A mentor's varied roles

Mentors play many roles in students' lives to help them succeed; these include "guide," "counselor," "advisor," "consultant," "tutor," "teacher," and "guru." A mentor's particular combination of professional expertise, personal style, and approach to facilitating learning influences the kind of mentoring he or she provides. A mentor will wear several "hats" over the course of his or her students' professional development, and might be comfortable wearing many hats at once, or only one or two at a time. Whatever the case, it is important to remember that effective mentoring, like wisdom itself, is multidimensional, and that mentors play three core roles that are essential to advancing the educational, professional, and personal growth of graduate students.

Three core roles

1. Disciplinary guide

As noted earlier, sometimes a faculty member will be both a thesis/dissertation advisor and mentor; in other cases, the student benefits more by having different people carry out each role. Either way, the role of a disciplinary guide is to help students become contributing members of their disciplines.

This guidance goes well beyond helping them complete the requirements of their academic programs, as important as that assistance is. It is deeper and involves helping students understand how a discipline has evolved as a knowledge enterprise; recognize novel questions; identify innovative ways of engaging undergraduate students through teaching and collaborative research projects; and see the discipline, its questions and methodologies, in relation to other fields.

Another important role of the disciplinary guide is to help students grasp the impact of the discipline on the world outside academe, and to assist them in pursuing the impact they desire to have with a graduate degree.

2. Skills development consultant

While graduate study, especially at the doctoral level, is about learning to generate knowledge, the pressures for specialization can make students temporarily lose sight of the array of skills they need to succeed both during and after graduate school, in part because of the relative intensity and isolation of research. As a skills consultant, a mentor's role is to help students develop the intellectual and professional skills they will need, beyond those related to research. Some of these are:

  • Oral and written communication skills. These include clearly expressing the results of one's work; translating field-specific knowledge for application in varied contexts, such as teaching or interacting with the public; and persuading others, such as funders, policy makers, organizations, and conference audiences, of the value of one's work.
  • Team-oriented skills. Some of the most innovative learning occurs in teams that problem solve collaboratively. Increasingly, complex problems require inter-disciplinary or multidisciplinary solutions. A mentor can help a student develop collaborative, problem-solving skills by organizing group exercises and projects.
  • Leadership skills. Graduate students are prime candidates to become intellectual leaders in any number of settings. Mentors can help them build potential by inviting them to assume leadership roles throughout graduate study; e.g., in seminars, graduate student government, disciplinary societies, outreach to the community, and on departmental or university committees. These activities will help build people skills — listening to others, shaping ideas, and expressing priorities — which are indispensable for advancement in any career.

3. Career consultant

In recent years, the mentor's role as career consultant has taken on increased importance, especially for doctoral students. As a result, many doctoral students are choosing challenging positions in a greater variety of educational settings and diverse sectors of the economy.

As a career consultant, a mentor can help a protégé develop an evolutionary view of his or her career, which requires planning, flexibility, and adaptation to change. Informed of the job market realities, an effective mentor finds ways to help students link aspects of their graduate work with other potential mentors — alumni or other professionals in colleges, universities, schools, community groups, the private sector, nonprofit organizations, government, and industrial laboratories.

Wider relationships can help students explore a multitude of career choices, and learn how to translate their graduate education into various kinds of professional opportunities. With a modest investment of time, mentors and protégés can stay abreast of postgraduate employment trends both inside and outside the academy.

Mentoring teams

It would be impossible for one mentor to fulfill equally well all these mentoring roles for each and every protégé, but faculty can help and encourage students to form multiple mentoring relationships inside and outside UNL with their peers, more advanced graduate students, departmental staff, retired faculty, faculty from other departments, faculty from other universities, and friends from outside the academy.

Multiple sources of expertise improve students' abilities to marshal the many resources they need to meet challenges during and after their graduate education. To make the most of mentoring, students and mentors should have thoughtful discussions about the assistance students need to navigate their educational experience, adapt to disciplinary cultures, and become productive, fulfilled professionals and colleagues.

Rather than trying to find one mentor, students should think of their task as building a mentoring team. Carefully selecting a team of mentors that fits their own needs increases the likelihood they will benefit from the experiences and support they desire. A team also can serve as a safety net in case any one of the professors leaves the University, or if irreconcilable issues later develop between a student and a mentor.

Be creative about who you include on your team. Although this guide focuses on faculty mentors, you can expand your professional network of mentors to include your peers, more advanced graduate students, departmental staff, retired faculty, faculty from other departments, faculty from other universities, and friends from outside the academy as potential mentors. All can help fulfill your needs and serve as part of your professional network.

The team approach will likely be an informal one. That is, the mentors may or may not see themselves as part of a formal team. Individuals drawn from varied fields or professional sectors might not even know each other, at least not initially. It is up to the student to decide if there are advantages to introducing mentors to each other by proposing collaborative work.