Mentoring at Princeton

Effron Music Buildling with fall foliage

While the terms “mentoring” and “advising” are often used interchangeably–and both activities play key functions in supporting students as they progress and develop as learners and scholars–there are some central differences between the two. We tend to focus on academic advising as guiding students through Princeton’s curriculum, that is, to assist them as they progress to their degree. This role is slightly different for undergraduate and graduate students, and varies depending on the student’s goals and career path, but in general an adviser helps a student to navigate institutional expectations in relation to their specific goals as well as any life hurdles or logistical challenges that arise. Advisers help a student lay the course for their Princeton experience as a whole, with a big picture perspective of the student’s needs in relationship to the broader institutional framework that no one instructor can have.

Rather than maintaining this broad, bird’s eye view, mentors, by contrast, have the unique opportunity to focus in deeply on a student’s particular challenges and strengths to support and guide them in their personal and professional development, often by assisting with a specific research project (be it an undergraduate thesis or graduate student’s dissertation). They typically meet regularly with students to support their independent work, teaching key skills of the discipline, but also tailoring their approach to the individual student. According to Johnson & Ridley in The Elements of Mentoring (2018), “Mentoring relationships (mentorships) are dynamic, reciprocal, personal relationships in which a more experienced person (mentor) acts as a guide, role model, teacher, and sponsor of a less experienced person (mentee)” (xviii). Taking a personal, in-depth, and bidirectional approach, mentors are uniquely poised to support the whole student, thus helping them become more confident and connected to their department, university, or discipline. Finally, mentors often guide students in their present and future career decisions by helping them to network with other key professionals in the field.

Here, we offer guidance on mentoring undergraduate and graduate students. For recommendations on advising undergraduates, please see the thorough and robust Academic Advising Handbook (login required), maintained by The Office of the Dean of the College (ODOC), which includes Princeton’s philosophy of academic advising as well as details about the practice of advising. In addition, every Fall ODOC edits and publishes the Director of Undergraduate Studies Handbook, which provides information on advising majors and independent work. 

Advising graduate students is quite different from advising undergraduates, given the longer duration of graduate school and the distinct stages of the process. At Princeton, a graduate student may begin with a departmental adviser who helps to select classes and navigate the curriculum, while also interacting with their program's Director of Graduate Studies (DGS). This faculty member is responsible for many of the duties typically associated with advising: offering consistent advice throughout a student’s graduate career (beginning well before the dissertation writing phase); addressing administrative or curriculum requirement questions; offering advice regarding professional or personal decisions; advising on other matters that may affect their graduate studies; and giving suggestions for navigating particular relationships or dynamics of the department. After completing required departmental coursework and General Exams, a graduate student typically chooses a formal “faculty advisor” and "committee members" as part of the process of selecting their dissertation topic, writing a prospectus, and subsequently conducting original research that leads to a completed dissertation.

For a thoughtful and thorough overview of the role of a graduate student advisor, please see the Graduate School’s helpful guide to advising graduate students. Indeed, a student’s dissertation adviser(s) might be said to serve more as mentors, supporting them in their specific research, skills, and professional development as they grow and develop as scholars and find their specific niche and scholarly community. We will return to this skillset below.