When I asked James Steur—a PhD student in Political Science and a mentor through the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (URAP)—for his thoughts on mentorship, I was struck by his response: “mentorship is intentional.” The research and interviews I conducted on mentorship agreed that mentorship functions best when effort is invested by both the mentor and mentee.
It may be surprising, or even frustrating, for mentees to hear that it is partly their responsibility to make sure they get the mentoring they need. To be clear, that doesn’t mean that mentees should not have reasonable expectations of the support they want their mentors to provide. But what I’ve concluded is that graduate student mentees will be most satisfied with the mentoring they receive if they take an active role in managing those relationships.
This second post in the series focuses on the processes of choosing a mentor, agreeing on mutual expectations, and maintaining productive lines of communication.
In many graduate programs, such as mine (Comparative and World Literature), students must choose an advisor and thesis committee members by two years into the program. In some programs students must make their selection earlier than that, and some are assigned an advisor by their department when they begin their studies. However, the need to seek out and choose mentors will come up for most graduate students at some point. Even if an advisor is assigned to you, you may want to seek out additional mentors. And, regardless of your program’s process, a mentee may for any number of reasons find later that they want to change advisors.
Self-reflection will help a mentee determine the dimensions of mentorship they seek and which are the most important to them. Before selecting mentors, identify what kinds of support you want from them. There are many possible duties a mentor can take on, including transmitting knowledge of a research area or the discipline, empowering and advocating for mentees, providing constructive feedback, helping with career preparations, and offering emotional support. Laura Gail Lunsford and Vikki L. Baker explain that “mentors do not come to you; you must seek them out and be proactive about your needs, targeted areas of improvement, and goals and expectations for the relationship(s).”
Importantly, many scholars advise thinking beyond one of the most common motivations for choosing a mentor: the mentor’s status in their discipline. A few of my interviewees offered similar warnings about the tendency to gravitate towards the most senior person in the department with the closest match in research interests. For example, Professor Cara Finnegan of the Department of Communication, suggests that when graduate students are selecting an advisor, they could benefit from considering additional factors like the faculty member’s work style. Alexis Thompson, Associate Dean for Graduate Student Success, added that students may also want to determine if the mentor has sufficient time to work with them and the funding and laboratory resources necessary for the students’ research.
Your social identities and those of your mentors can also be an important factor to take into consideration. Both the University of Michigan and University of Washington have online guidebooks on mentorship for their graduate students that consider how historically marginalized social groups often face additional challenges in graduate school. These guidebooks encourage students to take social identities into consideration when choosing mentors, as this can be an important form of support. That said, they also discourage students from making this the only factor of consideration, arguing that it is not an automatic solution to creating a healthy mentor-mentee relationship. In sum, the choice depends on wide range of individual factors, which is why self-reflection is such an important first step.
Many resources on mentoring also encourage graduate students to make an effort to get to know potential mentors before deciding to work with them. Consider reading some of their publications, taking classes with them, going to their public lectures, attending departmental events to see how they are interact with others, having a one-on-one meeting with them during office hours, or asking other graduate students who have worked with the mentor previously about their experiences. Learning about a potential mentor’s research area is only part of the process—graduate students will also be well-served to gain a better understanding of teaching and work styles as well as ways of handling interpersonal interactions. When thinking about non-faculty mentors, factors like research specialization may be even less important or irrelevant; instead considering other skills, knowledge, or personal qualities this person possesses may be beneficial.
Agreeing on Shared Expectations for Mentorship
Once a mentor-mentee relationship has been established, both parties should make their respective expectations of each other explicit from the very beginning. Lunsford and Baker find that “students may enter mentoring relationships expecting that the mentor is going to set the agenda. Your mentor probably has a good idea about what you might need and the goals you might have, but he or she will not know all of your needs and goals. It is essential that you are an active and early participant in sharing what you hope to learn and achieve as a protégé.” They go on to suggest that graduate students “[craft] a vision statement” for their graduate education and “develop specific goals” based on it.
