Wednesday, April 12, 2006

mentoring question

One of the side projects to which I have gotten myself committed is nominating one of my committee members for an outstanding graduate mentor award. It is a university-wide award, comes with a pretty sizeable chunk of cash, and thus has a fair amount of work necessary to put together the nomination packet. I think I should be committed if I take on any more projects before I finish my PhD.

But in putting together this packet, I have gotten to thinking about what characteristics make a good mentor (advisor, committee member, role model, sounding board) for graduate students. I feel like I know good mentoring when I see it, but trying to define exactly what this person does so well is hard to articulate. So I wanted to put it to my readers:

What makes a good mentor for graduate students?
Are there different characteristics of good mentorship for MS and PhD students?


Writer Chica said...

good mentor characteristics:
*asks (the right?) questions thus causing the student to think and explore
*shares and teaches how to obtain and use resources, such as handy internet info, money and other people (that is not quite clear, sorry)
*excellent organizational skills (and teaches these)
*has an understanding of the student's goals both in science and life and how they fit together

That's all I have for now. Wish I had someone like this when I was in grad school.

Starving for Wisdom said...

I am not going to be starting a grad degree until the fall but I have had a fabulous mentor for my undergrad thesis.

Things I look back on and say are great qualities were not always my favourite at the time. My supervisor was very hands-off. I made some mistakes as a result and wasted some time but I grew as a person and student and I think he realized that I was ready for things before I knew I was. So being in-tune is a quality that is hard to describe but is invaluable. A mentor that is "in-tune" might not be the same thing to all people. Some may need a heavier hand. I am a mature student and I think I was ready to learn some things that other students don't get a chance to learn until later. He pushed me out of my comfort zone at times and I didn't always appreciate that at the time but now I'm happy.

The second thing that is important is the willingness to build trust in the student. Not that a student shouldn't earn it, that is essential, but sometimes when things don't go perfectly it is nice to have someone express total faith in you and back it up with evidence!!! There were times when my professor did this and I realize now that at those times I didn't even believe in myself so he was all I had left. If he had been a stickler for the rules at those moments I might never have made it through.

lori z said...

for me a good advisor is someone who:

- reads the students needs well: sometimes I needed for the mentor to be more at an arm's length, while at other times I need them to be there to support me

- trust: having the advisor trust that you're getting the work done, without you having to continually prove it to them

- a sense of humour: being able to have a good laugh with student at a critical moment

- an eye for detail: I'm the queen of skimming, and my mentors are great for getting me to think more about the fine details.

PurpleDaisy said...

Someone who:

1. Remembers vividly what it was like to be in graduate school.
2. Remembers how difficult and painful graduate school was.
3. Tells these memories to his/her mentees.
4. Convinces his/her mentees that everything will be alright.
5. Helps the student with personal issues (not liking cohort, feeling intimidated by professors, feeling that they might not succeed in the chosen field, etc.). [As you can tell I'm not having a great day!! haha]
6. Uses empathy and active listening.

Okay, I should probably stop there. Great question!

Dr. Mon said...

Really good question. I like a lot of what others have said, although I notice there is some blending of one's program advisor and a mentor. I think we all hope that by default our advisor will be a good mentor, but that is not always the case. Sometimes advisors are good at advising (getting feedback to you timely, allowing space to work), but not so good at mentoring--guiding you on the path to be a full-time professional in your discipline.

For me, a good mentor is a step beyond just a program advisor in that they show you what it means to be a good citizen within your department and your discipline. They talk explicitly about graduate school as a socialization experience. They challenge you to engage the academy, but also to sit back and learn about how it works. A lot of this comes from their openness in discussing their own experiences and choices--and more importantly--the positive and negative outcomes of those choices. I think by default, a good mentor has to have a certain generousity of spirit. S/he has to be someone willing to share a great deal of time and personal resources, not for any self-benefit, but to see you become a productive, prepared, and collegial peer.

phd me said...

I agree with Mon: A great mentor is someone who makes the profession transparent. Someone who answers questions honestly, who knows when to share her personal experiences in the profession, who knows when to ask the probing questions to determine if the profession is right for you. Someone who explains the terminology and the expectations and the unspoken rules. Someone who explains the guidelines so you'll get accepted at conferences and then introduces you to people when you get there. That sort of thing.

B said...

Your mentor or advisor are not necessarily your friend. So I don't believe they will be the ones to tell you, "You can do it!" At least I have never encountered that, but they should be supportive of your work in the lab. It is a difficult balance of knowing when to ask questions and have them be the 'right' questions for that time. These questions might give you a little poke to get going, so that you can prepare yourself better, or refine research ideas etc. At the same time sometimes space is the ideal. I guess it is a changing relationship and a good mentor anticipates these changes and sort of knows when to ask and when not too.

RageyOne said...

For me a mentor is someone who:
-is availabile
-provides constructive feedback
-is my cheerleader
-is honest when I'm going down the wrong path
-is honest when I'm going down the right paht
-is encouraging
-remembers what it was like when they in the same position

ScienceWoman said...

Thanks everyone for your great answers (but don't stop contributing just because I commented). It seems like there may be some contradictory things we want out of our mentors - maybe we are best served if we don't pin all our needs on one person but rather rely on a small cadre of people for help, advice, and support. As for me, I find the blogs I read and my commenters can provide some of the mentorship I need. Thanks.

RageyOne said...

I agree! Reading blogs and seeing what others are doing has pushed me along as well.

I would say that what one person wants in a mentor is going to be very different than the next person. I look at the way I work as compared to some of my peers in my program and it is quite different. However, it works for each of us and, in the long run, that's all that matters.

Dee said...

A good mentor is someone who teaches you to think critically, accept faliure, accept success, recognize your own shortcomings, your good qualities and retain a sense of humor about what you do.

When they are done with you, whatever the outcome of what you were working on, you will retain/increase your self worth, confidence and feel enriched by your time with them.