Thank you for all of the work you do mentoring graduate students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Mentoring graduate students is one key way that faculty contribute to the university, to the research enterprise, and to future generations in their fields. For graduate students, faculty mentors are one of the most significant influences on their experience as students and as emerging scholars and professionals. Effective mentoring can build students’ confidence, resilience, and independence, and help prepare them to succeed during graduate school and beyond.
Mentoring is important, but doing it well doesn’t have to be difficult or mysterious. In this toolkit, we outline six important dimensions of mentoring. For each, we have listed some promising practices to enhance mentoring in that area, as well as relevant resources for you and your students. As you read through the toolkit, consider ways you could integrate a new practice or two into your mentoring, or how you might use the material below to fuel productive conversations with the graduate students you mentor.
If the Graduate College can support you in any of these areas, please reach out to email@example.com.
Clear expectations make paths to success transparent and actionable for all parties in a mentoring relationship, and regular feedback allows you to assess and course-correct along the way.
- Make Your Expectations Clear Early, and Revisit Them: Whether you choose to use a “mentoring compact” (see below), ongoing conversations, or a combination of both, it is crucial that your mentees know what is expected of them from the start. But expectations aren’t something you set just once; instead, treat them as a tool for ongoing dialogue as your mentoring relationship develops and your mentees gain independence. Consider setting clear expectations on topics like how you will communicate, how projects are determined, how collaborative writing works, work hours, and more.
- Schedule Regular Meetings for Feedback: Make feedback routine (rather than something scary to be avoided) by scheduling regular meetings during which you and your mentee can step back, evaluate progress, and share feedback. Feedback that recognizes improvement or progress can be particularly helpful for a mentee to understand they are moving in the right direction. Exact frequency will vary by field, student, and degree stage, but aim for at least once per semester.
- Establishing Healthy Boundaries: Setting healthy boundaries involves having a clear understanding of what the relationship is and what it is not. Likewise, having a clear understanding of your own boundaries is an essential first step for setting those boundaries and for articulating the expectations of the mentor-mentee relationship. Because of the close collaborations between students and their faculty mentors, occasionally the lines can blur between being friends and having a friendly, professional relationship. Students may not know what to expect or may not have previous experience to draw on. Open conversations that lay out the responsibility of the mentor and the mentee can go a long way in setting shared expectations. Over time those boundaries may change (for example, as your mentee grows and advances professionally) and need to be revisited, but having the conversations can be productive.
Tools and Resources:
- Mentoring Compact Examples (University of Wisconsin)
- Annual Reviews of Graduate Students (Graduate College)
- Suggested Guidelines for Graduate Student Mentoring (Graduate College)
- Individual Development Plans (Graduate College)
- Graduate Degree Audit Tool (Graduate College)
- Faculty Guide to Working with Graduate Student Writers (Purdue University)
It is important to develop equity-minded mentoring practices. Those initial meetings and conversations will play a key role in the ease, consistency, and value placed by mentees with different identities from your own. Cultivating a strong relationship will increase the likelihood of a positive mentoring dynamic for the mentee and mentor.
- Get to Know Your Mentee: Engaging with your mentees holistically means understanding and connecting with them as a whole person, not just a machine for generating data. While it is important to set boundaries, and you don’t need to know everything that is going on in their lives, considering the fuller context of students’ experiences can help you engage with them empathetically and make them feel more welcome and valued.
- Tell Your Story: Storytelling is a valuable but sometimes overlooked mentoring tool. Narrating your own path to academia can help mentees imagine their own journey, even if it is going to differ from your own. Make sure to tell stories about times you struggled or failed (not just when you succeeded), which offers a useful opportunity to model resilience while normalizing not knowing everything in advance.
- Ask What They Hope to Achieve: One important role mentors play is as advocates and guides on the path from where a mentee is now to where they want to go. That starts with open, curious conversations about your mentees’ goals and aspirations. Key here is the recognition that your mentees may have goals and aspirations that are different from yours, and that what they will need to achieve them may be different than what you needed.
Tools and Resources:
- National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (join via institutional membership)
- Holistic Review in Graduate Education Toolkit (Graduate College)
- Unconscious Bias Course (National Research Mentoring Network)
Conflict is a natural part of the mentoring relationship, as mentoring involves people with varying personalities, needs, and expectations. Pursuing creative problem-solving and collaborative conflict resolution can benefit both the mentor and mentee.
- Recognize and Respond to Problems Early: Having regular meetings and providing consistent feedback supports an environment of trust where issues can be identified and discussed as they arise in a format that is supportive and constructive.
- Consider Both Shared and Diverging Interests: Many conflicts are a natural result of the different perspectives and priorities of the individuals involved. Awareness and appreciation of the differing motivations, goals and needs can help identify emerging differences and work collaboratively to develop a mutually agreeable path forward.
- Commit to Effective Communication: If a conflict is not easily resolved, devote time and energy to addressing the issue more completely. This could involve setting up a dedicated meeting to discuss, asking questions to understand the other’s perspective and developing and sharing a plan for next steps.
