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Explore the following frequently asked questions to find help managing your role as a mentor and fostering health relationships between mentor and student.


How often do I need to meet with students?

At the beginning of the graduate experience, it is helpful to meet with the mentee more frequently to ensure that the student is becoming acclimated to graduate school and to reduce any feelings of isolation. At this early stage, mentors should focus on encouraging the student to become part of the graduate community, tracking progress, resolving issues that have surfaced, and providing general guidance/support. In cases where a student is having substantial difficulty in a particular area, mentors may want to meet with them more frequently.

In the last part of the student’s graduate school journey, they will need support and guidance around making personal and professional choices. Mentors will likely need to meet with students more frequently as they move through the decision-making process regarding research agendas, job searches, relocating families, and other long-term decisions.

How do I manage the relationship if I’m not the advisor?

You can be a mentor to students without being their advisor. In fact, it is recommended that students have a constellation or team of mentors to meet their diverse needs. This approach benefits  both students and faculty, but can also lead to potential complications. First, respect the advisor’s role in directing the student’s academic program. Offering alternative perspectives, including intellectual ones, is appropriate and valuable. But on intellectual and professional matters, the advisor has to have the last word, and students should never be put in the middle. Likewise, major problems with a student’s academic performance or progress should be brought to the advisor’s attention, even if a student might prefer to discuss them only with you. Finally, do not let yourself become a student’s de facto advisor if the advisor is not doing everything he or she should: you can do an enormous amount of work without receiving any official credit.

How do I maintain professional boundaries?

Mentoring students requires a significant personal commitment to their well-being as it incorporates academic/professional guidance as well as psychosocial and emotional support. One of the most effective ways to ensure that appropriate boundaries are maintained is to discuss the expectations of both parties early on in the relationship and to periodically re-examine those expectations as the relationship grows. It is helpful to encourage students to develop mentoring relationships with more than one person. Having multiple mentors allows students to receive support in a variety of areas (i.e., academic, personal, professional) which lessens the likelihood that a student looks to one person to meet all of their needs. It is also important for mentors to remember that there are other resources on campus that are designed to deal with various student needs and should be utilized when appropriate. The university has published Standards of Conduct that articulate the values and standards to be followed by all members of the university community, thus providing a foundation for maintaining professional boundaries. Finally, mentors need to remember that while graduate students are adults and can be included in activities that might not be appropriate for undergraduate students, there is still a differential in the power structure of this relationship, which all parties need to be mindful of.

How do I deal with personal situations?

A variety of situations are likely to come up during the course of a mentoring relationship. Addressing these issues in ways that remain professional while also acknowledging the need to balance work and life can be challenging. Modeling how to perform such balancing acts can be a substantial component of being a mentor. At least three categories of personal situations come up often.

The first entails a discrete event or obligation that makes it especially difficult, or even impossible, to meet the obligations of the academic program for a time (i.e., a serious illness or injury for the student or family member, or the birth of a child). In these cases, the most important thing is to make sure the student is aware of relevant policies and resources. In some cases, it can be beneficial to discuss whether it would be better to take some time to focus on resolving the personal issue. Students should always consult with their advisor and/or program head to determine the feasibility of taking time off.

The second issue is that many graduate students, like faculty, struggle with work-life balance. Some have substantial family obligations, ranging from child care to ongoing care for an adult family member. These may limit when they can be on campus and which hours they can work. Mentors should be mindful of such circumstances. Other students are thinking about when or even whether to have children, move across the country or further for a job, or make similar commitments with large professional and personal implications. They often observe faculty closely to see how we have navigated similar choices, and they may ask directly about such decisions. Even when students do not bring up the questions directly, some infer much from what they observe, so faculty should be mindful of what they model.

The third issue that often arises is whether a student wants to continue with graduate school.  Mentors should listen and provide encouragement but not judgment. Students raising such questions are often implicitly asking for encouragement and support. Others, however, may genuinely be questioning whether this is what they want to do with their lives; they should be able to discuss that question without a presumption that continuing is the only or best option.

How do I deliver bad news/have difficult conversations?

No matter how experienced you are as a mentor, delivering bad news or having a difficult conversation with a student is never easy. These conversations may include discussing the lack of academic progress, helping resolve conflicts between a student and their advisor, or assisting students dealing with personal issues. One of the first things to remember is that you should not hesitate to consult with others who are known to be good mentors. Deans and department chairs/heads should also be considered as a primary resource. Every situation is different and the way to approach difficult conversations strictly depends on the topic. Determining the best time and place to meet with the student is important.  Regardless of the location, both students and mentors need to feel comfortable in order to address the issues at hand and speak openly about them. Lastly, remember that resources exist to support students both personally and academically, and should be utilized when needed. 

How to negotiate differences between the student’s expectations and the mentor’s expectations?

A mentor has the authority to set the terms for a mentoring relationship.  As the mentor, you need to be clear with students what forms of mentoring you will provide (e.g., constructive feedback, networking assistance) and what forms you will not provide (e.g., friendship). No single mentor can provide all forms of mentoring a student requires. Encourage the student to have multiple mentors that play different roles in their professional development. Each student is different, so the kind of mentoring you offer a particular student might be different to the kind you offer to another student. Seek feedback from your student about your mentoring so you can tailor your work with that student over time.

How can I manage teams of students working on common projects?

When assigning tasks to students on a team, consider their career plans.  A student heading into academia might need a lot of publications, so have that student work on tasks that more readily yield publications.  Another student might be heading into industry where publications are not as valued, so that student could be assigned other kinds of tasks. Have students work on multiple projects at once so that if they hit a wall with one project or stop functioning well on a particular team, the risk to the student’s career in minimized.

Consider encouraging “near peer” mentoring within teams.  If a particular student is more advanced with a particular kind of task, partner that student with another who is less advanced so that the more advanced student can mentor the other student.  When tackling a different task, these roles might be reversed so that both students benefit.