Building your mentoring team

Rather than trying to find a single mentor, you may choose to build a mentoring team. While mentors often are faculty members, they can be your peers; advanced graduate students; departmental staff; retired faculty; faculty from other departments, colleges, or universities; and professionals outside the University. The team approach you take will likely be an informal one, and the mentors you select may or may not see themselves as part of a formal team. If you have drawn individuals from varied fields or professional sectors, your mentors might not know each other, at least not initially. It is up to you to decide if there are advantages to introducing your mentors by proposing collaborative work.

Your mentor’s varied roles

Mentors play many roles in your life — guide, counselor, adviser, consultant, tutor, teacher and guru. A mentor’s combination of professional expertise, personal style and approach to facilitating learning influences the kind of mentoring you will receive.

Effective mentoring is multidimensional as mentors play three core roles to assist your educational, professional and personal growth.

Disciplinary guide

Sometimes a faculty member will be a thesis/dissertation adviser and a mentor; in other cases, you benefit by having different people carry out each role. Either way, the role of a disciplinary guide is to help you become a contributing member of your discipline.

This guidance helps you to understand how your discipline has evolved as a knowledge enterprise; recognize novel questions; identify innovative ways of engaging undergraduate students through your teaching and collaborative research projects; and see your discipline, its questions and methodologies in relation other fields. Another role of the disciplinary guide is to help you grasp the impact your discipline has on the world and to assist you in pursuing the impact you hope to have.

Skills development consultant

While graduate study is about learning how to generate knowledge, its pressures for specialization can make you lose sight of the array of skills you need to succeed. Your mentor can help you develop intellectual and professional skills including, and going beyond, those related to research.

Oral and written communication skills. These include clearly expressing the results of your work; translating field-specific knowledge for teaching and interacting with the public; and persuading others, such as funders, policy makers, organizations and conference audiences, of the value of your work.

Team-oriented skills. Some of the most innovative learning occurs in teams that problem solve collaboratively. Increasingly, complex problems require interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary solutions. Your mentor can help you develop collaborative, problem-solving skills by organizing group exercises and projects.

Leadership skills. As a graduate student, you can become an intellectual leader in many settings. Mentors invite you to assume leadership roles throughout graduate study — for example, in seminars, student government, disciplinary societies and community outreach, as well as on departmental or university committees. These activities will help you build people skills which are indispensable for your career.

Career consultant

In recent years, the mentor’s role as career consultant has acquired greater importance, especially for doctoral students. In some disciplines, the number of doctorates produced annually is far greater than the number of available tenure-track positions. As a result, many doctoral graduates are choosing positions in a variety of educational settings and sectors of the economy.

An effective mentor helps you link aspects of your graduate work with other potential mentors beyond your department — alumni or other professionals in colleges, universities, schools, community groups, the private sector, non-profit organizations, government and industrial laboratories. Mentors outside your department can help you explore career options, so that you learn how your graduate education translates into various professional opportunities.

Develop a vision of the mentoring you need

To envision the kinds of mentors you should seek, reflect on others who served as mentors earlier in your life and answer these questions

  • What kind of mentoring have I received in the past? Was it work-related? School-related?
  • Would I describe my past mentoring relationships as collegial ones (as equals or near equals) or apprenticeship ones? What does this difference mean to me now? Which do I prefer at this stage of my professional development?
  • What did I find most useful about the mentoring I received? What did I find least useful?
  • What kind of mentoring did I not receive earlier that would be particularly helpful to me now?