Finding the Right Mentor – and Getting the Most from Working with Him/Her

ImageQ: What advice would you give to graduate students about identifying mentors and making the most of those experiences?

I am fortunate to have a terrific colleague who studies mentoring issues in graduate education, Jessica Collett. I asked Jessica to address a follow-up question in her post. – BC

Since you have been doing work on gender differences in mentoring received by women and men, do you think there is anything graduate students themselves can do to help bridge those gaps, or is that on the faculty?

Author: Jessica Collett, University of Notre Dame

Before I begin, I want to clarify that I see a difference between advisors and mentors. When I use this distinction, I imagine an advisor as someone who advises or directs. They work in the same area you do and help you identify interesting questions and relevant literatures and expose you to networks and norms in your specific area. A mentor, on the other hand, is a coach or a guide. They don’t need to work in the same area as you. They provide socialization, professionalization, and support through grad school and hopefully into your career. Many of us had advisor-mentors (people who served both roles in our development as scholars), but I try to remind students that these people do not have to be one in the same.

The first rule for identifying either a mentor or advisor is find someone who you respect. They should be someone who you think does good work, treats people well, and who you trust with your ideas. This respect and basic level of trust serve as the foundation for an honest relationship, a foundation that you can build on as time goes on and relates to the second rule: find someone who you can communicate with. Although this is ideally the case for either an advisor or a mentor, it is important that there is at least someone who you can be open with. Communication is at the heart of a successful mentoring or advising relationship. Many of the graduate students in my research who had decided not to pursue research-intensive, tenure-track positions had not yet shared their actual career goals with any faculty members. As a result, most of these students were woefully under-prepared for the positions that they did want. If no one knew that they wanted to focus on teaching, it was much less likely they would get teaching-assistantships or their own classes. Others struggled with communicating areas where they felt weak (e.g., grant-writing, statistics). This lack of open communication both stemmed from and contributed to concerns about inauthenticity and impostorism and negatively affected many students’ graduate careers.

Many of the students who I spoke with chose mentors based on superficial attributes, particularly gender and family status. Some did this because they were looking for people “like them.” They assumed that women would be better advisors for women, that people with kids would be better mentors for people with children, and so forth. Others did this drawing on particular stereotypes, assuming that women would be more supportive and nurturing, men would push them harder, older people would be better connected, young people hungrier to publish. Either way, the results seldom were as students hoped. Mentoring is an incredibly personal thing and personalities are much more important than characteristics in determining how well a faculty member and student will be able to work together. The first step is figuring out your own personality and what you want from the relationship. There is even a checklist in this guide to help you do that (and a companion guide you can share with faculty).  Having an open and honest relationship, with good communication and shared expectations, will enhance the mentoring you get. It is bringing all the qualities of interaction that those informal encounters bring to your own mentoring relationship, regardless of whether it occurs in an office or a soccer field.

My last piece of advice about student-faculty relationships is to be the student a faculty member wants to work with. This is not a buyer’s market, where you just select who you would most like to work with and you’re done. This is a dance and you need a partner. You want to have your pick of the faculty. Even before you set out to find an advisor or mentor, work hard in classes, be a good departmental citizen, take initiative as a graduate assistant, and so forth. It will make all of the above much easier. Good luck!

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2 comments

  1. Good post. Your post connected with some information I heard at a forum recently that stressed the importance of identifying multiple mentors and treating them as limited relationships, not expecting one person to be everything to you. There was also a good discussion of distinguishing between mentors and friends as well as your important distinction between advisors and mentors.

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