The importance of having good mentors in graduate school cannot be overstated. As a recent graduate student, I can personally attest to the value of having strong people. I have been fortunate to have more than one mentor in graduate school who has given me advice that has helped me overcome many of the challenges I have faced – from notes on shaping my search to job search strategies and coping with stress. It has been a great comfort and strength to know that I can turn to some people for support on different issues.
The term “mentor” is often used quite loosely and may refer to different types of supportive relationships between two people in a professional context. What I mean by “a mentor” here is someone who provides support to an individual regarding aspects of their identity as a graduate student by linking them to resources, sharing tips and feedback, and generally being accessible to them. According to this definition, anyone who is not a member of the faculty can support a graduate student as their mentor.
However, graduate students usually think of faculty advisors as their mentor. But faculty advisors may not have the training or ability to help graduate students overcome the diverse challenges they may face. What happens in those cases where a counselor is not equipped to help someone with their needs? Who can a graduate student turn to for support in dealing with such a situation? I would strongly encourage graduate students to seek mentors other than faculty advisors.
Graduate students with multiple mentors can benefit from a variety of perspectives. As a graduate student, even if you are fortunate to have an advisor who is able to guide you effectively with all of your needs, a different advisor may give you a new perspective on the same issues. Their knowledge and experience may be very different from your advisor’s, and they may be able to connect you with different resources. For example, if you have a teacher who is a faculty member in a different discipline, they may introduce you to a new technique that you can apply to your research. If they are professionals, they may help you discover an interesting career path that you hadn’t considered before.
Another advantage of having multiple routers is that they may provide access to a larger network. Possibly well connected with industry partners, former students, postdocs, and other faculty. It can be great for you in terms of building your own professional network if your advisor offers you some of those connections. Now if you have multiple mentors, you may be able to establish connections with a larger group of people. If you have a large network, you may be able to leverage your connections to find an internship, fellowship, or job opportunity.
When you have multiple mentors, you have more people in your support network. Having a support network means more people to learn from who can help you with your different needs as a graduate student. Mentors may serve as references for you, provide you with feedback on improving your writing or give you patient ears to discuss issues you are grappling with.
Three dimensions of support
People navigate many issues while in graduate school. Can one person consistently provide reliable support as a mentor in all these aspects at all times to graduate students? While it is possible that some people will be able to do this, graduate students would be wise not to leave this to chance and to seek other mentors in addition to their own.
I want to advocate the idea that graduate students should be intent on seeking mentors to support their research, career needs, and wellbeing. These needs may not be exclusive to each other and may be interrelated. For example, high research output may be related to someone’s sense of well-being. An individual who acts as a graduate student welfare mentor can also be his or her career mentor, research mentor, or any combination of both.
A research mentor is someone who provides support to a graduate student in various aspects of their research, such as discussing ideas, writing, and publishing. Aside from a faculty advisor, graduate students may look for a research tutor in individuals whose fields or scholarly interests align with theirs. This could be someone inside their institution such as postdocs or faculty in other departments who work on similar topics. It may also be someone outside their institution, such as a researcher who may be familiar with their work.
If you are a graduate student, consider reaching out to a potential research mentor and sharing what has resonated with you about the scholarship. You could also mention how their work might be linked to your own research. If this opens a channel of communication between the two of you, share a brief overview of your work with them and ask for their feedback. Try to incorporate their suggestions to improve your business. Over time, this can lead to a research collaboration or co-curate a conference presentation together.
The career advisor will assist the graduate student by helping them prepare and transition into a career of their choice. This may be a professional in industry, government, the nonprofit sector, or someone in a faculty role. Anyone familiar with different career paths can also act as a career mentor.
As a graduate student, if you have some ideas about your professional interests, try to find someone in your network who has recently moved into relevant positions. Think of alumni from your program or individuals you may have met at conferences. You can also perform a virtual search to find professionals whose career paths are attractive to you. Conduct informational interviews with them – inquire about how they are able to navigate their roles and ask for tips to prepare yourself for a similar transition.
If you are able to establish a connection, make sure it is sustainable. Consider requesting follow-up meetings to learn more about their work or share your progress and get their feedback on job search strategies.
A wellbeing mentor is someone who supports a graduate student regarding their general health, such as mental health needs, navigating family care responsibilities, or immigration issues, to name a few. Individual needs are the biggest determinants of the support graduate students may need from their teacher.
If you are a graduate student, get in touch with the most suitable people to help you, depending on your personal requirements. For example, if you are identified as an international student and visa issues are a concern, you may find it helpful to reach out to an international student support specialist or someone who has successfully passed visa challenges.
Building any mentoring relationship takes time and an investment of effort. You can’t always plan a relationship. Strengthen your existing professional relationships by being honest and communicating your aspirations and needs to the fullest extent possible. You may find mentors in people you already know, even if you weren’t expecting it.