Why You Need Mentors

Surviving graduate school is tough. Many fail to complete, and everyone goes through tough times. At some point, you will suffer the “imposter syndrome” i.e. ask the question: am I really good enough to succeed on this program? You need a mentor or, even better, several mentors to survive the loneliness of the long distance PhD student. Graduate school is the process where you move from being a student (a consumer of knowledge) to a colleague (a producer of knowledge). You need help in making this transition.

What is Mentoring?

A mentor is someone who takes a long term interest in your academic career. Ideally your advisor is a mentor, but may not be, and anyway you need more than one. Mentors should 1) provide feedback on your work 2) provide advice on your research 3) advise you on where and how to publish 4) provide feedback on your teaching and presentation skills, 5) advise you on conferences to attend and associations to join, 6) help you to network with other scholars in other institutions 7) advise on how to obtain grants and fellowships 8) give advice when going on the job market.

So a mentor plays a number of roles. You should search for several, 3 or 4, mentors who may be stronger in some roles than in others. They might be other faculty in your department (including retired and adjuncts), professors in another related department, faculty in other universities, advanced graduate students or non-academic sources , such as employers and, of course, IHS.

Mentoring is essential to your success, not a nice addition.

Choosing a Mentor

You need to find a mentor, but remember they need to choose you too. Why would anyone be a mentor? 1) It is a source of job satisfaction that they can contribute to someone’s success. 2) They want to help young scholars contribute to their discipline, especially in topics that interest them. 3) It brings credit to themselves when their mentees are successful. 4) successful graduate students contribute to their own network.

Why do you want a mentor? You need to identify your own goals, strengths and weaknesses. Look at the number of roles above. Which ones do you need? Who can best satisfy those needs you have.

How do you find mentors? 1) You should be familiar with the research, teaching interests, and methodologies of all the faculty in your department. One faculty member might share your research interest; another may teach courses related to your interests; while another may be closer to your methodology. You should research all the faculty on the departmental website. 2) You should attend departmental activities, including social events and lectures. Take the opportunity to introduce yourself to all the faculty. 3) Ask advanced graduate students. 4) Ask your Advisor.

Those First Meetings

The first meeting with a potential mentor should not be explicitly about asking that person to be a mentor, unless you already have a relationship with that person. Treat it as a getting to know you session. You are trying to establish if you are both a good fit. Do ask for specific advice, but do not ask if the person will be a mentor at the very first meeting.

You should go in 1) having identified mutual interests 2) with an idea of your goals 3) ready to initiate the conversation 4) having identified why the potential mentor should be interested in you.

If you decide that you do want that person to be a mentor, ask that person explicitly if they are willing. You need to establish what role you want that person to play. You should establish 1) availability 2) how you want to communicate 3) what support you are seeking, on research, teaching or professional development, 4) whether the mentor will review drafts of your work 5) advice on the job market.

Remember faculty have a variety of demands upon their time. Mentoring is only part of their responsibilities. Do not ask for more than they are willing to provide. Identify what their comparative advantage is for you.

Your Role as a Mentee

You should be clear about your responsibilities as a mentee. They include: 1) the responsibility for initiating meetings is yours, so you may want to agree regular meetings such every 2-3 weeks, 2) know your own schedule of commitments, both long and short term, e.g. when course work has to be completed, when you will give your first conference presentation etc 3) be prepared with your own agenda when you meet. 4) know if the mentor’s primary role is providing feedback on your research or to support professional development, such as which association to join, what publications to read, which conferences to attend etc.

Some relationships do not work out. If there are any problems, discuss them first with the mentor. If you still feel this is unsatisfactory, discuss with other faculty, such as the department chair, on whether it makes sense to change the mentor. Identify alternative mentor before ending the relationship, and establish their willingness to fulfill that role.

Go forth and be mentored!



Scaling the Ivory Tower: The Pursuit of an Academic Career

How IHS Program Officers Can Help You


By: Nigel Ashford