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When the mentee becomes the mentor

As a grad student, you may have the opportunity to mentor an undergraduate student, or even a beginning grad student. But how do you make the most of this opportunity?

As a mentor, you are in a position to provide intellectual, professional and social guidance to your mentee. If you are working with an undergraduate in a research setting, giving your mentee a full picture of your research project is a good place to start. This helps set an overarching goal and get the undergrad excited about your project. You should also be sure to set clear expectations and make the steps of the research process explicit to help your mentee stay on track.

Foster professional development opportunities for your mentee by encouraging them to speak at lab meetings or professional conferences. You may benefit from this in an unexpected way: by hearing a fresh perspective on your work.

As a graduate student, you also provide undergrads with valuable insights into what it’s like to be a graduate student. Be prepared to field a lot of questions about preparing for graduate school, picking a research topic, or applying for funding. Also, you will have the opportunity to model resiliency in responding to setbacks in the research process — or in finding funding, taking exams, practicums, and the like. It may not be glamorous, but it’s still a vital lesson.

Mentoring can be time-consuming, but the benefits are also far-reaching. In reflecting on their own experiences as mentors, PhD students have detailed how they strengthened their communication skills and even fought imposter syndrome by becoming a mentor.

If you are working on building your relationship with your own mentor, check out these UW Graduate School resources.

Graduate students, do you have experiences or questions about mentoring others that you want to share? Comment below, or email us!

Ask the Grad School Guru is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the guru doesn’t know the answer, the guru will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The guru is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →

The Grad School Guru – Equity in the Classroom: Putting names to faces

“How can I learn to recognize my students whose ethnicity is different from my own? I feel bad that it takes me much longer to remember their names and faces, and I have even mixed up some of the students, calling them by the wrong name.  They deserve better! I do study the photographs we get on MyUW of the students in a class, but that doesn’t seem to help much.”*

— Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for writing in! This is a complex and sensitive issue, and I really admire that you’ve recognized this problem and are taking the time to work through it. That’s a great first step!

To help answer your question, I’ve turned to my expert colleagues at the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and FIUTS (The Foundation for International Understanding Through Students). I’ve provided each of their answers below, along with some additional resources related to names and facial recognition. Some of their general advice is: get to know your students better by playing name-related games and asking ice-breaker questions in class, and, if you’re still stuck, ask the students to re-introduce themselves during the first few weeks of classes or to keep a name card at their desk. Finally, do some self-reflection, and investigate whether any implicit biases might be affecting how you learn students’ names.

I hope this advice helps you to recognize all of your students and learn their names faster. You got this!


The Grad School Guru

The CTL provided three strategies for learning to recognize your students: Collect more information; use other cues (besides their faces); and reflect on your biases and teaching strategies. Here they provide tips and ideas for pursuing each strategy.
Collect more information:

  • On the first day, use an ice breaker activity such as the “name story,” where students go around and share a brief story related to their name. This will help you attach the name to the person.
  • Ask your students to teach you how to pronounce their name.
  • Record students’ names and pronunciations on the UW photograph sheet when they introduce themselves.
  • Consult websites to learn name pronunciations (some websites included below!)
  • Before or after the class, chat with students to use their names.
  • In the first few weeks of class, have students say their names first when they ask a question.

Use other cues:

  • Have students use name tents. Collect them from students after every class and have them pick them up again to use at the beginning of the next class.
  • There are other ways to remember students than their faces: consider the tone of their voice, their hairstyles, their posture, clothing style, accessories, etc.
  • Use Canvas to have students share stories of their names and/or introduce themselves sharing their interests in the course or other interests (favorite places, foods).


  • Ask yourself why as an instructor or TA you are having a particularly hard time remembering some students’ names. We all hold implicit biases: attitudes and stereotypes that can affect our behaviors without us realizing. You may want to learn more about implicit bias: if so, check out the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and Harvard implicit Bias tests online. These tools can help you find out where you might have blind spots and what areas you might want to work on.
  • Use active listening strategies. Reflect on how you listen:
    • Are you allowing the student time to express themselves?
    • Are you concentrating on what the student is saying?
    • Are you attentive to verbal and non-verbal cues?

