What a mentor does

Disciplinary guide

Sometimes a faculty member can be a thesis/dissertation adviser and a mentor whereas, in other cases, the student benefits more by having different people carry out each role. Either way, the role of a disciplinary guide is to help students become contributing members of their disciplines. This guidance goes beyond helping students complete the requirements of their academic programs and involves helping students

  • understand how their discipline has evolved as a knowledge enterprise
  • recognize novel questions
  • identify innovative ways of engaging undergraduate students through teaching and collaborative research projects
  • see their discipline — its questions and methodologies — in relation to other fields
  • grasp the impact their disciplines have on the world outside of academe
  • assist them in pursuing the kind of impact they desire to have with a graduate degree

Skills development consultant

The pressures for specialization in graduate study can make students temporarily lose sight of the array of skills needed to succeed during and after graduate school. This can result, in part, because of the relative intensity and isolation of research. As a skills consultant, your role is to emphasize the variety of skills, including but going beyond the research skills that effective professionals possess.

Oral and written communication skills. These include clearly expressing the results of one’s study; translating field-specific knowledge for use in varied contexts, such as teaching or interacting with the public; and persuading others, such as funders, policy makers, or conference audiences, of the value of one’s work.

Team-oriented skills. Often, the most innovative learning occurs in teams that problem solve problems collaboratively. Your role is to foster collaborative problem-solving by helping students learn through group exercises and projects.

Leadership skills. Graduate students often become intellectual leaders in a variety of settings. Effective mentors help students build their potential by inviting them to assume leadership roles throughout graduate study, e.g., in seminars, graduate student government, community outreach, disciplinary societies, and department or university committees. These activities help build people skills—listening to others, shaping ideas and expressing priorities—which are indispensable for advancement in any career.

Career consultant

The mentor’s role as career consultant has taken on increased importance, especially for doctoral students. Many doctoral students are choosing positions in a greater variety of educational settings and diverse sectors of the economy.

The mentor imparts a view of careers as an evolutionary process — one that requires planning, flexibility and adaptation to change. Informed of job market realities, an effective mentor finds ways to help students develop relationships with other potential mentors. You can find these individuals in other places in the University or among your graduate alumni. You can also find them in schools, community groups, nonprofits, corporations, government agencies, or industrial laboratories. Wider relationships help students gain a realistic and informed view of their career choices and learn how to translate their degree into professional opportunities.

Part of your responsibility as a mentor is to help students cultivate multiple mentoring relationships inside and outside the UW. Multiple sources of expertise improve students’ abilities to marshal the resources they need to meet the challenges of graduate education and careers. Have thoughtful discussions with your mentees and ask them what they need from you to navigate their educational experience, adapt to disciplinary cultures and become productive, fulfilled professionals and colleagues.

Develop your own vision of good mentoring

To develop your own vision for effective mentoring, reflect on your days as a graduate student and answer with candor the following questions:

  • What kind of mentoring did I receive?
  • What did I find helpful and unhelpful about the mentoring I received?
  • How well would the mentoring I received apply to the graduate student population today?
  • How well did my mentors help me progress developmentally through my graduate program?
  • How do the people and challenges in my field today different differ from when I was in graduate school?
  • How well did my mentors prepare me for my career?
  • What kinds of mentoring would have been helpful to me?

The answers may help you to define the kind of mentor you want to be and identify the building blocks for developing productive relationships with graduate students.

Engage students in conversation

  • A simple “hello” in the hallway makes a difference. Ask students how they are doing with coursework or projects.
  • Let students know they are welcome to talk with you during your office hours.
  • Talk to your mentees at least once a quarter. Reach out to those who seem remote to find out whether it is their cultural way of being respectful or if it is due to social and academic isolation.
  • Share coffee or meals with students away from the office, if you are able, to engage them in informal discussions without office distractions.

“The message my mentor sent to me 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.”

Demystify graduate school for students

  • Obtain the most recent copies of your program’s guidelines and the Graduate School’s Policies & Procedures.
  • Adjust your conversations to the level of students’ understanding. New students may not know certain terminology or what questions to ask. Many are hearing terms such as “qualifying exams” or “prelims” for the first time.
  • 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.

