Effective Graduate Student Mentoring Practices
Large national studies link effective graduate student mentorship to important outcomes such as degree completion (Golde, 2000; Lovitts, 2001, 2008), increased self-efficacy (Paglis, Green, & Bauer, 2006), and satisfaction with the educational experience (Gardner, 2009; Nettles & Millet, 2006). There are numerous definitions of mentors, ranging from a person who provides support for career development (e.g., sponsorship, coaching, protection) to psychosocial development (e.g., support, role modeling, counseling) (Johnson & Huwe, 2003). Similar to teaching, mentoring involves the communication of information between people. Specifically, mentors are “guides on the side,” facilitating the mentee’s construction of their own personal and professional development. Brown’s Graduate School has developed and brought together a collection of Advising and Mentoring Resources for Faculty and is currently developing additional materials aimed specifically toward graduate students. To complement these materials, this newsletter highlights strategies that faculty and graduate students can use to shape their mentoring relationships, which include: learning how to communicate, mentoring across difference, and how to set goals and expectations.
“It is important to help students develop their own interests. I believe that mentorship is not about replicating one’s work, but about guiding students in becoming who they want to be.”
- José Itzigsohn, Sociology, 2016 recipient of Graduate School Faculty Award for Advising and Mentoring
Learning how to communicate with each other
Cultivating strong and authentic mentoring relationships can increase the likelihood that your mentee will be open and share accomplishments, challenges, or difficulties they are experiencing.
Advice for mentors: Getting to know your mentee involves dedicating time to learn more about them by asking questions and practicing active listening. Throughout this process you will find that each mentee brings different values, perspectives, experiences, and interests that may or may not align with your own. Effective communication requires being honest about what you can and cannot provide for a mentee. For example, a study of recently graduated African-American sociologists found that common mentee requests include psychosocial support (emotional and personal support), instrumental support (teaching advice and guidance through bureaucratic processes), and sponsorship (letters of recommendation, introductions to others, and access to travel money) (Dixson-Reeves, 2003). One person may not be well-positioned to fill all of these functions, however, it is important for a mentor to actively connect a mentee with other possible mentors to fill possible gaps. All types of mentoring contribute to mentee confidence and the achievement of career goals. Because women and graduate students from historically underrepresented groups tend to receive less instrumental and sponsorship-based mentoring, connecting students with a variety of mentoring support structures can help mentees succeed (Curtin, Malley, & Stewart, 2016).
Advice for graduate mentees: An advisor can be a key mentor, however, it is wise to cultivate a variety of mentors, which may include other faculty, university administrators, and senior peers (Baker & Lattuca, 2010; Johnson & Huwe, 2003). When working on independent research, graduate students report that it is helpful to look outside of the department, through strategic networking with junior faculty, collaborations with scholars in the same area of research, or non-academic career leads (Baker & Pifer, 2011). A study of successful African-American graduate students found that having a diverse network was critical for persistence and future academic success (Taylor & Antony, 2000).
Mentoring Across Difference
There are mixed findings about whether it is important for academic mentors and mentees to have similar identities (Curtin, Malley, & Stewart, 2016). However, in order to ensure equitable access to the beneficial outcomes of mentoring, it can be important for both mentors and mentees to establish a relationship across difference.
“I am here to help [my students] learn, not to teach them, but really help them learn and realize that they are not alone, trying to relate to them with some stories of opportunities and challenges in my own journey.”
-Simin Liu, epidemiology, 2017 recipient of School of Public Health Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring
Advice for Mentors: When giving constructive feedback to a mentee, it is important to avoid messages that convey a lack of confidence in their abilities such as, “You don’t have what it takes.” At the same time, completely withholding feedback is not constructive. Packard (2015, p. 102) suggests the following framing language: “I am going to give you this feedback because I take you seriously” and “I have high standards, but I know you can meet them.” Sheridan resources on microaggressions and microaffirmations and stereotype threat also offer helpful tools to guide these conversations. It is also important to note that many mentoring relationships serve as counterspaces to the inequalities that people from underrepresented groups face in academia. If you are a mentor from a historically underrepresented group, you might find that students disproportionately seek your mentorship. In a recent blogpost, a faculty member highlights The Unseen Labor of Mentoring and offers guidance on self-care and how to professionally bring attention to the support you are providing students.