Ellen Frierson and Era Schrepfer, at FIUTS, offered a number of strategies for better remembering students and connecting their names to faces. Also, Ellen wants to assure you that “the longer I work with students, the better I get at learning names quickly (and I’m generally pretty bad with names across all demographic categories!). So, just a word of encouragement that this is a skill you truly are likely to get better at if you work at it.”
Here are their tips!

  1. It’s easier to remember someone’s name when you know something about them. Create an activity at the beginning of the year/class that gives you some context about each student. Maybe a fun icebreaker where they all make a name tag with a food they like that begins with the same letter as their name? If you can collect them at the end of the day, even better, as it gives you something to study with!
  2. Spend more time with people who look different from you! You’ll get better at remembering people’s names and faces with more practice. It sounds like you’re already being really thoughtful about examining your own biases, so being more conscious in general about how much time you’re spending with people from their same racial/ethnic background versus connecting more with others might be useful.
  3. Practice the usual memorization tips more often until you at least know all the names. Carry your list with you. Look over your list at different times of the day, while you’re doing other things. Record yourself saying the names and listen to the recording.
  4. Pair up with another T.A. and “introduce” each of your students to them (and vice versa), telling them something about each student.
  5. Focus on memorizing the stressed syllable of each name, and possibly coming up with an association just for that syllable. (So if the name is Xinlu, focus on remembering the “Xin” part, maybe by thinking of a rhyming word like “pin”). When I (Ellen) was a classroom teacher and trying to learn lots of names at once, I’d try to notice one particular feature of the student’s face and pair that with a mnemonic device for their name to help a) remember their name and b) connect it with that person: “Frank has freckles” or something silly like that. If you are having trouble distinguishing people of a specific race or ethnicity, this approach might also help you to start noticing the ways in which facial features vary among people of the same race or ethnicity.
  6. Use name tents in class if you need to. Have the students make name tents on the first day and collect them to be distributed in each class. You can practice by handing them out at the start of each class and it will reduce the chance that you will call on the wrong person.
  7. Create learning activities that will help you to learn as much as possible about each of your students: having them share helps both of you. Be sure to remind everyone to introduce themselves before sharing with the class, whether you already know their name or not.
  8. Don’t worry if you forget someone’s name, just ask and be honest about the challenge. It’s totally OK to say, “I have so much trouble remembering people’s names! Please help me by reminding me and let me know if I get it wrong!”

Here are some additional resources you might find useful, compiled by the CTL, FIUTS, and Graduate School staff:

*This question has been lightly edited to preserve anonymity. 

Ask the Grad School Guru is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the guru doesn’t know the answer, the guru will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The guru is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →

Fostering Inclusive Classrooms as a TA

How do we, as TAs or RAs, work to include all students we work with, given the difficult times the nation is in? — Anonymous 

This week’s answer is courtesy of Gonzalo Guzman, pre-doctoral instructor in American Ethnic Studies and the College of Education. 

To say we live in “difficult times” would be an understatement. This is why it is our duty as TAs, RAs, or Instructors of Record to make sure that our students feel included in our classrooms. By “inclusion” I mean building and fostering a community in your class that validates and respects students. In difficult times, the community you build in your classroom can be a refuge, where students focus on learning and know that their experiences matter to you and their colleagues in the class.

Simply put, inclusion and validation of your students should be central to your philosophy of education/teaching. Students know when TAs/RAs/Instructors care about them, are accessible, and make efforts to include them. This is not content bound, but is a philosophy of work. For instance, a TA can teach content from a discipline or field that focuses on topics such as social history and identity constructions, and still develop a working relationship or classroom where their students don’t necessarily feel included or welcome. Even if the content reflects most of the students’ realities, if the teaching style and the overall classroom environment do not, then students will not feel a part of the learning environment.

