Student: Initial meetings

Having completed your self-appraisal, and having thought carefully about the range of individuals who can offer you mentoring, you have acquired deeper insight into your aspirations and the resources available to help you realize them.

You are now ready to initiate contact with potential mentors to discuss your aspirations and familiarize yourself with their professional accomplishments. In initial meetings, your goals are to make a positive impression, establish a good rapport, and assess whether the person is a good fit for you.

As you prepare for initial conversations, reflect on the following topics to trigger ideas about what is important to you and your mentor. Your first meetings should be exploratory: you are only taking the first step. Remember, a mentoring relationship evolves over time and often arises out of a particular need. You can extend more explicit mentoring invitations down the road, after some initial planning (see Worksheet 3, Planning for first meetings).


What potential mentors may want to know about you

Faculty look for a variety of qualities in graduate students. This list can help you better understand how to present yourself and may trigger ideas about topics of conversation for your initial meeting.

Mutual interests

Potential mentors will want to know if your intellectual interests are similar to theirs. Be prepared to share how your academic, professional, or personal experiences relate to theirs. Ask about their recent work, and explore ways in which their work interests intersect with what you envision for yourself.

Motivation and direction

Mentors enjoy protégés who are motivated and eager to move to the next level of their professional growth. State your goals as you see them right now. Ask about ways you can explore these goals together over time and about courses or key projects you should consider given your plan of study.


Potential mentors will want to know how well you will follow up with contacts and ideas they suggest. Be proactive. Ask them to suggest other people and experiences that will help you develop your skills and knowledge. Make those connections, then let your mentor know you have taken action.

Skills and strengths

Show potential mentors why they should invest their energies in you. Let them know the qualities you bring to this relationship — research or language skills, creativity, analytical techniques, computer skills, willingness to learn, enthusiasm, and commitment.

What you need to know about potential mentors

In addition to telling potential mentors about yourself, you need to seek further information about them. You are choosing to work with them, just as they are choosing to work with you. To assess the amount and type of support you can expect to receive from a potential mentor, find out what you can about his or her:


To understand how much time the professor will be able to give to you, ask about his or her other commitments. Also find out from other students how much time this person normally gives to students. Will that be enough for you? Ask prospective mentors if they expect to be at the University during the entire time you are a student here. If they plan to be away for extended periods (on sabbatical or on a research project), what arrangements could be made to stay in contact?

Communication style

You should be able to clearly understand the professor and feel you are able to effectively communicate your thoughts and ideas. Do you think you will be able to work closely with this person? Does he or she listen attentively to your ideas and concerns, and ask good follow up questions? Will you be able to adjust to his or her professional and personal style?

Workload and financial support

It's critical that you find out what a potential mentor considers a normal workload for graduate scholarship (outside your work as a teaching or research assistant).

  • How many hours per week does he or she believe you should be spending on your own research or creative projects?
  • Does the potential mentor have, or know of, funds to support you? Will that financial support remain available until you complete your program?
  • Is there potential for developing a thesis or dissertation topic from the mentor's research program that you would find interesting?
  • Especially for those in the sciences and engineering: Does the mentor have appropriate space and laboratory equipment for your needs? What is the size of the mentor's research group, and is this size optimal for you? If you desire to bolster your teaching experience, will this person support your search for teaching assistantships?
  • Especially for those in the humanities, social sciences, or professional schools: Will this mentor be able to help you obtain graduate assistantships or fellowships (if you do not already have these lined up)? Will he or she be able to help you achieve the professional development balance you want between teaching and research?

Does the professor co-author articles with graduate students? If so, be sure to ask about his or her philosophy on first authorship. Inquire whether the professor is willing to help you prepare your own articles for publication and whether he or she has publishing contacts that might be of assistance to you.

Presentations for performing and visual arts

If your field requires you to make public performances or exhibitions, it is important to know whether the professor is willing to collaborate. Also critical is the amount of time the professor has to work with you to prepare your projects for public presentation. Does the professor use his or her professional contacts to assist students in presenting their own work to the public?

Reputation with graduate students and departmental staff

Your mentor should have a history of giving proper attention to his or her protégés. An ideal mentor should be able to provide teaching and research opportunities, access to financial resources, guidance for completing your dissertation, access to professional networks, and assistance in career development. If possible, find out whether former graduate students who have worked with this mentor have completed their programs in a timely fashion. If you know of other scholars who have been mentored by the professor, do you know where they stand within the field? Ask yourself if this is where you are interested in being. If you'd like to be able to talk to your mentor about personal matters, find out if the professor is comfortable talking about issues of a personal nature. If you are interested in nonacademic careers, determine the professor's attitude about training and funding someone who is not necessarily going into the academy.

Reputation within the field

Seek out the opinions that others in your field hold about the prospective mentor's work. Read reviews of the potential mentor's work in scholarly journals or conference proceedings, or in nomination letters if the person has been nominated for awards. Inquire about the kinds of professional positions others mentored by this person obtained. Do you see yourself pursuing those kinds of career paths?


After your initial meetings with prospective mentors, follow up via e-mail or phone to thank them for their time and let them know that what you learned was fruitful. If you agreed to pursue an idea or topic, let them know your plans and when you will get back in touch. Initial meetings will probably give you a sense of a person as a potential mentor; however, you do not need to make any decisions immediately. Allow yourself and the person time to reflect. If you later decide to ask a faculty member to be a mentor, you both will have a better understanding of what each of you stands to gain from the relationship. If a mentoring relationship begins to take shape, this understanding will help you and your mentor create a professional development plan tailored to your needs (see Worksheet 4, Phases of your professional development, and Worksheet 5, Professional development plan).