Do you want to know a secret to making grad school successful? Find a mentor who will show you the ropes and offer insights and opportunities as you take your grad school journey.
Finding other people who can help guide you through all the transitions, requirements, and opportunities of grad school is important enough to consider it an unofficial degree requirement. Cultivating a relationship with a mentor during your graduate degree years is as critical to your success as any class you'll take or dissertation you'll do in your graduate years.
How can you find a mentor and what exactly will one do for you?
Start looking for a mentor by seeking out people in your field or who have achieved something you have as a goal. “By the time you get to the graduate level, you are carving out an area of research you want to write something original in,” says Dr. Lenora Timm, Associate Dean for Students in the Office of Graduate Studies at the University of California at Davis. “You need to choose an expert in that sub-field to direct you.”
With a mentor on your side, you'll have opportunities to gain the knowledge and skills you need to launch your career successfully, but you'll also have the intangible understanding of your field and the crucial introductions to others who can help you move forward.
Plenty of undergraduates work with faculty, but this kind of side-by-side work becomes essential in grad school and is often a natural start to a mentoring relationship. “The best circumstance is that person is a mentor who will guide you in intellectual development, help you network and [help you] get published in your field,” says Timm, who is also on the planning committee for the UC Davis Mentoring at Critical Transitions program, which teaches faculty how to help graduate students achieve excellence through mentoring relationships.
Mentors also have very specific resources and opportunities to offer grad students, says Timm. They provide guidance and intellectual and moral support during the hectic and pressured grad school years and help their mentees establish a solid track record of contributing research or writings to their field.
Grad school mentors are often an important and in many cases necessary source of funding for students too. Faculty may be working with grants that can help support your studies, have direct knowledge of grants you can take advantage of, or have teaching assistant or research assistant positions that can help you pay for school.
Your faculty advisor won't necessarily be your mentor. The difference is that while faculty advisors (whom you are often assigned to) help guide you through your college requirements like your course work and your dissertation, a mentor helps you get early footing in your career. They might advise you on your academic requirements, but their focus generally encompasses a much broader scope of guidance. Mentors are often described as taking someone under their wings, and that's clear when you find someone who can help you in ways an academic advisor may not.
As a grad student, you'll find mentors present themselves at different times in your life. Luckily, it's perfectly okay to have more than one mentor. “'Mentor' is an elastic term,” says Timm. “It means someone who is supportive of you and helps you in any way. It doesn't have to be faculty.” For instance, you may find someone in your chosen industry or field who can help introduce you to industry leaders or those who are working in your area of interest and help you establish a professional network. Still another might be a faculty member you work closely with who wants you to work on emerging research and then present the findings at a national conference.
Expectations for a successful mentoring relationship mirror that of any professional partnership. But mentors expect to give assistance. “Don't be shy about asking for help,” says Timm. When you find a mentor, use the opportunity to ask questions about the jobs you are doing or to bounce ideas off them that help you exercise your own independent judgment.
Many mentoring relationships morph into lifelong friendships that continue to enrich the personal and professional lives of everyone involved.