Including all the students we work with is relational, continuous work, and it doesn’t need to be a  drastic transformation. It can simply start with check-ins with your students. Other ways to do this are to make assignments more accessible and responsive, adapt student input into your work, and make a collaborative space where your students know you are working together in a shared classroom. How you do this is up to you; it is dependent on the community you make and the relationship you have with your students. How do we include all of our students in these difficult times? We do the work. We teach and work to the benefit and developing lives of our students.

Postdocs Rock! Here are 5 Reasons Why

Postdocs are vital members of the University of Washington ecosystem.  During National Postdoc Appreciation Week (September 18-22), we here at the UW Office of Postdoc Affairs (OPA) in the Graduate School wanted to point out just a few of the many reasons why:

  1. Postdocs are often the first point of contact for graduate students and undergrads working on a research team, and provide countless hours of mentorship and guidance to this next generation;
  2. Postdocs are energetic teachers of classes, touching even more graduate and undergraduate students here on campus through their seminars and lectures;
  3. Postdocs often contribute substantial intellectual ideas and strategies to their research groups, making our world-class research at UW even better;
  4. Postdocs are often essential contributors to faculty projects, grants and publications in ways that help their faculty mentors be even more productive;
  5. And finally, you postdocs are here at UW, investing in your own professional development, and we applaud your investment in your future!

For all these reasons, the OPA, in partnership with the UW Postdoctoral Association (UWPA), recognizes and honors the over 1,000 postdocs working across our 3 campuses in every School and College.

Since 2009, National Postdoc Appreciation Week recognizes the significant contributions that postdoctoral scholars make to U.S. research and development. Institutions from across the country participate by holding special events. In 2010, this week was officially recognized by the U.S. House of Representatives.

We will be celebrating you on September 20, 5:30-7pm in the Health Sciences Building Rotunda.  If you are a postdoc – or a postdoc supporter – join us for tacos and beverages.  The OPA will be hosting an orientation with key campus resources that same day 3-4pm and a workshop on planning your pathway to independence aimed at early stage postdocs 4-5pm.  Both of those sessions are in Health Sciences T-531.

Join us, and thank a postdoc!


Should You Pursue An Academic Career?

“So what do you want to do when you graduate?” There is no better way that a well-meaning family aunt or uncle strikes fear into the heart of an unsuspecting grad student or postdoc over slices of turkey at the holidays. Although this question is well meant, it often makes you squirm and feel uncomfortable. Here are some tips to help you think about this quest:

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?
About the answer to this – I will tell you what I tell my own students: “I have good news and bad news for you …” The good news is that you aren’t alone. On most days, I’m in the same boat with you, still trying to figure out what I want to be (n.b., please do not tell my department chair!). The bad news, however, is that if you don’t give this some serious thought, you run the risk of missing out on key opportunities in your immediate future.

NOT “Can I Become Faculty?”
Importantly, there is an absolutely wrong question to be worried about: “Can I become faculty?” I can’t emphasize enough that the question is not “can I do it?” The answer to this is an unequivocal “YES.” You already earned a Ph.D. and a postdoc at a world-class institution. If you are willing to put in the work to find mentors, network, learn the rules of the game and be disciplined about executing a plan, then you can do it.  

BUT “Should I Become Faculty?”
This is the far more interesting question to ask. Consider your time as an undergraduate and reflect upon your experience with faculty. Now think of life as a graduate student and  your interactions with professors. Finally, postdocs can do this exercise yet again. How have things changed? Faculty, perhaps more than most other professions, wear many different hats, usually at the same time. You have viewed the faculty experience up close, leading to an important conclusion: you may not really know how a professor spends all of their time. I highlight this simply to say that before you make one of the most important decisions of your life, you should learn more about the life of a professor.

