Graduate Studies Mentoring Workshop

On February 20, 2014 by Grad Forum

Dean Kull (far left) with graduate students.

The Graduate Studies Office offered a four-part workshop series on graduate student and post-doctoral mentoring last month (January 2014). Graduate students and post-docs from all areas of research were welcome to attend and learn how to be successful mentors. Biology Professor Roger Sloboda and Dean of Graduate Studies Jon Kull have taught this workshop for the past few years. They have both attended the National Academies and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (NAS/HHMI) Summer Institutes on Undergraduate Education.

In this workshop series, a variety of mentor responsibilities were discussed; topics included bias, diversity, and minority issues. According to the workshop leaders, whether your mentees are undergraduate students, graduate students, or post-docs, there are certain guidelines that you should follow when interacting with them. When you first meet your potential mentees, the meeting should be professional and you should avoid asking personal questions. You should clearly outline your expectations for students, especially with undergrads. Remind them that science requires a relatively sophisticated skill set that takes time to learn; this means students must develop good time management as well as good laboratory skills. You can also get a feel for students’ skill levels at this time, and start them off with a project that has just the right amount of difficulty. Once they begin to acquire more skill, you can raise the difficulty and let students become more independent in their work. As Professor Sloboda remarked, “Make the student feel accomplished with easier steps at first. It’s like riding a bicycle. Start them off with a tricycle, then bicycle, and finally a unicycle.”

While a student is working for you, it is your job as a mentor to teach him or her the skills required to be successful as a student. When it comes time to present data, you will have to teach your mentee how to do so in a clear and concise manner. At conferences, it is your job to introduce your students to others in your field so they can start their own personal networking webs. Also, teaching mentees good mentoring skills will help them in the future when they will inevitably have to be a mentor for someone else—even if it is not in a science field.

As a mentor, you are expected and required to be fair to all students. You can always be there to help, but you should always try to give your time equally to your students, and not play favorites. You should also be aware of other outlets a student can use to obtain help—whether it is a professional to talk with or crisis phone lines for emergencies.

When a student leaves for any future endeavor, he or she is most likely going to ask you for some kind of written letter that will reference his or her good work. In any letter you write for a mentee, you must remember to remain honest and to never passively insult a student. If a student asks you to write a recommendation letter and you feel that you cannot say anything positive about the student, it is best to decline the task before you start, and tell the student that you are not the right person to write a letter for him or her.

While many graduate students and post-docs who were in this workshop have mentees of their own already, it is refreshing to think about hypothetical situations and how to act appropriately in them. Gaining knowledge in the area of mentoring is crucial for anyone in any field, and we thank Professor Sloboda and Dean Kull for their time in mentoring each one of us.

by Molly Croteau

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