Mentoring Graduate Students

By Nigel Ashford

This advice is addressed to would be mentors. Graduate students, if you would like to be mentored, we have a wealth of materials to help you learn more. Also, IHS program officers are available to offer you advice and mentor you on your journey as an academic.

What is Mentoring?

A mentor is someone who takes a long term interest in the care and development of another person by providing advice based on their knowledge and experience. An adviser may or may not be a mentor. An adviser will give guidance on the doctoral program, comment on papers, and review the dissertation. However a mentor will take a wider interest in the student’s professional development.

Graduate students, ideally you will seek out more than one mentor to take full advantage of a range of knowledge and experience, and to relieve the burden on any one mentor.

Why Mentor?

Faculty have a great many demands on their time, Why should they devote any time to mentoring?

  1. For most professors, it is a great source of professional and personal satisfaction to see their students succeed.
  2. Your reputation in the discipline is enhanced by the quality of the students you mentor.
  3. If you care about the discipline, you will want the next generation of scholars to be of high quality.
  4. The ability of your department to attract quality students will depend on the department’s reputation in mentoring.
  5. You cannot read everything, so graduate students can be an excellent source of information about developments in the discipline, such as new books and articles.
  6. Your mentees are enlarging your academic network.

What is the Role of a Mentor?

The Council of Graduate Schools identifies a variety of roles:

  1. Advisors, who have career experience and share their knowledge.
  2. Supporters, who give emotional and moral encouragement.
  3.  Tutors, who give specific feedback on performance.
  4.  ‘Masters ‘, who serve as employers to graduate student ‘apprentices.’
  5.  Sponsors, who are a source of information and opportunities.
  6. Models of identity, who serve as academic role models.

Your role is to assist the graduate student in the transition from student (consumer of knowledge) to colleague (producer of knowledge). You need to decide which of these roles make the most of your abilities and with which you are most comfortable.  It would be impossible for one person to do a great job in all these roles. You can assist the student in finding other mentors: in your department (including retired and adjunct professors), in other departments, at other universities, and among more advanced graduate students.

What is the Mentoring Process?

Each mentor has their own style, and the mentoring process will vary with both mentor and student.   Your style should be made clear to the student.

  1. Have an initial meeting when your role is made explicit.
  2. Place the responsibility for initiating meetings with the student, but chase them up if they fail to maintain contact.
  3. Ask the student to create a timeline of objectives, both short term and long term.
  4. State clearly how you want to communicate (during open office hours, in regular formal meetings, informally over coffee, email or in written form).
  5. Be clear about availability. Your time is precious, but a small amount of your time can save the student a great deal of their time and unnecessary stress.
  6. Balance criticism and praise.

How to Share Your Knowledge

The academy is probably second nature to you now, so you assume it must be obvious to others. It isn’t.  Remember for the student this is a new, puzzling and possibly frightening world.  Here are some specific ways you can share your knowledge. They include:

  1. Demystify graduate school, by explaining how it differs from the undergraduate experience.
  2. Give advice on how to make effective use of their time.
  3. Encourage them to think in the long term, beyond the current class paper.
  4. Encourage them to think of the academy as a career and not just a series of papers.
  5. Give advice on how to network in the academic world.
  6. Give advice on how to apply for fellowships and grants.
  7. Advise them why, when and where they need to give conference papers, starting with the department and ending up at the main disciplinary conference.
  8. Suggest journals they should read regularly.
  9. Tell them which associations they should join
  10. Give feedback on their teaching and presentations.
  11. Give feedback on  their written work
  12. Discuss their research ideas.

You do not need to do all these things, but ask the student who is advising them on what.

Go forth and mentor!


Resources for Mentors and Mentees

Scaling the Ivory Tower: The Pursuit of an Academic Career

How IHS Program Officers Can Help You

Mentoring Resources for students and faculty

Path to Professor guide to Kosmos content