Is Being Faculty A Good Fit?
I advocate that instead of worrying on the details of the future (Will I get hired? Will get I tenure? Will I get funding?), you spend time trying to learn if being faculty is a good fit for you. The happy news is that faculty love to talk about themselves, and if you do a bit of informational interviewing, you can learn a lot about how faculty you admire (and aspire to be like) spend their time. While you already know they work a lot, you should find out how they spend their time, what they like about their job, and importantly, what they don’t like. Try to do this with several faculty you admire; if possible try to do it with faculty at different types of institutions and with faculty of different rank.

Imagine YOUR Life As A Professor
This process works to create a clear picture of what YOUR life as a professor would look like. This is the easiest way to answer the question of whether you should do it or not. Being a professor is an awesome job, and I truly love it. But I recognize it is not for everyone. My last piece of advice is this – once you decide that you should become a professor, don’t waste any time! Put your full effort into making your dream become a reality – I already know you CAN do it, why not prove me right?


Acknowledgement: This guest blog post was graciously provided by Dr. Jim Pfaendtner, Associate Profession in Chemical Engineering, who was the keynote speaker at OPA sponsored professional development event Set Up for Academic Success: Getting Funding For Your Research Program in April 2017.

From an Overworked TA

The class I am a TA for requires 12 hours of student interaction and about half a day of preparing materials. Every week. This is way more than the 20 hours/week that I am paid to do. The instructor knows this and had originally requested twice as many TAs as we have, but the department, being broke, only assigned two of us for this awful job. This particular class is known to be this way, as I have learned from talking to past sufferers. I have been TA-ing for two years now and have noticed a wild disparity in the workload for different classes. My question is: how is this fair? The department pays everyone the same amount, still how is it that some TAs get away with just 4 hours of work while others have to do upwards of 20? Since this is an issue of the department, I don’t know how to proceed. The officials in the department get very defensive when asked this. I don’t want to risk not being considered for future TA positions and am therefore not going to pursue the topic with them, but isn’t this just exploitation of us students by those in power? If the department has no money, they should figure out a better way to do this than exploit two students every 
quarter (yes, this class is taught every quarter). I am at a loss here and am losing my sanity not finding time to do anything else that actually matters for my Ph.D. Please help. –Anonymous 

This week’s answer is provided after consultation from the Labor Relation’s Office

Yikes. I’m sorry this TA-ship has been such a negative experience for you. Fortunately, you have resources at your disposal to help you resolve some of these issues.

You’ve said you do not wish to pursue these issues with your department. But you should know all academic staff employees are covered under a collective bargaining agreement by UAW Local Union 4121. If you do want to file a grievance against your department, the Union will help you do that. A Union representative urges Academic Student Employees to remember that addressing workplace concerns is time-sensitive under the Union contract.

Another resource available to you is the Office of the Ombud, which provides a space for members of the UW community to voice their concerns and develop plans for addressing difficult situations. The Ombud is easily accessible, with offices on all three campuses. Students contact the Ombud to discuss a range of issues including TA appointments. They are your go-to for addressing problems with the department’s culture. They’ll advise you on your situation without starting a formal complaint or grievance, and they won’t contact your department about the matter unless you ask them to do so.

Best of luck!

Ask the Grad School Guide is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the guide doesn’t know the answer, the guide will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The guide is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →

Bad Teacher


Older graduate student who has had a career already so have a little life experience. I took a class with a teacher who was incredibly condescending both to the undergraduates and the graduate students — I pushed back a bit on this but got nowhere. Unorganized, due dates and test dates were “fluid” (as in they kept changing) and homework did not get graded in time for tests. We did learn a lot about this person’s history and background though… I feel like I owe future students some sort of action or at least a heads-up.  — What can I do?

Yikes, sounds horrible. I appreciate that you gave nothing away about the class or instructor. I trust that you filled out the class evaluation. This is probably the easiest yet most impactful  thing you can do. Future students can look up class ratings in the Course Evaluation Catalog. And in addition to the instructor, department coordinators and administrators also see the evaluations. 

