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March 12, 2019 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

The Mentoring Compact

Faculty mentoring of graduate students is one of those things that is rightly the subject of recurrent conversation; there are good mentors and bad, lack of clarity in faculty expectations and student responses, sustainable and deeply-broken models of graduate student training, all of which seem to perpetuate themselves (often unreflexively). The faculty who are best at mentoring recognize that it is a dynamic process, and that not one model works for all students, and, moreover, that the process of mentoring students leads to new techniques and understandings of the process. Sometimes it takes graduate students to precipitate some faculty growth. That all said, this is what I’ve learned in my eight years of graduate study and eleven years of working with graduate students, which I offer as a two-sided compact, what students should do, and what faculty should provide:

That’s the original Karate Kid being mentored by Mr. Miyagi, maybe the greatest mentor of all time? (Apologies to Yoda and Obi-wan…)

Students: Keep lines of communication open with your adviser and committee. If you’re a graduate student, don’t wait for your adviser or committee to contact you. Instead, make a regular practice of keeping people up to date about what you’re doing and how things are going. I make this suggestion because I’ve found that when things start to go poorly for graduate students (during grant writing, dissertation research, dissertation writing, job seeking, etc.), many students take to not communicating with their committee, often, it seems, out of fear of communicating that things are going poorly. If you send your adviser a monthly email keeping them abreast of what’s happening, it keeps lines of communication open and ensures that when difficulties arise, there’s already a channel open. (Other committee members might receive email every four or six months.) Just answer these three questions: 1) what have you been working on?, 2) what problems have you faced?, 3) how have you addressed those problems? (#3 is a good place to ask for help, if needed.)

Students might worry that sending advisers and committee members emails obliges them to respond, thereby creating unnecessary work for faculty, but it’s okay to preface emails like this with something along the lines of “There’s no need to respond to this email; I’m just writing to keep you in the loop.” Most faculty, I’m sure, will take the opportunity to not respond, but know that faculty are keeping students in mind when they receive emails like this.

(I’ve thought about writing a contract with graduate students, part of which would give them an automatic out of the advising relationship. For example, if you’re my advisee and I don’t hear from you for six months, then I assume I’m no long your adviser. I’ve watched students struggle with taking faculty off their committees, often because the lines of communication between faculty and student are troubled. But I’ve not gotten to an actual contract yet…)

Faculty: Have guidelines for responding to student emails. I tell my advisees that I’ll always respond to an email within 24 hours (unless it’s the weekend or I’m traveling); if I’m a committee member, it’s no more than 72 hours; if I’m just some random faculty member, it can be up to a week. If it’s an actual emergency — and I can do something about it — I’ll break these guidelines. If I’m going to be running late because I want to be thorough in my response, I always make sure to send an email to that effect. That said, I try and abide by a minimalist email policy and send as few emails as possible (if only to have a very clear and direct chain of communication). Only when students start working on their dissertations do I give them my phone number, since I assume that before that the kind of help I can provide is largely bureaucratic (i.e. email and meeting based).

Students: Do what faculty ask you to do. One of the recurrent sources of frustration voiced by faculty who work with graduate students is that students come seeking advice, faculty do a lot of work in making suggestions and providing feedback and resources, and then students don’t follow through by doing what faculty ask them to do. Even if you think the suggestion is off base, it’s better to do the work than to avoid it; showing a faculty member that you did the work and proving that the suggestion was insufficient or off base is a clearer demonstration of the paucity of a suggestion than not taking the suggestion seriously. If you can’t do something, it’s so much better to explain why you can’t than to just not do it (which open lines of communication can facilitate). If an assignment (or job task, like grading) has a clear set of instructions, follow the instructions as provided. Again, it’s better to show the paucity of the instructions by following them than to let faculty think you’re just lazy and trying to find workarounds.

Faculty: Be clear in your expectations and provide instructive guidelines. When I have teaching assistants grading for me, I provide them with very clear rubrics to use; when I am helping students generate reading lists, I’m very clear about how many items should be on it, and what kinds of things those readings should be (e.g. books, chapters, articles, etc.). I find that being very clear in my expectations helps students immensely, and that when they don’t follow the instructions I’ve provided, I can point to the instructions as the basis of our next interaction (see below). I try and take notes of my conversations with students and provide them with a copy of those notes after the meeting (either in writing or via email) so that I know we’re on the same page.

Students: Give faculty lead time to prepare themselves for what you need. There’s very little I find as frustrating as someone else’s deadline being imposed on my work schedule. Having students give me something they’re seeking feedback on shortly before the due date is a case in point: if you want careful reading and generative feedback, I probably need a week to fit it into my schedule and make sure I give it the time it needs. Preparing faculty for upcoming deadlines and the prospect that you’re going to send them something ensures that you get the attention you want. This might be something to communicate in a monthly email (e.g. “I have a fellowship deadline at the end of the month and plan to send you the application in two weeks.”), and is definitely something to give people at least a week or more to prepare for. If it’s big — like a dissertation draft — give them a month or more to prepare for it.

Faculty: Tell students what their windows of opportunity are. I’m pretty regimented in my work planning, and I imagine most faculty are. Because of that, I know — roughly — when I’m going to have more or less time to give students feedback, set up meetings, etc. At the beginning of the semester, I try and give my students a sense of when these windows will be, and try and set up deadlines around them. For example, when I know a student is going to be sending me a dissertation draft, I let that student know when I’ll have a week to dedicate to reading it and commenting on it. If they miss the window, I’ll still get the work done, but I’m clear that it will take me a little longer than if I have it in the window.

Students: Plan to educate faculty on standards and policies. This is especially true for faculty new to your institution or in other departments than your own: faculty tend to not know what the policies are that dictate student lives. If you can provide them with written documentation (i.e. from a graduate student handbook), it can go a long way to clarifying faculty expectations of your work. If standards vary from policies, then you also want proof of that (e.g. if the graduate handbook says comprehensive exams comprise 100 texts but everyone actually does 75, bring some recently defended comprehensive exam reading lists to talk through). Faculty may not vary from the policy as written, but if there is an emerging norm, you’ll want them to know about it and have proof that it exists.

Faculty: Provide a prompt for the material basis for meetings. I find that having some kind of written product to talk through with students makes meetings feel much more productive than not having something to focus on. This can be a dissertation proposal, a grant application, a reading list, an annotated bibliography, an article manuscript, something you’ve both read recently, etc. Having something to focus on ensures that the conversation is well focused and there’s a direct outcome of the meeting. There can be small talk too, but having a clear work plan for you and the student helps to make sure that there are deliverables and that the student has the feeling of being materially supported.

That’s Daniel-san, having vanquished the bully Cobra Kai thanks to the inimitable mentoring of Mr. Miyagi.

Elsewhere, I’ve provided some guidelines for thinking about how to compose a dissertation committee, and what the overall professionalization timeline might look like given today’s academic job market. The latter might be especially helpful in thinking about the material basis of meetings and to provide a trajectory for the mentoring relationship (at least during grad school). Other tips? Insight? Post them in the comments.

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