- Consult When Needed: In the event that a conflict is not resolved through internal discussions, it can be valuable to seek input or participation from others, for instance other committee members, the Director of Graduate Study or the Graduate College. They might be able to offer additional perspectives or options and help the conversation focus on steps to move the issue forward productively.
Tools and Resources:
You do not have to be the only person your graduate students go to for mentoring and support. Encouraging students to build robust mentoring networks (made up of peers, faculty, alumni, and others) can enhance students’ ability to solve problems and achieve short- and long-term goals.
- Connect Students with Other Faculty Mentors: Encourage students to build relationships with other faculty and facilitate connections between them where needed. The faculty advisor is one of the most important figures in the life of a graduate student, but they don’t have to be the only one. Other faculty can provide students with mentoring in different techniques or theories, connect them to new academic networks, or just provide some additional advice. For some students, connecting with faculty with shared identities or lived experiences can also be helpful.
- Value Students’ Peer Networks: Peers mentors can provide graduate students with valuable perspectives and support, which can supplement mentoring by faculty and give students tools for navigating grad school milestones. Consider ways that you can increase your students’ peer connections, whether that means exploring the feasibility of a formal peer mentoring program in your department or facilitating your students’ connection with one another during meetings or projects.
- Encourage Mentors Beyond the University: Building support networks beyond the university can help students navigate life challenges during grad school and prepare for their future careers. Give students time and encouragement to nurture relationships with family or friends, stay connected with former faculty, engage with alumni or other professionals in fields of interest, and pursue hobbies or community service opportunities.
Tools and Resources:
- Multiple Mentorships: Equipping Students for All Situations (National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine)
- Building a Network of Mentors worksheet for graduate students (Graduate College)
- Mentoring Map (National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity)
Doing all the things discussed in the rest of this toolkit will make a significant difference for your students’ wellbeing, because every aspect of graduate education impacts students’ wellness. Understanding how those impacts happen, and what they mean for your students’ holistic experience, can strengthen your mentorship. Mentors are not fully responsible for the wellbeing of their students, but they are responsible for creating an environment where student wellbeing is possible.
- Understand Campus Resources and Share Them Early: Knowing what’s available and how to connect students with resources allows you to support students when they need it. This can include mental health resources, basic needs resources (food, housing), and resources for connection like cultural houses or campus activities. Explore the resources below to start.
- Take Care of Yourself (and Share How You Do It): You’ve heard the saying “You can’t pour from an empty cup,” and the same basic advice applies: eat nutritious food, get enough sleep, find ways to connect with other people. It is also helpful to share this part of your life with students – not necessarily pedagogically, but by normalizing taking lunch breaks, or mentioning parts of your life that aren’t just about work.
- Clarify Expected Email Response Times: We’ve all sent and received important work messages at 2 am. Creating and communicating expectations for reasonable response times helps create a culture of collaborative support and establishes a foundation of open communication that can make figuring out other similar things easier. Consider scheduling emails when sending them at unusual times, or adding a note to those emails reminding students that they do not need to respond immediately.
Tools and Resources:
- Supporting the Whole Student: Mental Health and Well-Being in STEMM Undergraduate and Graduate Education (National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine)
- Community of Care (UIUC Dean of Students Office)
- UIUC Mental Health Resources
- Basic Needs Coordinator (UIUC Dean of Students Office)
- Provost Office Syllabus Statement Guidelines
- Becoming a Resilient Scientist Series (National Institutes of Health)
- 8 Dimensions of Wellness (McKinley Health Center)
- Graduate College Community & Wellbeing Coordinator (Andrea Bridges, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Mentors play a significant role in students’ career development, from offering professional models to encouraging growth in new directions. Students can benefit from supportive guidance in understanding their needs, identifying career options, and charting paths forward.
- Have Career Conversations Early and Often: Students often wait for faculty mentors to start career conversations, and when mentors wait until later in a student’s program to do so, it can feel like a judgment on their performance. Consider identifying career issues implicit in ordinary mentoring conversations (Should I apply for this fellowship? What research project should I tackle next?), as well as initiating more general conversations about students’ short- and long-term goals. Individual development plans can be one useful tool for helping students reflect on career aspirations and make plans to achieve useful skills and experiences.
- Understand Where Alumni Go—and Connect with Them: Learning from alumni career outcomes in the aggregate, and connecting with individual alumni in particular, can give you a clearer sense of the way training in your field prepares students for a variety of paths. It can also help you connect students to those with experience in fields you are unfamiliar with, so they can get first-hand perspectives and advice. See the Graduate Career Outcomes Toolkit for useful career data.
- Don’t Try to Do Everything Yourself: While you are a student’s primary mentor through their academic journey, most students need more support in their career development. Connect with alumni, university career development staff, disciplinary societies, and others to offer your students robust and varied support in their next steps. The Graduate College is happy to collaborate with you on this and related topics.