How to mentor graduate students

Graduate students — regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, nationality, socioeconomic background, discipline or department affiliation — want more effective mentoring. Good mentoring helps all students learn more successfully, and that is the University’s core business.

But not all students’ needs are the same. Just as the effective teacher tailors lessons to the learning needs of diverse students, the skilled mentor tailors guidance strategies to the goals and circumstances of individual mentees.

At the Graduate School, we hear from a wide range of students, including those who have been underrepresented or marginalized in U.S. higher education. As a result, we have learned about challenges students face in their graduate programs.

Mentoring, like all academic and professional activities, takes place in historical, social and political contexts that influence our institutional culture. The Graduate School acknowledges this fact in its commitment to identify, pursue, and encourage strategies that enhance success, diversity and multiculturalism in all facets of graduate education.

Opening lines of communication

Good mentoring includes talking regularly about research, coursework and teaching, examining the multiple roles of a professional in a particular field and jointly exploring funding avenues and job opportunities. Graduate students consistently describe these themes as high priorities.

No single formula for successful mentoring exists, but we do know that frank, mutual exploration of expectations and interests should be the focus of first meetings with mentees. This guide addresses factors that can influence graduate students’ mentoring needs and suggests effective ways you and your students can promote learning and professional development.

Many people assume that good mentoring “just happens” naturally or is only for those who are “lucky enough” to stumble upon the right individuals to guide their intellectual and professional development. In fact, good mentoring is a matter of awareness, intention and a genuine desire to see protégés succeed. This guide walks you through the concepts, planning, strategies and tools that facilitate meaningful mentoring relationships.

What is mentoring?

In graduate school, mentoring relationships are close, individualized relationships that develop over time between a graduate student and one or more faculty members, or with other professionals who have a strong interest in the student’s educational and career goals. It includes not only academic guidance, but also prolonged nurturing of the student’s personal, scholarly and professional development.

Mentors are:

  • advisers, who have career experience and share their knowledge
  • supporters, who give emotional and moral encouragement
  • tutors, who provide specific feedback on performance
  • masters, who serve as employers to graduate student “apprentices”
  • sponsors, who are sources of information and opportunities models of identity, who serve as academic role models (Zelditch, 1990, p. 11)

Although some mentoring and advising activities are similar, not all mentors are advisers and not all advisers are mentors. (By advisers, we mean thesis or dissertation supervisors.) 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 enables graduate students to:

  • acquire a body of knowledge and skills
  • develop techniques for networking and collaborating
  • gain perspective on how their discipline operates academically, socially and politically
  • acquire a sense of scholarly citizenship by grasping their roles in a larger educational enterprise
  • deal more confidently with challenging intellectual work

Mentoring enables faculty members to:

  • engage the curiosities and energies of fresh minds
  • keep abreast of new research questions, knowledge, paradigms and techniques
  • cultivate collaborators for current or future projects
  • identify and train graduate assistants whose work is critical to a research project or course offering
  • prepare the next generation of intellectual leaders in the disciplines and in society
  • enjoy the personal and professional satisfaction inherent in mentoring relationships