Best Practices for Mentors

Below are some observations derived from interviews with 40 Northwestern faculty (from almost as many fields) — all renowned for their excellence as mentors.

Optimizing Student Progress

  • Mentors are also responsible for making mentees successful
  • Break tasks into manageable pieces
  • Hold regular meetings
  • Give explicit and frequent evaluation of achievement
  • Enable to students to learn from and with each other and see each other’s process
  • When there’s a problem, call attention to it sooner; don’t let problems build up
  • Find out what gets students excited
  • Have a five-year model in mind from the outset: see the steps and the endpoint; actual time to degree may vary depending on research results
  • Make quality and employability coextensive
  • Help mentees recognize what they’re suited for among specialties
  • Diagnose the student’s skill set (and develop a plan for utilizing and extending it)
  • Treat students as junior colleagues
  • Instill motivation and enthusiasm about students’ projects
  • Convey what the profession requires of them and the commitment necessary to excel
  • Undertake bi-directional negotiation about topics
  • Listen to where students are going and what they make of reading
  • Help students clarify and crystallize their central idea in order to articulate the argument
  • Care about your students; think about their careers; take time to give critical feedback
  • Develop your own reputation in the field
  • Respond promptly to students’ work
  • When students procrastinate, boost confidence, explain how they excel (“when you work, it’s great...”)
  • It’s difficult to ask questions autonomously, but we’re not training students to be “problem-solving monkeys”
  • You model how to be a good researcher
  • Help them to form their research question, then link with hypotheses and methods
  • Mentor independent research as early as possible (not the “indentured servitude model”)
  • Focus on basics first, then let students draw on basics to come up with new ideas
  • Put students’ papers at the front of your work queue
  • Figure out what to tell each student to help them succeed
  • Students are usually aware of their own learning processes; help them find words for it

Markers of Student Progress

  • Partnership develops with mentor
  • They meet research and personal goals
  • Demonstrate how to be a good investigator
  • Students take initiative (e.g. leadership relative to group/lab)
  • Keep focus and priorities clear
  • Connect one’s passion to the project and deeply invest in the topic
  • Thinking about research is thinking about teaching, and vice versa
  • Growing awareness of oneself in the field, how one fits within a community of scholars

Meetings

  • Let the student (or circumstances) set the agenda
  • If you keep notes at meetings, give your student a photocopy each time
  • If you don’t keep notes on meetings, ask the student to do so and email you with a summary including the next task(s) and deadline(s) agreed upon
  • At major decision points, have the student write a memo for the file (cc’ed to committee)
  • If you juggle a lot of meetings, consider letting students slot themselves into your Google calendar
  • Use email or Skype to keep track of students when you (or they) are abroad for extended periods
  • Your notes may become a useful basis for letters of recommendation
  • It’s generally a bad sign when a student “disappears”: intervene if meetings become too infrequent
  • Plan forward

Communicating Critique

  • Be “face-sensitive”
  • Always deliver difficult news in person
  • Be tough, yet keep the intellectual criteria clear
  • Trust your expertise and give direction
  • Consider calling your department chair (or DGS) into difficult meetings to reduce (erroneous) impression of the mentor’s capricious opinions
  • Convey private matters (such as criticism of work habits and outcomes) privately
  • Focus on “seeing the story”: clear writing emerges from that
  • Be rigorous: “It’s your job to take over the field; it’s mine to make it difficult”
  • Group sessions are good for conveying technical skills: show that codes can be broken
  • Truly bad news should never come as a surprise to the student
  • Tell them what they don’t want to hear, and work with them to get things right
  • Maintain openness yet preserve confidentiality
  • Be honest; when there are setbacks, look for a positive spin
  • TAs must also make progress on research; watch for signs that they are “stuck”
  • Judge the output, not what (seems to be) the input
  • Critique shortfalls, analytical errors, and shortcuts: work on problem solving
  • “It’s a process”: the same question will recur if it was not comprehended
  • Sometimes you can do more damage by being kind and nurturing than by being forthright

Personal/Social

  • Keep it work related, though friendly
  • Advise and assist
  • (When relevant) model the practices of parenting as well as advising
  • Be sensitive to the workday limits of students who are parents
  • When personal problems arise, scope the situation then be decisive about steering students to appropriate help (e.g. CAPS)
  • There is an onus to know each other as people (not just as researchers) reciprocally, but the means and boundaries to achieve this depend on you: be neither a distant person who sits in judgment nor someone needing placation