You can also try a online rating site like Rate My Professor. Just be aware of the many biases of sites like this. I would also try taking your concerns to the GPA/GPC of your department. It’s important to create a written record of some type.

I reached out to the Office of Educational Assessment, which replied, “Students do have other places to turn; which is most effective probably depends on the type and severity of the unprofessionalism. Speaking with the department chair can get a note in the faculty personnel file, while talking with the UW Ombudsperson can address more significant breaches. The Ombud is also a great starting point to learn about other appropriate avenues of appeal.”

Hope that helps. Good luck!

Ask the Grad School Guru is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the guru doesn’t know the answer, the guru will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The guru is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →

Mentoring 2.0: Finding and Working with Faculty Mentors

Throughout the year, we offered you strategies to get the mentoring you need to thrive in graduate and professional school—and we will continue to do so. We have suggested that building a mentor team of peers, faculty, departmental staff, friends, work colleagues and community members can help you recognize and meet your needs and goals as a whole person—not just as a student. We know that “finding a mentor” and “building a team” isn’t as simple as it sounds. It is actually pretty common to hit some bumps on the road as you identify and build working relationships with mentors on your team. We hope the following tips will help you address those concerns:

Difficulty finding a mentor. Depending on your degree program, you may or may not have been assigned a faculty advisor or future mentor (there is a difference between an advisor and mentor). Maybe you’re a little introverted and shy about approaching faculty. Or maybe you just don’t know where to start.  Try out these strategies: (1) Ask peers about faculty mentors whom they work with and why. Ask them about the qualities they seek in mentors, and see if their responses resonate with your needs. (2) Re-visit faculty web profiles—including those outside of your degree program—and identify shared fields of interest. (3) After completing steps one and two, make a list of the faculty you’d like to work with, and send them an email to set up a meeting. This guide has helpful tips for setting up that first meeting. Bringing your first draft of an individual development plan (IDP) to this meeting can help you and your new mentor visualize—and plan for—the goals and experiences you’d like to have at the UW and beyond. The conversation may just be an informative 30 minutes to guide you along your path, or it may lead to a longer term working relationship.

Committed to mentoring, but unavailable. You’ve identified a faculty mentor who is excited about working with you. You’ve had a few meetings where you’ve built momentum and plans of action to get things done. You both get along great! Then suddenly it’s gotten difficult for you to meet your mentor for a range of reasons. They’re about to go on research sabbatical, added more projects to their plate, planning for retirement, experiencing life stressors that you are not privy to, etc.  You’ve unintentionally fallen off their radar; it isn’t about you, but it’s still frustrating. What should you do? Get back on their radar by setting up a check-in meeting. If your mentor isn’t responding to your e-mails for whatever reason, figure out an alternative method for communication. Leave your cell number with departmental staff and request that your mentor contact you. When your mentor responds, just calmly note that it has been sometime since you connected. You can ask directly if anything has changed to impact the work you are doing together.  You may find that you’ll both need to re-visit your mentor/mentee agreement, the frequency of your meetings, or that you’ll need a new mentor depending on the circumstances. The circumstances could be temporary, and sometimes just resetting a communication plan, or using different communication tools, can help.

Not the mentor you expected. There are numerous reasons why a mentor isn’t a fit for you.  These can include personality differences, conflicts that are unresolvable, or the feedback they are providing no longer supports your intellectual and professional growth. At this point, it’s critical that you reflect on a plan to change advisors so you can continue your work towards your graduate or professional degree. The first thing we suggest (if you haven’t already) is to seek advice from a trusted peer, faculty member, or department staff to help you think through ways to move forward. The point is to keep yourself from feeling and being isolated as you navigate the process. Second, check out these recommended suggestions for changing mentors or advisors from the UW Graduate School.

Additional Resources

It is also good to be upfront and clear about both of your expectations throughout the mentor-mentee relationship. Take a look these check-lists on expectations for mentors and mentees from the Doctoral program in the UW Department of Physics.

