What mentoring is

A close, individualized mentoring relationship between a graduate student and a faculty member (or others) develops over time and requires both caring and guidance.

The Council of Graduate Schools, a national policy organization dedicated to the improvement and advancement of graduate education, defines mentors as:

  • Advisors, people with career experience willing to share their knowledge
  • Supporters, people who give emotional and moral encouragement
  • Tutors, people who give specific feedback on one's performance
  • Masters, in the sense of employers to whom one is apprenticed
  • Sponsors, sources of information about and aid in obtaining opportunities
  • Models of identity, of the kind of person one should be to be an academic

(Zelditch, 1990)

Although there is a connection between mentors and advisors, not all mentors are advisors and not all advisors are mentors. Think of the difference this way:

  • Advising focuses on the activities, requirements, and attainment of satisfactory progress through the steps needed to achieve a graduate degree.
  • Mentoring focuses on the human relationships, commitments, and resources that help graduate students find success and fulfillment in their academic and professional pursuits.

    Mentoring helps students understand how their ambitions fit into graduate education, department life, and postgraduate career choices. As students progress through graduate programs, they will find that rarely is one individual able to meet all their mentoring needs. As discussed later, students will obtain more effective guidance by cultivating multiple mentors anyway.

This guidebook focuses primarily on mentoring, although many of the recommendations also extend to advising. (By advisors, we mean those individuals who serve as thesis or dissertation supervisors.) Think of mentoring as the consistent and developmental evolution of wisdom, technical knowledge, assistance, support, empathy, and respect to graduate students through, and often beyond, their graduate careers. In other words, mentoring is a constellation of activities — educational, interpersonal and professional — that constitutes more than advising students on how to meet degree requirements, as critical as that is.

An effective mentoring relationship passes through developmental phases. Early on, a mentor recognizes a student's unique qualities and need for special coaching. In turn, this recognition inspires the student to seek to benefit from the mentor's support, skills, and wisdom. Later, both will explore and deepen their working relationship, perhaps collaborating on projects in which the student develops into a junior colleague. After a while, the protégé may grow in ways that require some separation from the mentor, to test his or her own ideas. This distancing is a sign that the mentoring relationship is maturing and providing the protégé with the skills needed to function independently. Finally, both mentor and protégé may redefine the relationship as one of equals, characterized over time by informal contact and mutual assistance, thus allowing them to become true professional colleagues.