Mentoring Graduate Students as Learners and Scholars

In doctoral education, students spend the majority of their time in their programs after they complete coursework. For STEM trainees these years are generally spent in lab settings and working with mentors and other trainees in collaborative teams. For Humanities and certain Social Sciences trainees, the time spent on independent research and dissertation work is often solitary. In both contexts, the mentoring relationship is essential. Ideally, it is with their primary advisors and mentors that research trainees develop knowledge, skills, and field-specific expertise; receive timely and useful guidance and feedback on their work; socialize into their disciplines; grow their professional networks; and learn and practice strategies to flourish while pursuing personal and professional goals.

The final stage of dissertation planning and writing is perhaps the most crucial–and challenging–for many graduate students. Mentors can help students to set goals for themselves and structure their time so that they successfully complete and defend their dissertations, while also developing professional skills. Finally, as students enter the job market, mentors can support them in job searches both within and beyond academia (Pifer & Baker 19-22). 

Best Practices

We encourage you to conceive of mentoring as both a practice and a process that is dynamic and reciprocal. We recommend developing your own unique statement of “mentoring philosophy" (see below), and then tailoring this approach to meet each of your mentees’ individual interests, aspirations, and needs. As with undergraduate mentoring, you will also benefit from discussing mentees' interests, strengths, goals and preferences (as well as your own) with them, and then using what you discover to cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship. 

The literature suggests several general approaches to promote effective, ethical, and intentional mentoring.  With these in mind, we recommend that you aspire to be a mentor who is

Affirming  

Support your mentees, encourage them to create their own paths and to question, critique, and even "fail" in order to make progress. Also express confidence in them and tell them (more than once!) that you believe in their capacity to succeed.

Explicit

Make your approach to mentoring clear–both to yourself and your mentees–and commit to communicating candidly and consistently regarding the following:

  • Expectations 
    • Related to progress and "milestones" (e.g., course completion, General Exams, and dissertation proposals)
    • Projects, conference presentations, and publications. (i.e., What is reasonable at various stages of their program?)
    • Timeline(s) for program completion (i.e., What is typical, and what variables can affect an estimated timeline?)
    • Work-related practices and policies (e.g., hours spent in the lab, remote work options, time off, vacation, and holidays) 
  • Collaboration
    • See "Co-constructing a Mentoring Agreement," below. Creating a tailored agreement with each mentee one can align your mentoring approach with individual mentee's interests and needs. This kind of document can also help to hold you and your mentees accountable to your commitments.
    • Consider developing a lab manual if you are mentoring in a STEM field. (See below for more information.) This kind of document can be especially helpful for people new to your team, while also ensuring that everyone has equitable access to up-to-date and accurate information.
  • Boundaries
    • What are your preferences regarding communication formats and norms?
      • Do you share your cell phone # with mentees?
      • How frequently do you like to meet with mentees, and does this vary depending on what they're working on or where they are in their program?
      • Do you have "standing" meetings with a larger group, such as weekly lab meetings? And if so, what do these entail, who decides, and is an agenda disseminated before-hand?
      • How quickly do you typically respond to email?
      • Does your lab use a Slack channel or some other form of digital communication? If so, have you explained the rationale behind its use, and what the objectives are?
    • Will/do you socialize with mentees outside of the classroom, department, or lab setting? If so, how? And is this equitable and ethical?

Responsive 

Your mentoring should ideally be tailored to the specific needs, interests, and goals of each mentee. Mentees have diverse identities and educational backgrounds, and learning as much as you can about them, their strengths, and their areas for growth, will benefit both of you. Like all relationships, a mentoring dyad is unique and not a "one size fits all." Remember that your mentees are likely very different from you, and they are different from each other, as well. Here are some suggestions:

