Helping Students to Navigate through Graduate School: Let’s Talk About Mentorship

This is post two on the “Ensure Access and Inclusion” theme- see part one here!

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Entering graduate school can be a bewildering experience. As well as struggling with the demands of coursework and the expectations of professors, students must also learn the norms of their new environment. For some, this process is a necessary component of preparing for a doctoral degree. For others, it feels needlessly punitive and even like a form of hazing.

The question of how to welcome new students into the community of the graduate school and into individual departments was a central component of the meeting on Access and Inclusion, especially for the group focusing on student retention and support. The discussion in this group centered on one possibility for helping students acclimatize to the department – mentorships between students and faculty members. A productive mentorship can open a window into departmental culture and practices for students, as well as fostering the passion for the subject that prompted them to enter graduate school in the first place. Ideally, faculty mentors could not only provide valuable resources to their mentees and increase their confidence, but also develop a relationship with them that is goes beyond the requirements for the degree.

These ideal mentorships can be an asset for a department, but they depend on one key element: the mentor him or herself.

While many graduate students develop beneficial mentorships with faculty members, some are less lucky. Different faculty members can have different expectations and rules for their relationships with students, which may be implicit, and students can also feel apprehensive approaching their mentors with their own expectations and issues. Stories of less-than-ideal relationships between faculty and students often circulate within departments, and students are subtly discouraged from pursuing relationships that could prove problematic.

Departments can help students create fruitful mentorships by encouraging them to develop relationships with several faculty members to evaluate them as possible mentors, but why should the burden of developing a mentorship fall entirely on the student? Drawing on their own experiences as current and former graduate students, meeting participants agreed that approaching faculty members can be a daunting task, especially for students who don’t feel they fit into the culture of the department.

Instead, why not ask students what they expect from a mentorship, and provide guidelines for both mentees and mentors that draw on? Departments might also consider building other forms of mentorship that could help bring students into their community. For instance, students may feel more confident sharing their problems with peers who are further along in their studies. Departments can also introduce students to their culture and expectations through a foundation class, such as the Graduate Proseminar in Fordham’s Philosophy department.

Mentorships can help students become happier and more confident members of the graduate school community. To reap these benefits, however, we have to consider the burden that we place on students to create strong relationships with mentors as well as the hidden expectations on both sides that can undermine these relationships.

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To read more about the “Access and Inclusion” planning theme (including a recommended reading list), see its description on the website for “The ‘Living Humanities’ Ph.D. for the 21st Century.” If you want to learn more about the meeting itself, read the full discussion in the official minutes.

  • Samantha Sabalis, Graduate Assistant, NEH/GSAS Grant, The “Living Humanities” Ph.D. for the 21st Century

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