Powerful Mentorship: Mentoring Relationships and the Graduate Student
Celinda Miranda, Louisiana State University
When beginning my graduate program, I underestimated the importance of establishing a mentoring relationship as it related to my future success and preparedness for a career in higher education. I was more concerned with my own role as a mentor to undergraduate students and my ability to manage the academic rigors of my program. I was more concerned about whether I would fit in with the other graduate students in my cohort and what I would learn through my assistantship. Ultimately, it took the trials and tribulations of my first year of study to help me fully comprehend why mentoring is so important to those entering the field of higher education.
Having built a relationship with my supervisor early on, I felt that this relationship would suffice for a professional mentorship. While I have learned and grown under that guidance, I soon realized that there was far more that I needed out of the mentoring relationship for my personal and professional development. Rarely should your employer or supervisor serve as your sole mentor. Needs change over time, and professionals will need new perspectives for different challenges. It is important for the student to recognize this and seek out those connections over time.
Ultimately, a successful mentoring relationship requires support and guidance from the mentor, coupled with challenges that will push the graduate student to new levels of learning. A good mentor takes the time to show concern for the mentee’s experiences and to encourage development. While my supervisor provided me with a great support system, I wasn’t feeling challenged in a way that helped me transcend to a new level of development. It may feel good when one’s strengths and successes are acknowledged, but a strong mentoring relationship must push the mentee to the next level. Similarly, a mentor will help raise awareness and understanding for new ideas through engaging in meaningful conversations with their mentee. Some graduate students may not take the time to acknowledge the values of those conversations, despite often walking away from them with a new perspective on our field.
Mentors should also focus on modeling professional behavior and professional decorum. Graduate students will look to their mentors to have conversations and ask questions about the education in the classroom and experiences outside it. Valuable learning likely occurs during those impromptu discussions. During my search for a strong mentor, I found it easy to talk to professionals who had different perspectives on issues I was learning in the classroom. They were not afraid to challenge me to think about subjects in a different light, and I became appreciative for those who always carried themselves in a professional manner around me.
Finding a mentor, however, can be difficult and stressful for a graduate student. Through my own experience, I have discovered a few strategies that will help students and professionals in the search process. Networking is the most important step for a graduate student searching for a mentor. The higher education field can seem small when we consider the number of connections each person possesses. Connect with new people. This allows for conversations with someone who can serve as a resource or suggest others who can serve in that capacity. Ask for or seek out new experiences outside of your comfort level. By challenging yourself, you will surely find someone to push you further. Graduate students should always speak with faculty members, who can provide insight and mentor referrals.
For those looking to help a graduate student in their mentorship search, do not be afraid to have conversations with students. Graduate students sometimes seem unaware of their needs and struggle with articulating these needs. This can be a major roadblock for a student seeking mentors. It is the student’s responsibility to follow through with suggestions, create opportunities and make those conversations happen after your introductions; but mentors can help to start the conversation.
It is also important for a mentor and mentee to define the scope and extent of the relationship. An effective mentoring relationship will create structure that fosters growth and outlines the process from beginning to end. You can always be a colleague and even a friend to your mentee, but it is incredibly important that you are intentional in building the relationship. At the end of the mentoring relationship, a graduate student should feel confident with their newly acquired skills or knowledge, be able to articulate the learning that has occurred, and feel prepared to take on new tasks or challenges. Ultimately, my relationship with my supervisor is still one that is positive. I have learned numerous lessons in my professional career because of my interactions with my supervisor. In my mentoring relationship, however, I have found someone who challenges me and provides me with powerful opportunities to grow as a professional.
It can be daunting for a graduate student to navigate the process of finding the right mentor. It is important that expectations are clarified to define what that experience should look like for mentor and mentee. When I felt that I had found the right person to provide me with a strong mentoring relationship, we sat down and had a long conversation that created the context of my needs as a mentee, defined how my mentor would offer that necessary support, and outlined the full lifespan of our partnership. It was the most important conversation I have had in my career, and I found that working with clear guidelines has enriched our relationship. When all of the pieces are put into place, a successful and beneficial relationship will enrich the learning, professional growth, and relationship building for the mentor and mentee.