Finding the Right Fit: The Importance of Mentorship in Academia

Graduate students need someone to look up to, to turn to for advice, and to help guide the way during and after graduate school. GSIG’s Communications Chair, Emily Buteau, asked some of her closest mentors, as well as other GSIG board members, to anonymously share their thoughts, advice, and experiences regarding mentorship throughout their academic journey.

Why do you think it is important for students to have a mentor in academia?

  • I think it is critical for grad students to have TWO mentors in academia. One, ideally, will be your supervising professor. This is so critical for a positive experience. However, you also hopefully can develop a mentorship with another faculty member or post-doc who can provide you a different perspective. I have a great relationship with my advisor however, there are boundaries in terms of what we discuss (the balance of personal-academic time, for instance). A second mentor is so helpful to provide insight into these types of areas.
  • Many things about the process of learning go beyond the simple transmission of content and include things like modeling behavior, sharing resources, collaborating on projects, testing ideas, engaging in deep and interactive conversations, and providing support and other “emotional labor.” Additionally, the “hidden curriculum” of academia, which can include things from knowing what resources are available to learning how to ask for help to processes and procedures to university and disciplinary norms, can be hard to navigate, especially for first-generation undergraduate and graduate students and continuing education students. Academia would not survive without mentoring relationships.

What are the benefits for the mentor and the mentee? What role did your academic advisor play in your academic life?

  • Academic advisors should start by meeting advisees where they are at and assessing what their goals are and how the advisor can help them accomplish those goals. They also ask good questions, encourage critical thinking, and help advisees learn how to help themselves.
  • There are a lot of benefits on both sides. Mentees learn new ideas and skills, strategies for success, and behaviors from their mentors. Good mentors learn from their advisees at least as much as they teach them. Both have lots of opportunities for collaboration and growth.
  • My academic advisors have helped me at every step along the way. They taught some of my favorite courses. They gave me advice about teaching, writing, and professional development. They introduced me to ideas and people who shaped my ways of thinking. They offered me advice without telling me what to do. They supported me when I found myself struggling and celebrated my successes with me. I would not be where I am without them.

Do you have any advice for students when it comes to “finding the right fit?”

  • A lot of graduate students look first and foremost for “rock star” researchers and try to mold themselves in their images. I think this approach is somewhat misguided. Although you and your advisor should have some affinity in terms of your research interests, that only goes so far. Personality matches, genuine interest in your well-being, and good, honest communication practices will go much farther. Choose someone who will challenge you but in a way that will build you up. Other mentors that you have can fill in expertise gaps.

Do you have any advice for graduate students on navigating difficult discussions with mentors such as saying “no?”

  • Remind yourself that you have finite amounts of time and energy. You want to be able to give your best to the things that are most important to you, and you won’t be able to do that if you overcommit. Remind yourself of your goals, and prioritize what will be most helpful and most useful to you. Be scared and do the conversation anyway. Difficult conversations are a part of life and letting the fear of the bad stop you can keep you away from the good.

How can graduate students cultivate healthy academic relationships?

  • Surround yourself with the kinds of people that you want to be like — in all senses. Surround yourself with a variety of those people. Look for people who are generous, kind, and supportive. Don’t tolerate abuse or take part in it yourself. Ask questions and don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know or might be wrong about something.

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