Advice for Graduate Mentees: Before beginning a mentoring relationship, it is helpful to identify the level of importance that having a same-identity mentor is for you. For example, research indicates that same-identity mentors may offer the best psychosocial support (Ortiz-Walters & Gilson, 2005), but many successful cross-race mentoring relationships are between those who agree on the same preference for how to deal with the question of race, i.e., whether to sublimate or engage the role of racial differences in the relationship (Thomas, 1993). If it is important for you to have a same-identity mentor and that opportunity is not available in your department, you might find support by connecting with faculty, students, and staff in affinity groups on campus.
Setting goals and expectations
It is important for mentorship teams to meet regularly to review goals, progress, challenges, and future plans. One aspect of mentoring involves preparing mentees to be competitive for future careers inside and beyond the academy, and written plans can be helpful for anchoring those discussions.
“As a first [generation] college and graduate student, I am honest about all of the pieces of the profession that may not be transparent; usually this results in them asking questions they might have been afraid to ask, even if they do not have first generation status.”
- Patricia Ybarra, TAPS, 2015 recipient of Graduate School Faculty Award for Advising and Mentoring
For Mentors: In order to effectively guide mentees, mentors can reflect on what skills and strengths they are able to contribute to a mentoring relationship.
For example, the Mentoring Competency Assessment for Mentors was developed to assess research mentors and mentees based on six core competencies: maintaining effective communication, aligning expectations, assessing understanding, addressing diversity, fostering independence, and promoting professional development (Anderson, Silet & Fleming, 2012). Similarly, Nature’s guide for mentors has a self-assessment tool that provides specific strategies and asks you to reflect on examples of how you implemented that particular strategy (Lee, Dennis & Campell, 2007). Mentors can use these tools to reflect on current mentoring skills and identify areas where they can provide support and areas they could improve as mentors.
For Mentees: Recently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began encouraging grant recipients to assist graduate students and postdoctoral scholars with career development by completing an individual development plan (IDP), a tool used to reflect on current experience, consider future options, and document progress. Brown’s Office for Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies has a template that mentees and mentors can use to discuss short-term goals, long-term goals, and activities to reach those goals. Online tools, like the AAAS MyIDP and ImaginePhD, offer goal setting and online assessments connected to career possibilities for students in STEM and humanities and social sciences, respectively. In meetings, mentees can discuss these goals, indicate how they align with departmental and graduate school milestones, set timelines for meeting those goals, and discuss successful strategies that they have encountered.
Because of the relationship between teaching and mentoring, the Sheridan Center can offer workshops customized for departments, support mentoring learning communities, and produce online resources dedicated to mentor development. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Baker, V. L., & Lattuca, L. R. (2010). Developmental networks and learning: Toward an interdisciplinary perspective on identity development during doctoral study. Studies in Higher Education, 35(7): 807–27.
Curtin, N., Malley J., & Stewart, A. J. (2016). Mentoring the next generation of faculty: Supporting academic career aspirations among doctoral students. Research in Higher Education, 57(6): 714–38.
Gardner, S. K. (2009). Contrasting the socialization experiences of doctoral students in high and low completion departments. The Journal of Higher Education, 81(1): 61-81.
Golde, C. M. (2000). Should I stay or should I go? Student descriptions of the doctoral attrition process. The Review of Higher Education, 23(2): 199–227.
Johnson, W. B., & Huwe, J. M. (2003). Getting mentored in graduate school. 1st edition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Lee, A., Dennis, C., and Campbell, P. (2007). Nature’s guide for mentors. Special Features. Nature. Available: https://www.nature.com/articles/447791a
Lovitts, B. E. (2001) Leaving the ivory tower: The causes and consequences of departure from doctoral study. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Lovitts, B. E. (2008). The transition to independent research: Who makes it, who doesn’t, and why. Journal of Higher Education, 79(3), 296-325.
Nettles, M. T., & Millett, C. M. (2006). Three magic letters: Getting to Ph.D. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ortiz-Walters, R., & Gilson, L. L. (2005). Mentoring in academia: An examination of the experiences of proteges of color. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 67: 459-475.
Packard, B. W., & Fortenberry, N. L. (2015). Successful STEM mentoring initiatives for underrepresented students: A research-based guide for faculty and administrators. First edition. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.
Paglis, L. L., Green S. G., & Bauer, T. N. (2006). Does adviser mentoring add value? A longitudinal study of mentoring and doctoral student outcomes. Research in Higher Education, 47(4): 451–76.
Taylor, E., & Antony, J. S. (2000). Stereotype threat reduction and wise schooling: Towards the successful socialization of African American doctoral students in education. The Journal of Negro Education, 69(3): 184–98.
Thomas, D. A. (1993). Racial dynamics in cross-race developmental relationships. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38(2): 169-194.