It doesn’t need to be the mentee who triggers this conversation. Zeynep Madak-Erdoğan, Associate Professor of Nutrition, sees establishing expectations from the beginning as an important part of her role as a mentor. She’s developed a “mentoring expectations document” for her and her mentees that’s morphed across time as she learns new things from her experiences, so that her graduate student mentees can have an idea of what she sees as her duties as a mentor and her expectations of her mentees. She notes it’s important to remain “accountable” to the expectations the mentor and mentee agree on, but also emphasizes that “it’s impossible to stick to that one document, because trainees’ needs and expectations might change.” However, she says that as long as communication lines are kept open, there is a way to deal with what comes up.
Allison Carrington, a URAP mentor like James, creates a “mentoring questionnaire” to share with their mentees at the beginning of the mentorship relationship. “Asking what mentees’ needs are up front can eliminate a lot of issues right away,” Allison explained. The questionnaire asks about communication styles, other time conflicts, as well as some fun things like what the mentee is passionate about. Allison believes this can help break down some barriers in the mentor-mentee relationship.
There are many different models for how the mentor and mentee can agree on expectations. It doesn’t have to involve a formal conversation or specific document. “The larger, lengthier, and more formal the relationship is, the more likely you’re going to have an explicit conversation around expectations,” shares Alexis. In other cases, she says, that conversation can be briefer and more informal. This may reassure students who feel nervous about initiating a meeting about expectations with mentors, especially in cases where the mentor hasn’t initiated that conversation themselves. “People have different styles,” she notes, “so you may want to see what style of communication about these things works for both you and your mentor.”
Continued to Self-Reflection and Communication
“The only thing that doesn’t change is change,” reminds Zeynep, which is why she recommends graduate students and their mentor negotiate their relationship over time. She warns that self-reflecting and holding a conversation about expectations just one time at the beginning of your graduate studies may be insufficient. Instead, you’re likely to be more satisfied with your mentorship if you regularly self-evaluate, communicate your new thoughts with your mentor, and find new mentors to meet your needs when they arise.
I spoke about this at length with Alexis and John Moist, Digital Media Specialist at the Graduate College. They both emphasized a phenomenon I have experienced myself and wish I had understood better earlier in graduate school: when graduate students begin their programs, they cannot possibly be aware of all the types of mentorship they will need. “Graduate students’ needs are going to evolve in different ways at different times,” and what you might need at one point isn’t what you need at another point. Speaking about his personal experience completing a PhD, John says he “noticed a pressure to get the negotiation conversation done once, and if I did it so well, this one negotiation conversation would last for the rest of my time in graduate school… when in reality, it’s a continual process of renegotiation.”
For me, a difficult part of graduate school was dealing with uncertainty about the future. Like John, I had a similar urge to establish my plan for completing my degree and my corresponding list of mentorship needs right from the beginning. As much as planning was important, being flexible and adapting to changes along the way ended up being just as—if not more—important. I think it’s perfectly normal—and even for the best—if graduate students realize they need to have numerous discussions about expectations to alert mentors to their shifting needs.
In sum, good mentorship revolves around self-reflection and open communication. At the beginning, this involves identifying your needs, choosing mentors accordingly, and deciding what your relationship will look like together with your mentor. As time goes on, you’ll have to be flexible and adaptable in the face of continual changes. Putting this amount of work into your mentoring relationship may seem to be time-consuming and, at times, even nerve-wracking. However, that work is likely to pay off across your graduate career.
Claire Baytas is an Analyst at Ithaka S+R, where she does research on higher education. Her most recent work focuses on the effects of generative AI on teaching, learning, and research. Before joining Ithaka S+R, Claire completed a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois, with a specialization in cultural memory studies.
 Lunsford and Baker, “Great Mentoring in Graduate School: A Quick Start Guide for Protégés,” The Council of Graduate School’s Occasional Paper Series, 2016, p. 8.
 For example, see Lunsford and Baker, “Great Mentoring in Graduate School: A Quick Start Guide for Protégés,” The Council of Graduate School’s Occasional Paper Series, 2016, p. 9.
 Lunsford and Baker, “Great Mentoring in Graduate School: A Quick Start Guide for Protégés,” The Council of Graduate School’s Occasional Paper Series, 2016, p. 6.