Won’t you be my mentor? Understanding the challenges of finding an appropriate graduate school mentor

If you are or were a graduate student, you may know or learned that your studies and career in academia would be best supported by an appropriate mentor. Ideally, this individual is a professor in the department and university in which you have enrolled to pursue your graduate school studies, and this particular scenario will form the basis of the balance of this discussion.

Before considering the kinds of assistance mentors can provide, let’s start with the things they are not supposed be or do. To begin with, mentors are not intended to be to your dog sitter, drinking partner, friend, landlord, romantic or sexual partner, or therapist. Conflating these roles with that of mentor-mentee can lead to unnecessary confusion, exploitation, and abuse, all situations which are best to be avoided. Also, simply writing letters of recommendation, agreeing to chair or be on masters or doctoral dissertation, etc. is not in and of itself mentoring.

How can a graduate school mentor assist graduate student?

These individuals can assist their students in a number of critical areas including:

• Getting into the graduate program where they work
• Co-authoring papers with them
• Co-presenting papers at scholarly conferences
Guiding them through the publishing process
• Helping them to clarify both term paper and dissertation questions and topics.
• Assisting graduate students in choosing non required classes.
• Assisting students choose suitable people to be on their dissertation committee and negotiate the informal dynamics of committee processes
• Assisting them in securing funding (including identifying appropriate funding sources and assisting with the application
• Helping them find gainful employment in the field and sometimes outside of the field

In short, graduate mentors need to take an active role in your education, training and career, and do this in a professional manner. The fact that grad school mentors don’t know all the intricate organizational policies and practices is not the standard to evaluate them. Follow through, sound advice, good communication skills, and the identification or creation of opportunities, are the criteria with which to best judge them.

Searching for the ideal graduate mentor

Often the search for an appropriate mentor starts, and is easier before students enter a graduate program. Sometimes this is a relatively easy process, but most of the time it is a labor intensive and frustrating experience.

Some academics find prospective and actual students, regardless of the stage of their academic careers, to be an unnecessary nuisance that just waste their time. Thus, a handful of professors do not answer e-mails or phone calls from prospective or actual graduate students.

If you manage to make contact with a professor that works in a subject area that appeals to you, and who is interested in considering you as their mentee, the next step is to attempt to build a relationship. It is a complex dance, where adept parties pay close attention to subtle cues concerning authenticity, depth of commitment, interest, etc. In order to demonstrate interest it is important to read almost everything they have written, in particular the more recent things, attend talks they give, ask for feedback on papers or paper talks, ask to work with them in some capacity on their research. One of the difficult choices for graduate students is should you pursue a mentor who is well respected in their field, but relatively unhelpful, or a scholar who you have a good bond with who may be more junior or not that knowledgeable about your specific field?

Alternatively, graduate programs may automatically assign students an advisor, with the hope that this relationship may evolve into a mentor-mentee relationship. Many times these arrangements are very fruitful. The advisor knows all (or most) of the department, graduate school, and university policies and all or most of the important players and helps you to navigate the complex rules, regulations, and norms of the organization and the profession.

On the other hand, many of the advisor-grad student relationships are like marriages of convenience. They may last one or two semesters, but it’s clear that there was a mismatch between them, and both parties go their separate ways. Plus over time, the graduate student is no longer a rookie, and they may have a better idea about their preferred subject area of focus, ideal methodology, and maybe even a specific subject for their thesis or dissertation. Thus an internal shopping trip begins with the student looking for an appropriate in house professor in their department.

Here the size of department, in terms of number of faculty members, is an important factor. In principle, the bigger the academic department, the greater the diversity of specialization, the smaller the department the lower the chance a graduate student is going to find somebody who has the exact specific interests. And just because you find someone who has the same interests does not mean that there will be the necessary chemistry for you to succeed.

Some departments have well thought out and implemented graduate student mentoring programs. The professors meet with the students on a regular basis (e.g., once a week) and socialize them into the norms of a graduate career and the academic profession. In principle, mentoring graduate students is a part of the professor’s job. So students shouldn’t feel intimidated or nervous. I always feel so awkward because they’re so experienced and I don’t want to fuck up in something I say. But I think if you say- that they know you’re starting out and you can be candid about the state of of your project or any insecurities you have with the direction you are going. This is a good thing.

The Challenge & Solutions

In a best case scenario prospective graduate students should start searching for a mentor before they apply to a particular department. Some times this can be an intimidating and frustrating experience.

In order to maximize your chances of finding a suitable academic mentor avoid showing up (or dropping in) at the prospective faculty member’s office unannounced, knowing very little about the scholarship that they do, and proclaim that you are looking for a mentor, or even blabber out “will you be my mentor?”