Hours and Hours of Office Hours

I am a TA for a graduate level class this quarter, and my professor is asking me to hold 4 hours of Office Hours. I feel this is too much. I had TA’d the same class last quarter, and I had five hours of Office Hours, way more than any other grad class in my department. It was incredibly stressful, and I grew to hate the work because of the long hours. I was hoping that this quarter I can have office hours similar what others in my department hold. How do I tell my professor? I want a good recommendation letter from him eventually and don’t want to piss him off, but there simply doesn’t seem to be an indirect way to tell him what I want to say. —Anonymous

This is exactly the type of situation to take to the Office of the Ombud. They specialize in handling conflicts with others at UW and will help you approach your professor with your concerns. Additionally, you can consult the Center for Teaching and Learning for tips on how to manage office hours and handle the stress that comes with teaching.

Ask the Grad School Guru is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the guru doesn’t know the answer, the guru will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The guru is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →

Gratuitous to Grade Grammar?

I’m a TA for a graduate-level course, and many of the students are not native English speakers. I am grading assignments with significant grammatical errors: incorrect tenses, wrong plurals, missing articles, etc. I’m struggling with the tension between not unfairly penalizing students, since English isn’t their first language, but also holding them to a high standard for academic writing, given that they are getting a graduate degree. How have other TAs or instructors handled this? —Grammar Nerd

(This week’s answer is courtesy of Katie Malcolm, Instructional Consultant, Center for Teaching and Learning.)

Thank you for asking—this is a question we hear often in the Center for Teaching and Learning. Although we recommend that TAs check with their supervisors to see if their departments have specific policies about this, the TAs we have worked with over the years and our own teaching experiences have given us some helpful perspectives. When thinking about how to fairly assess my own international and multilingual students’ writing, I ask myself two questions: 1) What are my goals for the assignment? What do I need to prioritize? and 2) How can I communicate these goals to my students in ways that will help them succeed?

1. First, I think about what is important to prioritize for my students in each assignment, given my realistic learning outcomes for a 10-week course. What is the primary goal I want students to achieve through each writing assignment?

In my own assignments, my first priority is for students to develop and sustain a logical argument in conversation with relevant research. If students’ errors leave me unable to understand their argument, I can’t assess it meaningfully, and—whether English is their first, second, or fifth language—I will ask them to edit and revise the assignment in order to receive credit.

Because my primary goal is not for students to write as though English were their first language, if incorrect verb tenses or missing articles do not detract from my ability to understand a student’s point, I tend to overlook or “read through” them, or point out a couple of occurrences in the margins and then make a note of these patterns in my end comments. (Showing students the patterns of their errors helps them learn how to avoid these kinds of errors in the future). Just as students need time and practice to develop fluency in their pronunciation and speaking, they also need time to develop fluency in academic, discipline-specific English writing.

2. Once I have articulated my expectations for students’ writing, I clearly communicate these expectations to students in several ways:

  • At the same time that I introduce an assignment, I share the assignment grading criteria, usually in the form of a rubric. When writing style is an important aspect of the assignment (as it often is), I make sure that it is part of the grading criteria and weighted appropriately.

  • I assign multiple drafts so that students know that I do not want them to start a paper the night before it’s due (often a major culprit of unedited papers). I’ll ask students to bring an early draft to class for peer review, or to bring a draft to my office hours, and/or to visit the Odegaard Writing and Resource Center (OWRC) to get feedback on their writing early in the process.

  • I share writing resources with my students, including information about OWRC, which has drop-in hours for graduate student writers in the Allen Library. There are also a number of great online resources on proofreading that may be helpful to students, such as the Purdue OWL’s “Finding common errors” page and their pages dedicated to multilingual writers. UNC also has some helpful editing resources.

Again, thanks for asking this great question — if you would like to talk more about this or other aspects of your teaching, please don’t hesitate to contact us at thectl@uw.edu.

Ask the Grad School Guru is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the guru doesn’t know the answer, the guru will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The guru is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →