Recognize the basics of good mentoring

There are several ways to recognize good mentoring. Faculty who have received awards for outstanding mentoring are excellent models. Advanced graduate students and alumni are also excellent sources of insight into what helps them function optimally in graduate school.

A good mentor will do the following:

Engage students in ongoing conversations

  • Invite students to talk often, and welcome them to discussions during office hours, in the lab, department lounges, or hallways. Ask them how they are doing with coursework or projects.
  • Get in touch with students at least once a quarter. Reach out to those who seem remote and be sensitive to whether remoteness is a cultural way of showing respect or due to social isolation.
  • Share coffee or meals away from the office, if you are able, to engage students in informal and rich discussions without office distractions.

Demystify graduate school for students

  • Make sure students obtain the most recent copies of your program's guidelines and the Graduate Bulletin.
  • Clarify unwritten or vague aspects of your program's expectations for coursework, comprehensive exams, research, and teaching.
  • Help students grasp the finer points of forming a committee and how to approach a thesis or dissertation. At each stage of the graduate experience, discuss the formal and informal criteria that determine what counts as quality work.
  • Alert students to pitfalls well ahead of time, especially those that may affect funding or graduate standing.

Provide constructive and supportive feedback

  • Provide students with frank, helpful, and timely feedback on their work.
  • Temper criticism with praise when it is deserved, and hold students to high standards to help them improve.
  • Do not assume that students who falls behind in work lack of commitment. Instead try to assess, with the student, what is going on and offer ways to help.
  • Know the benefits of early intervention and address quickly any question about a student's ability to complete his or her degree.

Provide encouragement

  • Encourage students to come forward with their ideas at all stages of development.
  • Motivate students to try new techniques and expand their skills.
  • Remind students that mistakes lead to better learning.
  • Share less-than-successful professional experiences and the lessons you learned from them.
  • Know that many students experience anxiety about their place in graduate school (e.g., the imposter syndrome), and help them understand that even seasoned professionals experience this kind of anxiety.
  • Teach students how to break down potentially overwhelming projects into smaller, more manageable tasks.

Foster networks and multiple mentors

  • Help students locate assistance from multiple sources of expertise, and see UNL faculty, graduate students, alumni, department staff, retired faculty, and faculty from other universities as rich resources.
  • Introduce students to faculty and other graduate students with complementary interests, both on campus and at conferences.
  • Help students connect their work with that of experts in the community (e.g., graduate alumni) who can provide helpful career perspectives.
  • Build a community of scholars by coordinating informal discussion and interest groups or occasional social events among students who share interests.

Look out for students' interests

  • Convey through a variety of means that you want students to succeed.
  • Create opportunities for students to demonstrate their competencies by encouraging them to present at meetings, conferences, and in university forums.
  • Nominate your protégés for high-visibility fellowships, projects, teaching and internship opportunities.
  • Promote students' research and teaching projects inside and outside the department.
  • Be an advocate for all graduate students.

Treat students with respect

  • Minimize interruptions and distractions during meetings with students. Be aware of body language that students may interpret as inattention.
  • Remember previous conversations with students (perhaps keep notes on all your discussions and review them prior to meetings with your protégé).
  • Tell students what you learn from them, to help them see themselves as potential colleagues.
  • Acknowledge the prior skills and personal and professional experiences students bring to graduate school.

Provide a personal touch

  • Be open and approachable. Demonstrate caring, even when students need to discuss nonacademic issues.
  • Do not assume that all students experience the challenges of graduate school in the same way; help them find creative solutions to their challenges or problems.
  • Keep abreast of the mentoring and professional development resources at the Office of Graduate Studies and elsewhere designed to help students succeed.

Students say. . .

"The message my mentor sent was that I had value enough for her to spend time with me."

"The most important things my mentor did were spending time talking with me and taking an interest in things interesting to me."

"It has been extremely helpful to me to have a mentor who recognized that academic procedures and protocol — everything from how to select classes to how to assemble a panel for a conference — are not familiar territory for a lot of people."

"My mentor has been willing to answer the most basic questions without making me feel foolish for asking them."

"I wrote several drafts before he felt I had begun to make a cogent argument, and as painful as that was, I would not have written the dissertation that I did without receiving strong, if just, criticism, but in a compassionate way."

"Honest advice, given as gently as possible, is something all of us graduate students need."

"Mentorship is far more than a one-time conversation about your career plans or a visit to a professor's home. It is the mentor's continuous engagement in a student's professional growth and the ongoing support and encouragement of a student's academic endeavors."

"My professors encouraged me both to publish my work and to participate in conferences. Without their encouragement, I might not have made the effort to accomplish these things."

"My co-chair referred me to a faculty member doing related research at a time when my research was floundering and I really needed additional support. I could not have completed my dissertation were it not for this recommendation."

"My advisors really made a team of their graduate students, having regular meetings and informal parties and get-togethers, working on projects together, and forming interest groups. That comradeship was essential to my academic growth and my sense of having a community."

"My mentor allowed my tasks to grow along with me, offering appropriate opportunities and challenges at each stage of my education."

"I knew that I was not just an ordinary student when she invited me to co-teach with her. We worked together as colleagues, not as teacher and student."

"She treated me and her other students with respect — respect for our opinions, our independence, and our visions of what we wanted to get from graduate school."

"It sounds silly but the best thing my mentor did for me was to actually sit down and listen to what I had to say. When graduate students are allowed to feel that what they have to say is actually worthwhile, it makes interactions more rewarding."

"Having someone supportive when things go wrong is the difference, in my mind, between an adequate mentor and a great one."

"A few of my professors were always willing and eager to talk with me about my career interests, professional pursuits, and issues such as juggling career and family. This may not sound like much, but it truly makes a difference."