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
process)
• 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
professor).
• 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?

Conclusion

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