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

In graduate education, the faculty mentor plays the primary role in guiding a graduate student from hiring to graduation—and often to job placement—for several formative and challenging years. Faculty mentors are also playing an increasing role in responding to the mental health needs of graduate students exposed to the stressors of the pandemic, ongoing racial injustice, climate change and political unrest. While this mentoring relationship is central to graduate students, it is often fraught with challenges. Finally, a mentoring relationship is fundamentally one that draws on dynamic interpersonal skills such as effective communication and cultural awareness.

Mentoring has undoubtedly improved the mentoring culture across college campuses. Nationwide the Center for the Improvement of Supervised Research Experiences, Duke Universitythat University of Michigan and Texas A&M University, offer resources and training, among other things, to help mentors and mentees build positive and productive relationships. But improving graduate mentoring cannot rely solely on the individual actions of the most committed mentors and mentees. Universities should also consider the powerful role their graduate program can play in meeting the mentoring needs of entire cohorts of faculty and students and in effectively setting standards for mentoring.

Just as graduate programs provide guidance on coursework or course requirements, they can also offer mentoring resources at orientation and during various milestones of the degree. Taking on such an active role brings at least two benefits: 1) graduate program mentoring resources can mitigate inequalities by ensuring that all graduate students receive the same information regardless of the mentor, and 2) program-led mentoring discussions can bring faculty together and PhD students to discuss needs and challenges specific to their 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 diverse experiences within a program and field of study. Regular discussion of the importance of mentoring also demonstrates that the graduate program values ​​mentoring and prioritizes mentoring relationships for both doctoral students and faculty members.

At the University of California, Davis, in the Department of Graduate Studies, we created an initiative that works with faculty and graduate program coordinators to offer new program-specific mentoring resources to graduate students. With input from program faculty and students, various graduate programs have developed and implemented activities to better support mentoring relationships. We asked teachers and PhD students about their impressions of these efforts. Below I outline three of the most effective, with student feedback.

Finding and Approaching Mentoring Relationships: Mentoring Guides

Graduate programs have written customized mentoring resource guides to help students find and select mentors, as these efforts can vary widely by program. The selection can be made at different times (hiring, first quarter, second/third year) and through different methods (interviews, laboratory rotations). The guides also include information to help students identify the best mentor by considering mentoring styles, mentor and mentee expectations, and mentoring networks. (A… see campus-wide example at the University of Michigan.) Mentoring guides should also include conflict resolution resources—both inside and outside the graduate program—to resolve problems early and encourage graduate students to seek help when they have a conflict with their mentor.

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

Building Relationships for Success: Mentoring Compacts

Several graduate programs, like the one at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, have created a Mentoring Compact Template for their faculty and graduate students to fill out annually and submit to the program chair. Mentoring pacts explicitly outline expectations for communication and meetings, work hours and projects, research milestones and career exploration. By collecting mentoring pacts from faculty and graduate students, graduate programs ensure that these conversations happen and happen annually as the relationship develops.

Both mentors and mentees have found it beneficial to receive structured guidance on what expectations should be discussed and when. Typically, it is best to have such discussions at least annually for the duration of the relationship, as expectations may change over time depending on the year of the program and the mentee’s research progress.

Assessing the quality of mentoring: mentoring surveys

Several graduate programs have initiated an annual survey among their students to measure the level of mentoring. Inspired by questions in mentoring self-assessment surveys – such as: University of California, San Franciscoand the University of Wisconsin at Madison– These programs asked for faculty communications, research training, writing support, and work-life balance. While mentors may seek feedback on their mentorship directly from graduate students, graduate programs have chosen to collect feedback more generally, recognizing that inherent power imbalances may make graduate students feel uncomfortable sharing their views directly with their mentors.

At our university, doctoral students have valued graduate programs that gather input on the quality of faculty supervision. They have asked that we summarize their feedback for faculty as it recognizes positive styles of mentorship and identifies areas for improvement or intervention.

Graduate programs should consider many factors when designing and distributing a mentor survey. While many students prefer to share their thoughts and opinions anonymously, this can prevent graduate programs from dealing with certain situations, such as: B. Identifying mentors who need intervention or effectively reporting harassment or abuse. Graduate program management should have a plan for responding to feedback that indicates bullying or harassment.

Graduate programs can foster a positive mentoring culture that enhances the efforts of individual faculty members. By providing mentoring guidelines, disseminating mentoring pacts, and regularly surveying their students, they take an active role in making mentoring a collective effort. With such added support, graduate students can expand their networks and receive clarification and resources more quickly — increasing their likelihood of success in navigating their degree.

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