The importance of programwide efforts to mentor grad students (opinion)

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In graduate education, the faculty mentor plays the primary role in guiding a graduate student from recruitment through graduation—and often on to job placements—for several formative and demanding years. Faculty mentors also play an increasing role in responding to the mental health needs of graduate students, who face the stressors of the pandemic, ongoing racial injustice, climate change and political unrest. While this mentoring relationship is central for graduate students, it is one often fraught with challenges. A mentoring relationship, after all, is fundamentally a relationship that relies on dynamic interpersonal skills, such as effective communication and cultural awareness.

Mentor training has undoubtedly enhanced mentorship cultures across college campuses. Nationally, the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research, Duke University, the University of Michigan and Texas A&M University, among others, are offering resources and training to help mentors and mentees foster a positive and productive relationship. But improving graduate mentoring cannot rest solely on the individual actions of the most devoted mentors and mentees. Campuses should also consider the powerful role that their graduate program can play in addressing the mentorship needs of entire cohorts of faculty and students and effectively setting standards of mentorship.

Just as graduate programs provide guidance on coursework or degree requirements, so too can they offer mentorship resources at orientation and throughout various degree milestones. Taking such an active role yields at least two benefits: 1) mentoring resources of the graduate program can mitigate inequities by ensuring all graduate students receive the same information, regardless of the mentor, and 2) program-led mentoring discussions can bring together faculty and graduate students to discuss needs and challenges specific to the particular degree and discipline. I have found that cultural change is most successful when it is both collaborative—including faculty, staff and graduate students in discussing resource gaps and solutions—and relevant to the distinct experiences within a program and field of study. Regularly discussing the importance of mentorship also demonstrates that the graduate program values mentoring and prioritizes mentoring relationships for both graduate students and faculty members.

At the University of California, Davis, we in the graduate studies department created an initiative that partners with graduate program chairs and coordinators to offer new program-specific mentoring resources to graduate students. With input from program faculty and students, various graduate programs have designed and implemented activities to better support mentoring relationships. We’ve interviewed faculty and graduate students for their impressions of those efforts. I outline three of the most effective, with student feedback, below.

Finding and Approaching Mentoring Relationships: Mentoring Guides

Graduate programs have written tailored mentoring resource guides to help students find and select mentors, as that effort can differ greatly across programs. Selection can occur at different times (recruitment, first quarter, second/third year) and through different methods (interviews, lab rotations). The guides also include information that helps students identify the best mentor by considering mentoring styles, mentor and mentee expectations, and mentorship networks. (See a campuswide example at the University of Michigan.) Mentoring guides should also include conflict resolution resources—both within and outside the graduate program—to help resolve issues early and encourage graduate students to seek assistance if experiencing a conflict with their mentor.

Such guides combat a hidden-curriculum situation in which not all students know what questions to ask faculty members or other students in the program. At our university, students who have received such program guides say the resource has inspired them to consider in advance a mentor’s personality, availability and accessibility, industry experience, and mentoring experience. The guide has also successfully encouraged graduate students to build broader mentorship networks by considering additional mentors, future dissertation committee members and career advisers.

Setting Up Relationships for Success: Mentoring Compacts

Several graduate programs, such as the one at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, have created a mentoring compact template for their faculty and graduate students to complete annually and submit to the program chair. Mentoring compacts explicitly outline expectations for communication and meetings, work hours and projects, research milestones, and career exploration. By collecting mentoring compacts from faculty and graduate students, graduate programs ensure those conversations happen and continue to occur annually as the relationship evolves.

Both mentors and mentees have found it beneficial to receive structured guidance on what expectations to discuss and when. It’s usually best to have such conversations at least annually for the duration of the relationship, as expectations can change over time, depending on the mentee’s year in the program and research progress.

Assessing the Quality of Mentoring: Mentoring Surveys

Several graduate programs have initiated an annual survey of their students to gauge the state of mentoring. Inspired by questions in mentoring self-assessment surveys—such as from the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison—those programs have asked about faculty communication, research training, writing support and work-life balance. While mentors can solicit feedback on their mentorship directly from graduate students, graduate programs have elected to collect feedback more generally to acknowledge that, due to the inherent power differential, graduate students may not feel secure sharing their views directly with their mentors.

At our university, graduate students have appreciated graduate programs gathering input on the quality of faculty mentorship. They’ve asked that we summarize their feedback for faculty, as it recognizes positive styles of mentorship as well as identifies areas for improvement or intervention.

Graduate programs should consider many factors as they approach designing and distributing a mentor survey. While many students prefer to share their thoughts and opinions anonymously, that can prevent graduate programs from dealing with specific situations, such as identifying mentors who need interventions or effectively reporting harassment or abuse. Graduate program leadership should have a plan in place on how to respond to any feedback that indicates bullying or harassment.

Graduate programs can foster a positive mentorship culture that enhances the efforts of individual faculty members. By providing mentoring guidelines, circulating mentor compacts and periodically surveying their students, they take an active role in making mentoring a collective effort. With such additional support, graduate students can expand their networks and receive clarification and resources sooner—making them more likely to succeed as they navigate their graduate degrees.

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