Developing Mentoring Relationships That Last

An effective mentoring relationship passes through phases of development. Early on, your mentor will recognize your unique qualities and your need for special coaching. In turn, this recognition should inspire you to seek out your mentor's support, skills and wisdom. Later, both of you will explore and deepen your working relationship, perhaps collaborating on projects while you develop into a junior colleague. At some point, you may grow in ways that require separation from your mentor, to test your own ideas. This distancing is a sign that the mentoring relationship is maturing and providing you with the skills you need to function independently. Finally, both you and your mentor may redefine your relationship as one of equals, characterized over time by informal contact. 

Your faculty mentor can help you: 

• become a contributing member of your discipline, helping you understand how your discipline has evolved in relation to other fields. 

• develop a variety of intellectual and professional skills, including those related to teaching and research, but also those required for leadership and collaboration. 

• understand job market realities and find ways to help you link your graduate work with other potential mentors beyond your department or field. 

Matt Giovanni, a UNL doctoral student in agronomy, has developed a valuable relationship with his mentors and offers some sound advice for all graduate students to follow in developing mentoring relationships.

Matt suggests thinking about mentors who are a good match for you in terms of the skills, attitudes, knowledge and background they bring to the relationship. For Matt, those qualities are “a personable disposition, effective communication skills and ENTHUSIASM – because it's contagious!” 

Matt’s current mentors at UNL (as well as past advisers) have all “achieved a well-balanced professional and personal relationship with me. This is important since grad students should undergo not only professional growth but also personal transformation and progress.” 

Good mentoring isn’t easy to measure in objective terms, because each mentor and protégée need to develop ways of working together that suit their needs and expectations. Matt believes his mentors have best helped his academic and professional development by “providing encouragement and recognition of success when appropriate, but not in excess or too seldom,” and creating “a receptive and non-intimidating atmosphere for communication.” 

Matt advises new graduate students, to meet frequently with mentors and learn how to “optimize your communications. Stay on the same page always, and don't underestimate the value of discussion, because it's critical.” 

A successful mentoring arrangement at this stage of your academic career also can teach you a great deal about your future role as a faculty member or professional and how to prepare yourself as a potential mentor. 

Jordan Soliz, assistant professor of communication studies, emphasizes the value of developing your philosophy of advising and mentoring graduate students. “Considering that many academic appointments will include graduate mentoring,” he says, your approach to this aspect of your job is something you “want to consider as part of your graduate education.” He encourages graduate students to reflect on three key questions to help them shape a mentoring philosophy: 

• All of us have (or know colleagues who have had) extremely positive and not-so-positive experiences working with advisors. Learn from these experiences – what approaches and perspectives do you want to emulate or even disregard? 

• Based on your experiences, what are the benefits and drawbacks of graduate student-faculty research collaborations? Reflecting on these experiences, how might you want to approach collaborative research and research teams? 

• In your opinion, what is the role of a graduate adviser? There are a variety of mentoring roles an adviser can embrace ranging from enhancing a student’s knowledge of subject matter to advising about major—often non-academic—life decisions. What role are you comfortable with and how will this influence your approach to mentoring? 

Matt has “learned the importance of serving as a mentor and teacher to undergraduates in a professional but personable and mutually respectful manner, which has really benefited our classroom and research relationships.” 

For more information on mentoring, see UNL’s Graduate Student Mentoring Guidebook.

Eight Points for Developing a Positive Working Relationship with Your Faculty Mentor 

1. Talk to your faculty mentor early in your relationship about expectations and working arrangements: How frequently will you meet face to face? How closely will you work with a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow in addition to the faculty mentor? What blocks of time, hours of the day, or hours per week, consecutive weeks or semesters will you work? How will you be trained? Will you attend lab or research group meetings, and, if so, will you need to prepare something for them? Will you work in the lab or research area, or is there work you may take home to complete? What kind of final product will you produce? 

2. Be active and responsible in initiating and organizing one-on-one communication: set meeting agendas, prioritize issues you want to discuss, be a leader in discussions. 

3. Work with your faculty mentor to set short- and long-term goals and deadlines for the different stages of your project. 

4. Learn your faculty mentor’s communication habits: when does e-mail suffice, when must you meet face to face, and when – if ever – may you call her or him at home? 

5. Consider sending your mentor summaries of meetings (agreements, assignments, work outlines), restating tasks and the division of labor. 

6. Always read books or articles your faculty mentor recommends to you, and share your responses. Take suggestions seriously and let your mentor know that his or her time with you is well-spent. 

7. Be curious and share your knowledge. The more you do so, the more seriously your work and aspirations will be regarded. 

8. Always express your thanks after the faculty mentor has taken the time to meet with you. Send a thank you note or an e-mail stating what you gained from the interaction and how it will help you move ahead in your plans.