“Should I stay or should I go?” What happens if you can’t find or retain an appropriate graduate school mentor in your department?

In a perfect world you’ve done your due diligence, located an appropriate graduate mentor, (been accepted into a respectable program where they teach), and for the time being, your graduate school experience exceeds your expectations.

On the other hand, for one reason or another, after entering a graduate program, and getting the lay of the land, you discover much to your chagrin, that it’s incredibly difficult to find and retain an appropriate mentor.

This could be the result of a number of factors. These include, but are not limited to:

• No one in the department is really interested in the subject that you are passionate about;
• Over time your interests change and the question that you want to answer is not covered by anyone in your department;
• You have difficulties working with the person who is the recognized expert in your program;
• Or you are or may be perceived to be a pain in the ass, and all the professors seem to want to limit their interactions with you.

Alternatively, you may find yourself in a situation where your mentor:

• Goes on sabbatical and becomes incommunicado potentially because of the nature of their research (i.e., studying remote villagers in the Kalahari Desert).
• They have health issues that force them to cut back on graduate student supervision responsibilities;
• They go off the deep end (i.e., suffer a mental breakdown);
• They move to a different university, and are unwilling or unable to properly supervise you;
• Or in the worst case situation, they die.

Keep in mind that your situation is not uncommon, and each of these scenarios presents different challenges and have alternative implications for graduate students.

But sooner or later you are going to probably start asking yourself a bunch of questions:

• Should I switch topics or take a semester off?
• Do I remain in this department?
• Can I switch to a different department at the same University?
• Can I quit my current department and go somewhere else to pursue my graduate studies?
• Do I abandon my graduate studies?

These questions are not easily answered. Some of them questions and the decision/s you ultimately make will be bounded by how advanced you in your program. But here are some quick thoughts to consider. Before you talk to your departmental director of graduate studies, here are some options to consider.

1. Consider a marriage of convenience

If you have not completely burned your bridges in your department, then maybe by switching topics, or with some minimal tweaks to your original idea, you might be able to work with one or more of the professors in your program. Maybe what they specialize in is also interesting so it’s not so difficult a switch for you. After all its important as a scholar to have a handful of interests and not be a one trick pony.

2. Stay at the same university but switching departments

Sometimes graduate students may be lucky enough to identify a potential mentor in a different department at the same university in which they are enrolled, and both the mentor and the department or program in which study is willing to accept this arrangement. In this scenario you will not lose any or many of the credit hours that you have already completed in order to graduate. Then again, there is no guarantee that some of the more challenging mentor-mentee issues won’t occur again with you.

3. Use proxies

Sometimes you can find an appropriate graduate school mentor in a different department at your university or another one, they can effectively supervise your studies, and serve as an external on your dissertation. In this unusual situation the chair of your dissertation serves as a kind of figure head but the substantive heavy lifting is done by the outside person. This option depends on the willingness of the new mentor and your current department, past practices, norms and policies in existence. Searching for the best external mentor will require you to use many of the same basic strategies regarding securing an appropriate mentor before entering your existing university. Just like dating, professors in other departments or at other universities may either empathize with you or see you as damaged goods, and may be appropriately reluctant to mentor or supervise students from another department or university. They want to know how come you can’t find somebody appropriate in your own department or university to provide adequate supervision. And you better be able to explain why you need to jump ship. This situation is not ideal, but it is workable.

4. Engaging in deeper self-reflection

If you honestly believe that the bottom dropped out of your accent to the highest pinnacles of academia, ask yourself if there was something that you said or did to alienate the mentor in your program. If so, then you need to do a lot of self-reflection and ask yourself exactly what you did, and make a pact with yourself not to do it again


Depending on the unique situation in which you find yourself, some professors and administrators in your current department may interpret your situation as a wakeup call to hire one of more people that share your interests. Alternatively, it may force the leadership to develop more concrete policies and practices if they encounter similar situations with graduate students.. It may also motivate the admissions people to do a better job screening graduate school applicants and only offer candidates’ positions if there is a great match between the graduate school candidate and potential mentor.

Keep in mind that potential mentors are not under any obligation to take you on as a student and thus you have to do a good job convincing them that you are the perfect student to devote time and energy into training. And that mentees, as much as mentors, need to share the responsibility of maintaining the relationship so that it is beneficial to both parties.

Photo Credit

Aki Mykkänen