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Notes from Last Week’s “Mentoring Grad Students in the Sciences and Engineering” Session

Posted by on Wednesday, February 10, 2010 in News.

On February 2, 2010, the CFT held a conversation on teaching titled “Mentoring Graduate Students in the Sciences and Engineering” featuring three faculty panelists. At the start of the session, participants were asked to share questions they had about mentoring graduate students.  Each question fell into one of five broad categories, listed below.  Also listed below are answers to these questions suggested by panelists and participants.

These answers are not meant to be prescriptive.  They are instead perspectives shared during the session that you might consider as you think about your role as a mentor. Also, they may not translate completely to mentoring contexts in the humanities and social sciences.

How can I negotiate differences between the student’s expectations for mentoring and the mentor’s expectations?

  • Just as a teacher has the authority to set the terms for a course, a mentor has the authority to set the terms for a mentoring relationship. That means that you can 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 your students to have multiple mentors that play different roles in their professional development.
  • Bear in mind that 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 balance the student’s need for structure with his/her need for independence?

  • Here is one way to view this balance: If you have a student work on something that is too difficult, the student will be overwhelmed and need too much hand-holding. If you have a student work on something that is too easy, they won’t benefit from the experience. Instead, have a student work on something not too difficult and not too easy so that the student is in the “learning zone.”
  • Instead of thinking of a master plan for your student, draft a plan for “right now.” Then modify that plan over time to give the student increasing amounts of independence, keeping them in the “learning zone” as much as possible. This cuts both ways-sometimes you will have a “star” student who is still underperforming, given his or her potential.
  • If you have calibrated your assignments so that the student should be in the “learning zone” but the student is not making any progress over time, then perhaps the student needs to consider leaving the program.

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.

How can I help students continue to make progress over time?

  • It can be important to assess a student’s work and discipline early in their career. This helps to provide difficult situations (e.g. underperforming students) later.
  • When talking with an underperforming student, ask the student what s/he hopes to get out of the program. Reframe the situation by helping the student see the ways s/he is not meeting his or her own goals.
  • Help the student understand the amount of time required on a weekly basis to make adequate progress. If the norm is that students in your program work 50 to 60 hours a week, for instance, communicate that to your student.

How can I balance my interest in helping students with the need to act as a gatekeeper?

  • To clarify this question, consider this tension: On the one hand, you might want each student to learn and grow as much as they can while in your program. You’re interested in the “delta,” the change in their development over time. On the other hand, you only have so many positions available in your program, so you don’t want to keep an underperforming student around too long, since that denies a position to another student who might be more successful.
  • Remind your students that when they go on the job market, you will be writing a letter of recommendation for them that will greatly affect their job prospects. You are their evaluator, not (just) their friend. This encourages students to take more responsibility for their own progress.
  • It is important that there is a good fit between student and mentor. If a student fails out of a graduate program, it is more of a failure of the program than a failure of the mentor. That student should have been matched with a different mentor, one with a better fit for that student, before failing out.

For more advice on mentoring, check out our teaching guide on mentoring grad students.

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