Mentoring Graduate Students in an Age of Uncertainty
Mentoring graduate students is one of the most rewarding, as well as one of the most challenging, things that we as faculty do. On the face of it, our role is relatively straightforward: we advise our students through coursework and research; we teach them the tools of our trade; we acquaint them with the norms and practices of our profession; and we prepare them (as best we can!) for a competitive job market. If all goes according to plan, our students leave us for promising careers; eager, excited, equipped to independently tackle academic life and, hopefully, unencumbered by debilitating debt.
In reality, however, our job is much more complicated. Academic advising and apprenticeship, we learn as both graduate faculty instructors and as thesis directors, is only part of our job. The more we interact with our students the more we find ourselves called upon to act as personal as well as professional counselors, as mental health evaluators, as academic advocates, and even as confidantes. We see our graduate students not simply as professors-in-training but as individuals, human beings who require (and deserve) our attention, our compassion, and our time. But how do we, as faculty mentors, balance the professional with the personal? How do we professionalize our students, preparing them for the rigors of academe while also helping them to navigate, what is for them, an age of great uncertainty?
First, we must acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring graduate students. Each relationship has its own internal logic, its strengths, and its challenges. An approach that works with the highly motivated, driven self-starter may not work with the equally capable student who is under-confident, anxious, and constantly battling impostor syndrome. To accommodate all students, mentors need to be flexible and patient, to maintain open lines of communication, to meet students where they are and to figure out how to most effectively usher them through their academic program without losing sight of their humanity.
Although each mentor-student relationship is different, there are some common goals and shared practices that all of us might keep in mind along the way. Professionally, we seek to optimize student progress. We can do so by meeting with our students regularly; tracking their performance and progress in coursework; setting goals together and breaking those goals down into smaller tasks so that students feel a sense of accomplishment and do not lose their motivation; treating our students with respect, as junior colleagues rather than as temporary assistants; and having the difficult conversations along the way so that students are aware of their weaknesses as well as their strengths.
Personally, we seek to maintain healthy relationships with our students, to support them, realizing that they have lives beyond our offices and labs. We can motivate and encourage our students by being approachable; by communicating regularly with them; keeping interactions professional but acknowledging student struggles and accommodating them when necessary; and by being sensitive to differences of class, race, gender, nationality, age, sexuality, etc., recognizing that our own experiences might differ drastically from theirs.
Mentoring graduate students requires time, work, and commitment. Yet we take on this task not only because graduate students are the future of our profession but also because they have much to teach us about who we are as researchers, scholars, teachers, and human beings. The best mentor/advisor-mentee/student relationships persist long after degree, even extending across one’s lifetime, bringing professional success and personal gratification to both parties. In an age of uncertainty, isn’t that worth our investment?