“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.”

Provide constructive and supportive feedback

  • Provide students with forthright assessments of their work. Do not assume they know what you think about their work.
  • Provide timely feedback on students’ work. A delay in responding can create insecurity and hinder their progress.
  • Be just as specific when you give praise as you are when you give criticism because students learn from both. Remind students that, with your high standards, you intend to help them improve.
  • Avoid assuming that students who fall behind in their work lack commitment. Talk with them to learn what is going on. They may be exhausted or unclear about what to do next, simply dislike a project or have difficulties with collaborators.
  • In a timely manner, address any problems that pose questions about a student’s ability to complete his or her degree. Putting issues aside may cause more damage later.

“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.”

Provide encouragement

  • Encourage students to discuss their ideas.
  • Encourage students to try new techniques and expand their skills.
  • Let students know that mistakes lead to better learning. Share a less-than-successful experience of your own and what it taught you. For example, you might show students a heavily critiqued paper you submitted in graduate school or to a journal.
  • Reassure students of their skills and abilities to succeed.
  • Many experience anxiety about whether they belong in graduate school (e.g., the “imposter syndrome”).
  • Teach students how to break large scholarly tasks into smaller, more manageable ones to avoid becoming overwhelmed.

“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 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.”

Foster networks and multiple mentors

  • Suggest others who can help students if there is a need you cannot meet. UW faculty, graduate students, alumni, department staff, retired faculty and faculty from other universities are rich resources.
  • Introduce students to faculty and other graduate students with complementary interests on campus and at conferences.
  • Help students connect their work with experts in the community (e.g., graduate alumni) who can provide helpful career perspectives.
  • Build a community of scholars by coordinating informal discussion groups, projects or occasional potluck meals among students who share academic interests.

“My co-chair referred me to a faculty member doing related research at UNC 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 advisers 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.”

Look out for students’ interests

  • Let your students know up front, and in a variety of ways, that you want them to succeed.
  • Create opportunities for students to demonstrate their competencies. For instance, take them to meetings and conferences, or encourage them to make presentations to gain visibility.
  • Nominate your mentees for high-visibility fellowships, projects and teaching opportunities when you feel they are sufficiently prepared.
  • Promote students’ research and teaching accomplishments inside and outside your department.
  • Be an advocate for all graduate students.

“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. We worked together as colleagues, not as teacher and student.”

Treat students with respect

  • Minimize interruptions and distractions during meetings with students. A common concern among students is that professors do not provide them their full attention while talking. Be aware of your body language. Avoid looking at your watch or e-mail while a student is talking.
  • Remember previous conversations with students. Some faculty keep notes on discussions (filing them separately from students’ official records) and review the notes prior to meetings.
  • Tell your students what you learn from them. Such disclosure helps students see themselves as potential colleagues.
  • Acknowledge the prior skills and valuable personal, professional, and educational experiences students bring to graduate school.

“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.”

Provide a personal touch

  • Be open and approachable. Students may need to discuss certain academic and non-academic issues. Knowing they can come to you and that you will care is particularly helpful to shy students or those from backgrounds different from yours.
  • Help students find creative solutions to their challenges or problems.
  • Familiarize yourself with the Graduate School’s mentoring and professional development resources so you can refer students to multiple avenues of assistance.

“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.”

Need for role models

All graduate students benefit from role models they can admire. People usually identify role models based on shared outlook and connections to similar experiences. Because of the composition of faculty at the UW, students from historically underrepresented or marginalized groups and women in some disciplines can face greater challenges finding faculty role models. Some students convey that they hope to find “someone who looks like me,” “someone who immediately understands my experiences and perspectives” or “someone whose very presence lets me know I, too, can make it in the academy.”

  • If the composition of faculty and graduate students in your department is homogenous, help identify and recruit new members who represent diverse backgrounds.
  • Hold departmental discussions on how to provide educational and work climates that welcome contributions from all members.
  • Become familiar with people across the University or at other universities who can help your mentees.