solutions to problems. By doing this, you prepare your trainees to work through projects independently, and you benefit from their insights and creativity.
  • Let students know it’s okay to make mistakes. Remind them how much we learn from our failures.


  • Acknowledge the skills and experience students bring with them to the classroom or the laboratory.
  • Give students your full attention when talking with them. Minimize interruptions during your meetings with them so they can experience more personalized time.
  • Develop a system for remembering previous conversations with a student and review those notes prior to scheduled meetings.
  • Tell students what you learn from them. This may help them realize they are potential colleagues.

Constructive Feedback

  • Provide students with forthright assessments of their work. Don’t assume students know what you think about their work.
  • Provide feedback on a student’s work in a timely manner; a delayed response to their work can hinder their progress.
  • If students fall behind in their work, don't automatically assume this reflects a lack of commitment. Talk with them to learn what's going on. Perhaps they're exhausted, are unclear about what they're supposed to do next, or maybe dislike the project they're working on. Maybe they feel overwhelmed, socially isolated, or are experiencing family problems.

Character and Integrity

  • Recognize that those new to research are still forming their professional beliefs and habits. They'll be watching you, trying to learn your way of doing things.
  • Set high standards for yourself and your protégés. Offer a supportive, yet disciplined, learning environment.