Success in graduate school cannot be accomplished alone. One of the most important relationships you will develop in grad school will be with your mentor, a person whose role goes beyond merely advising to include support, encouragement and guidance.
What is the difference between advising and mentoring? An adviser counsels students to help them reach their academic and professional goals, advises on coursework and training programs and offers feedback on the student's work and progress. While mentors can also perform these duties, their role includes fostering a relationship with the student to help him or her develop professionally and personally throughout the time spent in grad school.
The myriad roles of a mentor include an adviser, who guides the student in his or her academic progress; a supporter, who provides emotional encouragement during difficult times; a sponsor, who helps the student find information on grants, internships and other opportunities; a tutor, who evaluates the student's performance; and a model of integrity and good professional practices.
Choosing an academic adviser is often the first step. Although older students, post-docs and other faculty members can also serve as mentors, it can be advantageous when your primary faculty adviser considers his or her role to include mentoring, as well. Before accepting an offer to study together, find out if the adviser is committed to working closely with students or if he or she prefers a more hands-off approach, encouraging students to work independently.
Good communication is essential for a satisfying mentoring relationship. Both the student and the mentor should be aware of the other's expectations and perceptions of effective mentoring. The result should be a graduate who is prepared to enter his or her profession with not only the knowledge and skills necessary for success, but also the confidence to execute his or her plans.
Unfortunately, mentoring is practiced unevenly in doctoral programs, and the influence of effective mentoring can be difficult to quantify. As part of Brown University's participation in the national Ph.D. Completion Project, the graduate school has been working to strengthen the mentoring of its students. Some of the areas of focus include encouraging more shared responsibility for the timely progress and success of students within a program; calling for regular meetings between students and mentors, including honest and constructive evaluations; and helping both students and mentors be aware of their expectations and progress.
The graduate school has adapted two specific tools (which can be found on the Advising and Mentoring page of the Brown Graduate School Web site) to serve these purposes. These are meant to serve as guidelines for thinking about the shared goals of the student and mentor, and can be modified to meet the needs of different programs.
The first of these is a self-assessment worksheet for grad students called an Individual Development Plan, or IDP. It is designed to help organize and plan the progress, needs and objectives of the graduate student and serve as a method of communicating these to the faculty mentor.
The IDP consists of three main parts. In Part I, the student provides a brief review of the progress he or she has made in the last year in terms of research, publications, conferences attended, teaching experience and other professionally relevant activities. In Part II, the student lays out his or her research and training plans for the next year. Part III gives the student the opportunity to analyze his or her short and long-term goals and to identify steps that can be taken to reach them.
The second tool available to students and advisers from the graduate school is an Advising Agreement between graduate students and faculty. This is a template that contains lists of responsibilities for both the student and the adviser. For example, the graduate student pledges to meet with the adviser to plan a timeline for his or her dissertation and to demonstrate his or her commitment to a graduate education by performing well in classroom and research settings.
At the same time, the adviser promises to meet with the student and provide resources to him or her for research, guide the student through the departmental milestones of the program and help the student to attend and seek out funding for appropriate professional meetings.
Both of these documents could be put to good use by faculty and students. Because it can be hard to implement improved mentoring practices at a University-wide level, it is up to individual students to seek out the support they need from advisers or other mentors. Clear expectations, shared responsibility for progress and good communication between the student and mentor are essential for a successful graduate career. Behind every successful graduate student, there is at least one proud mentor.
Mary Bates GS is a Ph.D candidate in the psychology department. She can be reached at mary_bates (at) brown.edu.