Communicating openly with your mentor network can be a challenge. There’s no ready-made script for having effective conversations with a mentor, but building communications within a network of mentors allows you to advocate for yourself, source helpful feedback, and ask for the mentoring you need. Managing your relationship with your mentor will be especially helpful if problems arise throughout the course of your time in graduate school.
This post offers suggestions on how to make use of your mentoring relationships to overcome hurdles you might face in graduate school, as well as how to overcome hurdles directly related to mentorship itself. These tips won’t resolve every possible mentorship-related obstacle, but I hope the ideas I share below can help mentees and mentors at least work towards getting mentees the support they need at those most difficult moments.
Telling Your Mentor When You Are Struggling
Almost every single mentor I spoke with for these blog posts emphasized that they wished their mentees would tell them when they were having a hard time instead of trying to push through on their own.
For instance, James Steur, a PhD student in Political Science and mentor through the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (URAP), told me that he makes it clear to his mentees from the first day that he values “honesty and frequent communication.” John Moist, Communications Specialist at the Graduate College, and Cara Finnegan, Professor in the Department of Communication, both said that the moment a mentee starts to feel they don’t want to talk to their mentor is precisely the moment at which they should go talk to them. Alexis Thompson, Associate Dean for Graduate Student Success, encouraged “normalizing speaking up and asking [your mentor] questions when things aren’t working.” Zeynep Madak-Erdoğan, Associate Professor of Nutrition, told me she feels a mentor should be “someone you feel safe failing with.” No one does the work required for their discipline perfectly the first time, so failing is an inevitable and normal part of the process.
As a graduate student mentee, I was sometimes wary to admit to my mentors if a task was turning out to be more challenging than I expected. I was even more hesitant to approach my mentors when I wanted to ask for more support from them, such as more feedback or more frequent meetings, to help me get over a hurdle. John’s advice for these cases is to think of the mentor in a “functional” way, as someone who has a commitment to listening to and supporting you. “This is the role that they happily occupy. It’s okay to take somebody up on what they’ve offered to do. So, it’s okay to lower the stakes around reaching out to them.”
Embracing Uncomfortable Conversations with Your Mentor
Experts define “high quality” mentoring relationships as “resilient,” or “relationships that can withstand difficult or challenging interactions.” Those relationships should also be “flexible,” i.e., relationships where “the protégé is allowed to be open and honest when seeking guidance.” Early in my graduate career, I thought a good mentoring relationship meant never disagreeing or having awkward or uncomfortable conversations—things would just “click” automatically. Now I think that, because of all the twists and turns along the path to finishing a graduate degree, the model I envisioned is almost impossible and perhaps a bit naïve. In any human relationship, embracing the complexity of honest communication will improve the outcome. It’s important to have at least one mentor whom you feel comfortable talking to when you’re struggling. If that person isn’t your primary advisor or supervisor, consider adding another mentor to your network to fill that role.
Many mentors I spoke with also emphasized that mentors should be proactive in checking in with their student mentees to ensure mentees feel comfortable expressing themselves. But mentors are also human and have different styles of communicating. In some cases, mentors talked to me about potential issues they are aware of and try to be open about with their mentees from the start. For example, Cara told me that as an advisor she has usually had multiple advisees. Therefore, she appreciates when her advisees come talk to her if they feel she’s doing something with other students and not them, or vice versa, so that they can reach a mutual understanding and resolve the issue. Both Cara and James also explicitly said they were committed to supporting their mentees’ desired career paths—regardless of the mentee’s personal goals or desired outcomes—and try to make that support clear to their mentees.
Turning to Other People and Resources When Needed
Good communication between the mentor and mentee can often help prevent and resolve problems. That said, there are a wide range of issues that can come up surrounding mentorship. In certain cases, turning to someone else for assistance can be useful or even necessary.
“In cases where communication has really broken down,” Cara explained, “it can be helpful to bring in a trusted third party.” She mentioned that other mentors or a Director of Graduate Study could be the person to perform this role. Other interviewees mentioned reaching out to staff at the Graduate College. Cara notes that both mentors and mentees can turn to these “third party” figures to talk through the situation and ask for advice. Consider which organizations and support networks may deal specifically with the situation at hand, depending on its nature. Such issues, while uncommon, are significant enough to merit taking advantage of campus resources available to you.
Finally, feel free to readjust and expand your mentorship network over time. This could include replacing one mentor with a different one, especially if your needs have evolved to require a change. In cases where you have an institutional tie to your mentor (e.g., they are your advisor), there will be a formal process to making the change, but that doesn’t mean you should feel discouraged from doing it. Alexis notes that, in such situations, a mentee may either opt to add on a co-advisor or just switch advisors altogether. “[Changing advisors] is maybe not the first thing you try, but it’s not the last thing you try either,” Alexis said, adding that “it’s really possible to do it in a way that is productive and helps everybody move forward.”
When I think about mentorship now, I often come back to James’ comment that “mentorship is intentional” because it sums up what I’ve learned about mentorship so well. The necessary self-reflection and negotiations with mentors can be challenging, but also rewarding. Ultimately, I hope the ideas I put forward in this series of blog posts help graduate students see dealing with mentorship not as a burden, but instead as an opportunity to exert agency and find the guidance and help they need.
 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. 13.
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.