How to mentor and support graduate students who are all online (opinion)

Effectively mentoring students online is difficult. And with enrollments in online degree programs soaring over the past decade, as well as the number of students suddenly pushed online during the pandemic, university professors now face an unprecedented challenge: not seeing many of your students in person often, as you build supportive relationships with them and leading them to succeed in their studies and advance their careers?

While mentoring can take different forms in higher education, this challenge is particularly prevalent in formal academic mentoring relationships, such as those involved in advising on a thesis or dissertation and leading a laboratory or research group.

My department launched the first online accelerated master’s program in spring 2020, at the same time as the pandemic began. This program grew rapidly, enrolling more than 150 graduate students in its first year alone. Soon I was chairing thesis committees and regularly mentoring online students. The pressure and expectations were high, which forced me to think about what mentoring really meant to me and how I would do it with my students living across the country – and all with the new normal of living with social distancing, lockdowns and so on juggling -change in mask duty.

When I think back to my own studies, my favorite moments have all been face-to-face interactions with both of my mentors. I remember research meetings on my academic father’s shady terrace; The sunshine and breeze of a midwestern summer embraced me as I selected topics for a dissertation. I remember the conference hotel room where my academic mother would spend hours telling me how to deal with the systemic prejudice in academia that I would soon face as a woman of color on faculty. These rooms held memories of my tears and laughter as a graduate student, and I knew I wanted my own students to have similar experiences. Even if I never meet her in person. Especially in the middle of a global pandemic.

Fast forward 18 months later: The PhD students I supervise have made 21 local and 13 international conference presentations and won three prestigious awards from the university and a national honor society. And I received an Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award from my institution.

My students and I are now working together on five journal articles and 13 conference proposals while preparing their applications for doctoral programs. If anything, the virtual and distanced nature of our relationships has created distinct opportunities for sharing and connecting that would otherwise not be possible. Here’s how I did it and my recommendations for other faculty members who want to build strong mentoring relationships.

Build an online community. Mentoring is primarily about creating an inclusive environment in which students feel they belong. Most of my students are full-time working adults trying to fit in nights and weekends for their master’s degree. While they appreciate the flexibility of our asynchronous online program, they also feel isolated and want to be connected and involved with faculty, other students, and the program in general.

With this in mind, I created an online community space for my mentees in the form of a Discord server, which we use as our main communication channel. We share information about the thesis process, general resources, events and opportunities that students can benefit from. Each student also has their own private channel on Discord to communicate with me, which will become the way we track shared documents, Q&A, agendas, notes and progress. However, what we all enjoy the most is the social aspect. We mourn and celebrate together. We share everything from motivational quotes to impressive nicknames to inspiring cornhole achievements. We cherish supermom moments with pictures of our kids falling asleep in one arm and working on our research project in the other arm.

Connect holistically with students. The #1 goal of my personal mentoring practices is to uplift students and challenge them to reach new heights. I firmly believe in the motto of my bachelor’s alma mater: “When we have light, let us pass it on to others.” My ultimate task as a mentor is not to pass on knowledge or skills, but to pass on the light. I want to help my students find their own strengths and bring out the best in themselves so they can later bring out the best in others too. Scientifically, I help them foster their learning identity so they become lifelong learners.

I have found that my online students tend to have more reservations about their academic identity compared to traditional graduate students, perhaps due to their non-traditional pathways or guilt for not being able to fully devote themselves to their school activities. I keep reminding them of the hurdles they’ve already overcome along the way and I assure them that they can make the best of the challenges ahead – that they are capable of much more than they think. “If you can do better, why settle for the minimum?” I tell them.

I show them their progress by having weekly check-in meetings with each student—mostly in the form of a 30-minute Zoom call, but sometimes just through quick check-ins on Discord. In addition to having content-specific discussions about their research, I also answer questions, clear up confusion, listen to their concerns, provide feedback, share personal stories, and do countless other things. My students know I’m there for them, just a Discord message away.

Facilitate team building and joint activities. Learning from peers is just as important as learning from professors – if not more so. By choosing to work with me, all of my students have something in common, either thematically or methodically. I help them make those connections and I encourage activities that allow them to get to know each other and work together.

We hold monthly research group meetings and bi-weekly writing sessions. We give each other feedback on our texts and presentations. We have mock presentations for thesis defense. We work together on submissions for conferences and journals. After some time, while I was collaborating with them on their first submissions or inviting them to mine, they began to take the initiative and plan their own collaborations with each other. All of this is happening online via Zoom and Discord.

By the time they graduate, all my mentees have some points on their CV that can support their application to PhD programs. But most of all, I think the best part is her realization that my research group will always be her academic home, even after she graduates. My students will grow in their own directions and pursue their own passions, but the experiences and connections they share here can stay with them for as long as they find it useful. It is truly a community of future scientists that I develop and support.

Have fun and be authentic. After all, people learn best when they’re having fun. After all, we do it because we want to. I never romanticize academic life, and often I’m just too overworked to put on a show. Instead, my mentees see me in my most authentic moments (eg, having hardly slept in days due to a sick child and tough deadlines). You hear my complaints about bad reviewer #2 and picky editors.

On tough days, I share motivational quotes to keep the gang going. We celebrate birthdays and backward hole-in-one cornhole throws. My students have nicknamed me Mighty Mai T and they have yet to come up with a logo design for our research group t-shirts because they are way better at memes and graphic design than me.

If I know they are applying for high level Ph.D. programs, I am open and honest with them about the potential competition they will face. I tell them, “I know you’ve already worked very hard to balance study, life and work. But if that’s your goal, you’ll have to work even harder to keep up with the full-time students with more accomplishments on their resumes.” My students understand that the academy isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, and they’re ready.

If you’re concerned about mentoring students online, you don’t have to. My online students gave me more than I gave them long before I met them in person.

Leave a Comment