Instead, in your search for a perfect match do your due diligence. This includes:

• Speaking with current and former graduate students and asking them if they can recommend particular faculty members and
which ones to avoid. (And just like Yelp reviews, don’t take other students word as gospel about the reputation of a
• Reading as much as possible the scholarship produced by the prospective mentor, especially what they have done in recent years.
• Attending one or more academic conferences and observe your potential mentor in action.
• Determining if your potential graduate school mentor has other students.

If everything checks out, then it’s time to get in touch via e-mail, phone and/or if it makes sense arrange a face-to-face meeting.

In the context of the conversation determine:

• The types of research projects the professor is currently doing and hope to do over the next five years.
• What kinds of mentorship they have done with their previous graduate students including finding out where they are now. (Are they still in the program? Did they enter academia? Or are they in the private sector? And what institutions or organizations do they work at?)
• Would they mind if you reached out and spoke with them?


If you are lucky enough to find a good graduate school mentor there is a strong possibility that this relationship will extend past this stage of your career and they may become part of your academic network. This relationship can help both parties achieve their mutual goals in the profession. On the other hand, sometimes it is not possible to find a suitable mentor in your own department or university. This complicates things, but it is also a situation that with some skill can be navigated. Many of the strategies that were outlined above can also be applied to this slightly different challenge.

Photo credit: New York Society of Cosmetic Chemists

How can researchers improve street ethnographies?

Over the past century, a considerable amount of ethnographic research has been conducted and published. Ethnographies are no longer the primary research technique of anthropologists, as other types of social scientists, and students and scholars of business, law, and technology are also doing this kind of work too.

Moreover, there are numerous types of ethnography and a handful of respected scholarly journals now exist that focus solely on reviewing and publishing this type of qualitative research.

One of the major considerations when conducting ethnographies, however, are the inter-related questions regarding how investigator/s collect their data, how they analyze it, and how much resources (i.e., mainly time spent in the field) they need to invest in order to get the outcome they want (i.e., primarily useable/meaningful study).

To begin with many people who either conduct or evaluate ethnographies don’t really know the benefits and limitations of ethnographies. Learning how to conduct an ethnography is often not part of typical graduate school programs.

Likewise, there are many rules of thumb about how to do a “proper” street ethnography and much like most things in life, if you speak to 100 different people you may end up getting 100 different responses. Much of this advice, however, is idiosyncratic. In other words, what worked for one ethnographer, may not work for you and your special circumstances and vice versa.

In reality, almost each type of ethnography requires unique assumptions and techniques.

Over time, however, I’ve noticed some good and bad approaches to conducting street ethnographies, that are frequently used to better understand gangs, graffiti and street art, street crime, street culture, and urban public space.

Let’s start with a handful of ones investigators should avoid.

Bad practices

Seeking Institutional Review Board approval before doing initial field work

If you work in a research setting like a university, then most likely you need to secure human subjects approval from your Institutional Review Board (IRB) in order to conduct your ethnography. This step is often time consuming and difficult to negotiate, as many IRB committees have difficulties with ethnographic research. Some investigators submit the research proposal before even visiting the field. Although there may be some logical arguments for doing this, there are lots of unknowns when doing a street ethnography, including but not limited to funding, accessibility, etc. that need to be worked out and it is advisable that you do some sort of feasibility study by spending some time in the field in a “non research capacity” first before submitting the IRB proposal.

Failing to properly observe

Although you may be able to get a sense of a neighborhood, or a subculture that exists in the area under investigation by driving a bike, car, or scooter, taking public transportation, or walking or running in the location, it is preferable to spend a lengthy amount of time getting off or out of your vehicle, and interacting with numerous people you encounter. Also only walking the main streets, failing to walk back alleys, during the same time of the day or season should be avoided. Just like the familiar criticism of some war correspondents, don’t be fooled into assuming that you know what’s going on at the battle front, by sitting at the hotel bar, or attending a press briefing.

Speaking to the wrong people

Even though you may have a bunch of juicy quotes, that you can pepper your written results with, it does not mean that you have tapped into the essence of what is going on. It’s important to talk to a variety of people in the location you are conducting your study. This includes not only individuals whom you have identified as your key informants, but secondary and tertiary people too.

Good practices

Likewise there are a number of good techniques that you should consider to improve your street ethnography

Read relevant research before, during, and after you do your field research

Read a sufficient body of relevant research on your subject before entering the field, while you are at the location, and after you leave. This critical step should not be lead to analysis paralysis If you engage in this strategy to its extreme you will never get out of your office and into the field. After you have written up your findings, it’s also important to do an additional comprehensive literature scan and read items that were recently published, and reread scholarship that you may have forgotten about or ignored. This can help you improve the contextualization of your findings, etc.

