Learn about what mentors can offer


  • Assess how much time a prospective mentor can provide you by asking about his or her other commitments. Find out from other students how much time this person normally spends with graduate students. Will that amount of time be sufficient for you?
  • Ask prospective mentors about their plans. Do they anticipate being in the graduate program for the duration of your degree? Will they take sabbaticals or otherwise work away from the department during this time? If so, how would you maintain sufficient contact?


  • Are you comfortable interacting with this person?
  • Are you able to communicate your thoughts and ideas effectively?
  • Does this person listen attentively to your ideas and concerns, and ask good follow up questions?
  • Does this person like to meet one-on-one?
  • Will you be able to work closely with this person?
  • Do you enjoy this person’s professional and personal style?

Workload and financial support

  • What does the potential mentor consider a normal workload for graduate scholarship outside of your work as a teaching or research assistant? How many hours per week does he or she believe you should be spending on your research or creative projects?
  • Does the potential mentor have or know of funds to support you? Will that financial support remain available until you complete your program?
  • Do you see potential for developing a thesis or dissertation topic from the mentor’s research?
  • Does the mentor have appropriate space and laboratory equipment for your needs? What is the size of the mentor’s research group, and is this size optimal for you? Will this person support your search for teaching assistantships?
  • Will this mentor be able to help you obtain graduate assistantships or fellowships? Will he or she be able to help you achieve the professional development balance you want between teaching and research assistantships?


  • Does the potential mentor co-author articles with graduate students? If so, ask about his or her approach to determining first authorship.
  • Is the prospective mentor willing to help you prepare your work for publication?
  • What publishing contacts does he or she have?

Reputation with graduate students and staff

  • Ask your peers whether the potential mentor has a history of giving proper attention to his or her mentees.
  • Can this person provide you with teaching and research opportunities, access to financial resources and guidance for completing a thesis or dissertation?
  • Does this person provide students access to professional networks, and assistance in exploring academic and non-academic career development?
  • Have former students completed their programs in a timely fashion with this mentor’s guidance? If not, why?
  • What is the prospective mentor’s approach to training graduate students for breadth, as well as depth, in anticipation of careers outside of academia?

Reputation within the field

  • What opinions do others in your field have about the prospective mentor’s work?
  • What kind of professional positions did others mentored by this person obtain? Do you see yourself pursuing those kinds of career paths?
  • Read reviews of the potential mentor’s work in scholarly journals or convention proceedings, or in award nomination letters.
  • Follow up with your prospective mentors via e-mail or phone to thank them for their time and let them know that what you learned was fruitful.
  • If you agreed to pursue an idea or topic, let them know your plans and when you will get back in touch.

Take some time to reflect. If you later decide to ask this person to be a mentor, you both will have a better understanding of what each will gain from the relationship. If a mentoring relationship begins to take shape, this understanding will help you and your mentor create a professional development plan that is tailored to your needs (see Worksheet 4, Professional Development Plan).

Clarify expectations

When students and mentors have clear expectations of one another, relationships are more likely to be productive, enjoyable and mutually beneficial. To prevent misunderstandings, discuss the expectations you and your mentor have of each other, including how they may change over time. Not all mentors and mentees establish formal contracts. Some find formal agreements useful, while others prefer to work under informal agreements (see Worksheet 5, Sample Mentor and Mentee Agreement).

Be realistic about what any one mentor can do for you, and avoid requesting too much assistance or assistance that is too broad. That is why having multiple mentors is helpful. Remember that mentors can respond better to requests for specific types of assistance than to requests for general mentoring. Analyze what you need from a given mentor and explicitly ask for those things. Part of your task is to develop and demonstrate your abilities as a colleague and a professional. Discuss with your mentor ways that you can take on more responsibility.