Faculty: Encourage departments to strengthen mentoring

Departmental faculty members, chairs, and graduate chairs share a collective responsibility to establish and maintain a culture of effective mentoring. While this culture will differ from department to department, there are some common elements of effective mentoring environments. Consider implementing the following strategies to help your department optimize its mentoring resources and nurture productive relationships between faculty and graduate students.

Develop a mentoring policy

It is wise for departments to construct a policy that focuses on effective mentoring as a core component of the graduate student experience. Such a policy is most effective when it emerges from the creative ideas and good will of the faculty, which a few interviews with mentoring focus groups can cultivate. In this way, all members of a department can identify principles of mentoring and agree on how they will institutionalize and reward good practice.

Assign a first-year, temporary adviser

Assign new students a temporary faculty adviser to help them initiate relationships with faculty during the first year of graduate school. Assignments can be based on shared interests and should require each temporary adviser to meet with advisees at least once a quarter to review any questions or concerns about departmental requirements, course selections, and how well the student is being socialized into department life. Such appointments should focus on ensuring that all students receive quality initial support in a systematic way. These temporary relationships allow students to learn the ropes without having to make premature commitments to a mentor. Later on, students' choices of long-term mentors or advisers will be better informed and based upon their developing research, teaching, and career interests.

Establish peer mentoring

In order to facilitate students' transition to life in graduate school, pair first-year graduate students with more advanced graduate students on the basis of similar interests. Peer mentors can help new students become familiar with departmental culture, strategies for success in the first year, and resources at the university and in Lincoln. Departments can support this effort by outlining the basic responsibilities of both peers to each other and to the mentoring process, and making funds available to support regular mentoring activities.

Establish multiple mentoring mechanisms

  • Rotate research mentors. Some departments require first- or second-year graduate students to work a certain number of hours per week on a project with a faculty member to receive specific training. The purpose of such experiences is for beginning students to gain exposure to different skills and intellectual problems, not to conduct independent research. Disciplines in the sciences and engineering often take this mechanism a step further by using a rotation system to expose graduate students early on to a range of professors' specializations.
  • Offer teaching mentors. Departments can assign a faculty mentor or two to observe TA classes periodically, help TAs progress instructionally, and offer suggestions for improvement. Some departments offer a special course for graduate students working as TAs. Faculty instructors lead group discussions on topics such as pedagogical issues, general or discipline-specific instructional techniques and curriculum development.
  • Connect with your graduate alumni. Your master's and Ph.D. alumni are prominent professionals in their fields with many resources, ideas, and energies to "give back" to your department and to current graduate students. Through speaker panels, alumni can share their visions of career prospects in academe, the public sector, and private industry. Through interactive workshops, alumni can help students explore the realities of a faculty career in different institutional contexts, or learn how to make disciplinary and intellectual skills marketable in various employment sectors.
  • Start a faculty-graduate student "brown bag" lunch program. Periodic faculty-graduate student lunches are a great way to help students develop relationships and discover mutual interests with a variety of professors. Lunches can be organized around topics, and departments can circulate professors' curricula vitae (or post them on department websites) to help students assess faculty members' research and teaching programs. Small groups that support individualized attention are most helpful.
  • Create community. Designate a special space, such as a lounge or a conference room, to foster a collegial and inviting atmosphere in which graduate students, faculty, staff, and their families can gather periodically for social opportunities. Use this space to honor the accomplishments of graduate students and faculty, such as publications, research, teaching and mentoring awards, or other professional and personal accolades.
  • Enhance professional socialization. Departments can do many things to help faculty mentors nurture the professional development of their graduate students. Invite students to participate on departmental committees, including hiring and admissions committees. Create formal opportunities for graduate students to present their teaching or research at departmental seminars or brown bags, and increase opportunities for practicing public speaking skills. Assigning one or two faculty members to provide students with constructive feedback increases the value of that feedback. Alumni speaker series, which celebrate the varied accomplishments of master's and doctoral alumni, are very effective for helping students network as well as construct ambitious yet realistic visions of their professional pathways.

And, finally, reward effective mentoring!

Departments that create rewards for excellent mentorship are usually in the best position to help their faculty turn good principles into action. For example, during reviews for merit increases, departments can take into account the quality and quantity of mentoring by asking faculty to document this information in their portfolio. Departments can also ask graduate students to assess their mentors. Another way to reward good mentors is to factor in teaching credits for faculty who have heavy mentoring responsibilities.