  • Be flexible. Your work with mentees will evolve over time, and one of the best ways you can support mentees' growth is to be flexible as they develop personally and professionally.  During grad school, their research focus or living situation may change; they may get sick and need to take a medical leave; they may become a parent or take on other family care-giving responsibilities; and there may even be a global pandemic. For lots of good reasons, mentees will need you to be understanding, flexible, and able to meet them where they are, especially when unexpected challenges arise.
  • Provide effective, timely, and SMART feedback. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. These criteria can help you and your mentee define what you hope to achieve together, how to measure progress, how realistic the goal is, how it aligns with values and vision, and when you both plan to accomplish it. By setting SMART goals, you can track progress, celebrate your mentee's successes, and identify areas for growth.
  • Ask your mentees to give you feedback, as well. You can learn with and from them as you refine your mentoring practice. You can also show them the value of soliciting feedback from others by doing this yourself in your interactions with them. Remember that you are in a unique position to role-model strategies for "success" in academia, and showing mentees that you admit mistakes, seek constructive criticism, and lean into collaborative problem-solving rather than avoiding conflict can help them to practice these life-skills, as well.  

Reflective

Just as teaching is a skill that one can learn and sharpen over time, so, too, is mentoring. We recommend that in the same way that you allocate time to your scholarship, teaching, and service, you also set aside time to think about and plan for your work as a mentor. This could take many forms, such as:

  • keeping a mentoring journal
  • reviewing and updating your statement of mentoring philosophy each year
  • taking a workshop or course on evidence-based mentoring
  • creating a "mentoring circle" with faculty peers to meet regularly, share lessons learned, discuss challenges, and support one another
  • using an existing instrument to assess your developing skills
  • surveying your mentees with specific questions about your approach and actions as a mentor
  • or any number of other creative ways to reflect on your mentoring


The idea is that you are intentional about this work, and that you celebrate your own successes as a mentor while also identifying areas for improvement. . . . Just as you'd do for your mentees!

Developing a Philosophy

The concept of a statement of mentoring philosophy is loosely based on statements of teaching philosophy. It's meant as a work-in-progress document in which you articulate your beliefs about mentoring and approach to working with mentees. 

As you develop your mentoring practice your philosophy will likely evolve, but crafting a preliminary statement can help make your path more clear and navigable. A relatively small investment of your time in reflecting and writing can reap substantial rewards for you and your mentees going forward.

Mentoring Agreements

In addition to writing a statement of mentoring philosophy, we recommend co-constructing a mentoring compact, or "agreement" with mentees to promote inclusivity and equity by making mentor and mentee goals and related activities explicit. The document can take many forms, and can be referred to and revised over time. When developing one with a mentee, you will likely want to address the following topics and related questions (adapted from the University of Pittsburgh):

  • Goals - What goals do you both have for the mentoring relationship? What skills and knowledge are needed to make progress toward these goals? What are the steps necessary for your mentee to acquire these skills and knowledge? How can you best assist with this?
  • Expectations - What do the two of you expect of each other, and of yourselves in this partnership? Are these expectations feasible and complementary? And if not, how might you bring them into alignment? In addition, how will you know when you are meeting the expectations you've set for yourselves, and/or veering off the path that you had planned?
  • Processes and logistics - What are your preferred ways and modes of communicating? How frequently will you meet, and who will schedule meetings and set agendas so that your time together is useful? Will you meet in-person, virtually, or both? How long will meetings generally take? Are there other (lab or departmental) policies, procedures, or activities that your mentee should know about or participate in?
  • Evaluation and continued development - How will you assess your mentoring collaboration over time and know if it is effective? If and when questions or issues arise, how will you address or resolve them? What are your plans for ending or finishing the mentoring relationship when your mentee graduates or moves on, and/or the relationship has achieved its goals, run its course, or is not working?

Growing Healthy Labs

If you are a PI, fostering a positive climate and culture in your lab is arguably one of your most important jobs. A positive lab environment leads to happier lab members, and since one of the biggest predictors of grad student burnout is how supported students feel, attending to the people in your lab and how they work together is essential (Ogilvie et al.). Leading a lab certainly has particular challenges, but it also affords many distinctive opportunities. We hope that these “best practices” and the resources below can guide your approach.

  • Implement inclusive application and hiring processes
  • Create a lab manual (to articulate expectations, boundaries, etc.)
  • Clarify expectations
  • Promote safety and well-being
  • Offer professional development opportunities 
  • Emphasize collaboration, not competition

References and Additional Resources