Generational Issues and Perceptions of Discrepancy

  • Amounts of effort invested, and steadiness of input
  • Students may have different commitments to both work and family than mentor
  • The career cycle of the mentor may make students more and less dispensable (or their numbers vary) over time
  • Over time, the mentor’s approach may fail to connect and require rethinking
  • Treat advisees right and the generational gap is less likely to matter

Diversity

  • Practical vs. visionary concerns
  • The “centre” gets more interesting when students bring diversity
  • This is an intellectual matter (attitudes, work style, and needs) not limited to the professional arena (passions and associations outside subject area)
  • Recognize individual strengths; do not assume homogeneity
  • International students may have fewer cultural touchstones; put time into figuring out what they do not understand
  • Deliberately look for variation among your students; address it early on; figure out what motivates them

Pathway to the Professoriate

  • Encourage teaching apprenticeships
  • Demystify award-winning projects
  • Professionalization is inseparable from students’ training overall
  • Let students see all aspects of your job; let them help when feasible and appropriate (“legitimate peripheral participation”)
  • DGS may coordinate professional development, but mentor oversees individual students’ career development and readiness for the job market (or postdocs)
  • Coach students on what to do at conferences; how to be savvy in personal interactions
  • Teaching them how the profession works: responding to referees; raising money; collecting data

Expectations of Students

  • Goal-directed
  • Need for closure
  • Contact advisor when needed
  • Be willing to do what it takes
  • Imagination and original thought
  • Strive to do their best
  • Self-actualization
  • Perseverance; take comments and keep going
  • Know what a good idea is
  • Don’t assume a student is “just struggling”: maybe they’re playing video games
  • They will respect your time
  • Professional adeptness and steady productivity

Pleasures of Mentoring

  • Circulation of effort from one’s own mentors through to the next generation
  • Do mentoring because you’re interested and motivated
  • Office conversations can be very good teaching
  • We get smarter by teaching young people
  • Sustained contact with graduate students can change your thinking
  • Watching neophytes develop into polished presenters of themselves and their work
  • “Scientific progeny”
  • Your commitment to mentees can be returned with their best efforts, passion, and loyalty vis-à-vis your (or your group’s) efforts
  • Grad students are wonderful people with whom you can share values in a deep way
  • You will understand minds by building them
  • “Liberating the form in the stone”
  • Seeing someone understand something, with or without a great result
  • It’s rewarding to see student gain understanding of the discipline
  • This is the best part of the job

Advice to New Mentors

  • Getting formal training in mentoring will make the learning curve more manageable; fewer mistakes will result
  • Mentoring can be frustrating early on
  • There can be gender issues around listening and authority
  • Remember what isolation was like for you and promote civility, respect and colleagiality
  • Your personal style will emerge; be comfortable with yourself in this role
  • Be an ad hoc problem solver
  • Keep your sense of humor
  • Enjoy their successes when they get a good result
  • Be patient
  • Mentoring is an interchange: you’ll learn from them too
  • It’s fun, enjoy it
  • Don’t take your own strengths for granted (if it’s easy for you it’s not unimportant)
  • There is a status difference between mentor and student; respect the gap between buddy and gatekeeper
  • Make letters of recommendation reflect students’ work
  • Respect senior colleagues’ experience but insist on understanding what you are doing
  • Supplement your mentorship with others’: know what you don’t know and who does know (“not all problems have to be solved solo”; “It takes a village to raise a graduate student”)
  • Don’t do it unless you’re willing to give 100% commitment
  • Treat them like human beings: advice and love are cheap, be reassuring and affirmative
  • Small things can matter a lot (e.g. having foreign students over at Thanksgiving)
  • Consider carefully your group’s size and rate of growth: one outstanding well-matched
  • student can get you tenure
  • You can’t control for your students’ IQ or creativity, but you can influence how hard they will work
  • Be available: “recognition is much easier than recall”, “don’t triage your time by cutting
  • out students”
  • Express the value of the student’s project to the field, and as confidence in their promise
  • Think of what they can achieve with your support
  • Let students come to problems through investigation and develop their questions through study
  • Take the “‘mammalian’ not the ‘fish egg’ approach to fostering mentees”
  • “Cultivate down, rather than up”: consider doing this across the field as a whole, not just your own Northwestern students

After Graduation

  • Help or get out of the way
  • Over time, the colleague/mentor line may become blurred
  • Help network your current students to your graduates