Start by doing a quick scan of the neighborhood

Begin by doing a quick examination of the neighborhood or research setting. As you gain more relevant information, then you should develop a strategy to spend more time there in an effort to immerse yourself in that setting, getting to better know the people who live and work there. That is why running or cycling in or through a neighborhood may not be so bad as an initial pass. This is especially valuable in particularly dangerous neighborhoods. You may decide after doing this initial work, that the setting that you originally wanted to explore is not your cup of tea and decide to pivot to a different neighborhood, setting or subject. This is valuable. Rather than spending hours trying to get a handle on the situation you have made a low risk investment and it is easier to leave at this point in time than after 2, 6, or twelve months in the field.

Find key informants and try to interview them in different situations

The truth is that you can spend lots of time observing and talking to lots of people in the setting under investigation, but the people you interact with are not that helpful in assisting you to understand the core dynamics of what is going on. That is why you must invest sufficient resources in trying to cultivate key informants. Moreover, to the extent possible, these individuals should be interviewed in different settings as they may act differently when they are in for example a bar, or on the street, and in the presence of other people.

Vary the time of day and season you collect your data

A good street ethnography attempts to observe and interact with the people, at almost all times of the day and night and all seasons. Otherwise your study will be more of a snapshot.

Spend a sufficient amount of time in the area under study

One of the questions and doing ethnography is how much time does it take to do an appropriate ethnography. And the answer is it depends. It’s not so much how much time one spends in the field, but the quality of the observations and interactions one achieves and records.

Concluding Thoughts

One way of looking at the techniques of street ethnography is to see them on a continuum. The good news is, notwithstanding the difficulties of conducting street ethnographies during the current COVID-19 pandemic, is that over time most street ethnographers improve the techniques that they use to conduct street ethnographies and the work they do improves.

Photographer Hernán Piñera
Title: Street photography.

What’s in a name? Exconvict, formerly incarcerated, or returning citizen?

In the field of corrections, there are lots of labels, names, and terms that the public frequently applies to people who are housed in, live in, and are processed by jails and prison that I dislike.

These terms are frequently used in a simplistic and dehumanizing manner. Take for example, the word offender. I think we can agree that many of things that people who are convicted did were offensive, but not all actions that they may have engaged in rise to this label, and as we know, some people who are incarcerated are wrongfully convicted.

But when it comes time to choose the appropriate names for someone who is locked up in or released from a carceral setting, a sufficient amount of nuance must be observed. Among people who are incarcerated in the United States, they differentiate among the labels prisoners, inmates, and convicts. Each term means something different to them, however, this is a different discussion.

But the current tendency to use the expressions or terms formerly incarcerated or returning citizens, by well-meaning activists and academics, people working in the field of restorative justice, or worse the perpetual bomb throwers, who somehow magically show up during these discussions, is short-sighted. Worse, there is often an implicit suggestion that the scholarship that has been done to date using the terms exconvict (including convict, felon, inmate, or prisoner) is somewhat suspect.

Let’s start with the expression returning citizens. When a formerly incarcerated person is released from carceral custody, not all of their rights are restored. This includes, but is not limited to serving on a jury, voting, and owning a gun. Thus, to call them a returning citizen may be aspirational, but it does not accurately reflect their status.

Next, just because we change the term to “formerly incarcerated” or “returning citizen” does not change, blunt, nor erase the stigma or objectification society gives to people who have criminal records. There are innumerable collateral consequences of a criminal conviction that go beyond the label we ascribe to people who have spent time behind bars. For instance, criminal records hurt the chances for many people to secure appropriate housing or to gain employment.

Finally, most of the “we don’t call them convicts and excons anymore” crowd, do not ask convicts, or exconvicts, the labels they prefer. And if they do ask incarcerated people what terms they like, the studies that have been done don’t use rigorous social scientific methods and the results are not conclusive.

Reginald Dwayne Betts, who after spending over eight years incarcerated in a Virginia prison, became a respected poet, and upon release completed Yale Law School, and was recently awarded a MacArthur genius grant, put it most clearly when he stated, “I really just don’t like being called formerly incarcerated as a part of my title. I would much rather be called a carjacker or a convict or an inmate or a jailbird. Cause to do all this shit and be reduced by your allies to a condition brought on by the pistol you held is wild.”

Why then do some people insist upon using the labels formerly incarcerated or returning citizen?

Some of these individuals may be attempting to draw a distinction between old terms and new ones in an effort to effect change. But, as there’s no consensus among the formerly incarcerated community how they want these terms used, policing this language amounts to little more than virtue signaling.

Thus insisting that we must change the label of exconvict to formerly incarcerated or returning citizen seems more like misplaced effort.

It does not materially improve the pressing and more important issues at hand. It does not improve the lives of prisoners, ameliorate inhumane prison conditions, solve the problems of mass incarceration, and it does not solve the real challenges that people who are released from jail or prison face, and it does not improve their lives.

Photo Credit
Photographer: Patrick Denker
Title: Modern Chain Gang, Meridian, Texas