Lesson Four – Mentoring Systems
    Lesson Four – Mentoring Systems


    Because mentorship is central to doctoral education, the design and monitoring of the processes for “managing” this one-on-one relationship between faculty and student are critical. And precisely because the relationship is personal, it easily avoids evaluation and scrutiny.


    A graduate school can emphasize to students and faculty alike the importance of positive mentoring by providing workshops and discussions about mentoring for faculty and graduate students. Another resource is the Faculty Development Center that could provide ongoing mentoring workshops. Faculty members who have never served as graduate mentors should be provided workshops on successful mentoring. A speaker series devoted to mentoring could be made available to faculty and graduate students. The Graduate Student Association can offer an annual mentoring award to recognize the effective mentors on campus. There are multiple ways to encourage greater dialogue about the importance of the mentoring role.


    An effective mentoring system should address the following issues:


    The process of matching mentors and students should be openly explained to new doctoral students in the departmental orientation program. While some departments assign students an advisor upon admittance, others encourage students to choose their own advisor based on their preferences and schedule. The first option may make sense in some disciplines where research is very specialized and students are expected to carry forward aspects of research closely aligned with that of their faculty advisors; in such cases, a student’s “fit” within a program and the intersection of research interests between student and mentor may be closely related. In other fields, however, this early assignment of student to advisor may be too “random,” failing to take into account personality differences and the existence of a more suitable mentor. The second option, while more personalized, can have the disadvantage of being a protracted process. Without the support and guidance of an experienced advisor, some students may wander aimlessly through what they feel to be a maze of written and unwritten rules, regulations, roadblocks, and personal obstacles. Some departments opt for a group of advisors for each student rather than one mentor, and in some disciplines this strategy works effectively. The graduate program, led by the chair or the graduate program director, should have in place an effective system for this match-making and make it clear to everyone—students and faculty alike —how it works.


    The selection of a mentor for students from underrepresented populations should be handled with some sensitivity. Women, underrepresented minorities, and international students in the sciences and engineering often prefer mentors who are their same race, nationality, and/or gender. However they frequently experience difficulty finding such a mentor because of the dearth of minority, international, or women faculty in their departments. Furthermore, students who might move from a nurturing liberal arts undergraduate experience to a more impersonal research university can be in for a culture shock. Being sensitive to the differences and backgrounds students bring can be helpful in fostering a more supportive atmosphere. At the same time it is important to help students find a mentor who has the most to offer in terms of guiding the research experience and building a professional career.


    There should be a clearly articulated process for changing mentors if the match does not “work.” When either the mentor or student is unhappy with the match and has no way out of the relationship, the results can lead to unnecessary conflict and eventual student drop-out. If the student is supported by the mentor’s grant, he/she may think that changing mentors will lead to the loss of an assistantship, and so the student either gives up or struggles miserably to the end. Written procedures developed by the graduate program for addressing such mismatches will make it more likely that the atmosphere of doctoral education is healthy for all involved.


    Regular meetings of faculty and students in each graduate program can facilitate communication and serve as a support system. These meetings can be either formal or informal, monthly or less frequent, but their ultimate purpose is to improve communication skills, share concerns, build trust, promote networking, and uncover problems before they become major.


    An annual student performance review should take place by a team of faculty in the graduate program, including the research mentor. The review helps to track performance, highlight areas of growth and improvement, and pinpoint any potential problems that might exist. The process helps to foster an environment of continuous communication and feedback and provides students with a broader mentoring support. The review also provides an opportunity to evaluate the status of the mentoring relationship, and identifies or anticipates potential difficulties within the relationship. Should a situation arise in which a student wishes to switch advisors, this process provides a safe way to do so. A discussion about the student’s progress among a group of faculty beyond just the mentor will provide an opportunity for problems to be dealt with before they threaten the success of the student’s degree completion. The student should be made aware that he/she can appeal to this committee if problems arise that cannot be resolved by the mentor. Such a mechanism provides support for both the mentor and student by enlarging the scope of the research experience beyond the mentor/student relationship.


    Establish a mechanism for identifying and addressing weaknesses in the academic background of new students. Even with a rigorous admissions process, some students will invariably require some background coursework or individualized tutoring around some specific subject. International students in the natural sciences, for example, may be better prepared for graduate study than some domestic students. Students from small, undergraduate institutions may lack the same breadth of academic instruction as those from larger research universities. And, finally, those students for whom graduate study is not appropriate should be provided counseling and assistance to pursue other options as early as possible. The graduate program that is cognizant of and aware of these individual differences in academic background will be in a stronger position to foster the success of all their graduate students.


    A peer-mentoring program for new doctoral students can supplement the mentoring provided by faculty and help build community within the graduate program. Peer mentors selected from more advanced graduate students should be trained at providing support to new students in their graduate program. Peer mentors are often able to decipher the unwritten rules of the institution or the dominant culture and can be more effective than faculty in sharing survival skills. This approach can be particularly helpful to women and students of color when matched to a successful student of the same race or gender. These student mentors might receive a modest supplement to their graduate assistantships to perform this service. Such a program provides not only academic but also social support to both peer mentors and new graduate students.


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