Across the past eight years that I have been a PhD student at the University of Illinois, I have noticed one subject that repeatedly resurfaces during my interactions with graduate students, no matter the student’s discipline: mentorship, particularly one’s relationship with their advisor or supervisor.
What graduate students say about mentorship is certainly varied and can include feelings of admiration, frustration, fear, gratitude, excitement, abandonment, and everything in between. But the recurrence of this topic can’t be a coincidence and underscores the central role mentorship plays in the graduate student experience.
As a result, I decided to create this series of blog posts for GradLIFE that reflect on mentorship in graduate school. I’ve consulted university guides, read scholarly articles, and spoken with faculty, students, and Graduate College staff in an attempt to synthesize some perspectives that might be helpful to graduate students and those mentoring them. I should say up front, though, that the more I have delved into this topic, the more I have recognized that the mentor-mentee relationship, like any interpersonal relationship, is complex. It is also extremely subjective, as it is dependent on the specific people involved, their positions, and their needs. What I write here won’t be a one-size-fits-all model for understanding mentorship, choosing the best mentors, or making mentor-mentee interactions easier. On the contrary, my main point is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model for these things. Instead, embracing the messy processes of self-reflection and honest communication (and doing those things again and again) seems to be the best method for optimizing the mentor-mentee relationship.
What is a mentor in the context of graduate school?
Throughout my research and interviews, I found that experts agree mentoring is multifaceted. Alexis Thompson, Associate Dean for Graduate Student Success, described mentors as providing three main types of support: “academic,” “professional development,” and “social-emotional.” While those first two categories might sound similar, “academic” signifies helping the mentee produce a thesis or meet other specific departmental requirements for their degree. “Professional development” accounts for how the mentor, in one-on-one or small group contexts, helps the mentee understand their discipline and become a member of it.
Other interviewees highlighted specific components of mentorship they found particularly important. Zeynep Madak-Erdoğan, Associate Professor of Nutrition, prioritizes “the health and well-being” of her mentees, the “social-emotional” category noted above. “All mentors have their own way of doing things,” Zeynep acknowledges, “but that is the level of responsibility that I feel.” Zeynep has extensive experience with mentorship: she’s been mentored as a graduate student and faculty member, and she mentors undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and early-career colleagues. “If [the mentees] are in a good place with good health, the rest will come.”
Two PhD candidates, James Steur (Political Science) and Allison Carrington (Social Work), both mentors to undergraduate students through the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (URAP), offer additional insight. In their capacity as both mentors with URAP and mentees as graduate students, they have reflected deeply on the mentor-mentee relationship from both sides. James emphasized that, for him, a good mentor helps their mentees think through their own values and aspirations, instead of just taking the career path they feel others (including the mentor) expect of them to be successful. Allison suggested that a mentor focus on their own specific strengths and skill sets, making sure to share them with their mentees. On the social-emotional side of things, Allison also noted that, as a mentor, “one of the most important things to do is be proactive about reaching out to our mentees—knowing how they’re doing, knowing if they’re struggling.” Mentees who need help but avoid coming to their mentor is a common predicament. This need to get to know your mentees and their specific needs was a point nearly everyone I spoke with mentioned as essential to good mentorship. As Alexis put it, “mentorship is about meeting people where they are, and walking with them to where they’re going.”
Is my advisor or supervisor my mentor?
What is the place of the “academic advisor” and “research/dissertation supervisor” in this discussion of mentorship? Personally, I find that the terms “mentor,” “advisor,” and “supervisor” are often conflated. At first glance the advisor or supervisor appears to be the prime example of a mentor for a graduate student. Nearly all the resources I consulted on mentorship in graduate school, however, sought to distinguish between the idea of a “mentor” and these other roles.
For some, mentor is a broader term, which includes advising and supervising but can also encompass elements of coaching, encouraging, and supporting. Cara Finnegan, Professor in the Department of Communication, says that, ideally, “all advisors are mentors, but not all mentors are advisors.” Cara has mentored numerous students across her 24 years as faculty at the University of Illinois and even notes that she’s “definitely mentored students that I did not officially advise.” In other words, your advisor or supervisor could also be a mentor, but that may not always be the case. In fact, every resource I consulted and person I spoke to emphasized seeking out mentors, plural, rather than a single mentor.
From the myth of the “Super Mentor” to a network of mentors
Even the best of mentors will almost inevitably not provide you with the range of mentorship that you may require. In other words, don’t get caught up in the unrealistic search for a “super mentor,” i.e., a “perfect mentor.” The “super mentor” would have research expertise in all of the areas you want to explore, their teaching, communication, and work styles all suit you, they’re best positioned to help you network, and attuned to all facets of your personal and emotional needs. That person probably doesn’t exist. Instead, finding numerous mentors, so that each one can cover some of this vast ground, is the more effective solution, and offers you multiple perspectives throughout your journey.
When I first began graduate school, I had, without having consciously realized it, subscribed to the myth of the “super mentor.” I had encountered students during my undergraduate and graduate studies lauding their mentors—mentors who were fully committed to their mentees, guiding them and inspiring them. Or, at least, that’s the impression I got from the outside. I began to think that both my professional success and emotional well-being was tied to identifying an ideal mentor in graduate school who would be a perfect fit in terms of their research and our interpersonal relations.
No surprise: I never found that person. I did, however, end up assembling a wonderful network of mentors, each of whom have distinct strengths and have supported me in different ways and beyond the extent that one person could have. Laura Gail Lunsford and Vikki L. Baker underline this very point—that one person cannot perform the full spectrum of mentorship duties—as an important finding of the past 10 years of research on mentorship. They encourage mentees to form a “developmental network,” a group of mentors “who provide a range of support including personal, professional and emotional.”  They also advise mentees to “diversify” their networks, both in terms of the kinds of support each person can provide and the types of people they are. A graduate student’s network of mentors need not only be faculty: it can also include administrators, peers, and contacts from outside the academic community.  What matters is that this ensemble of people collectively perform the different dimensions of mentorship that the mentee is seeking. Cara, for example, underscored the benefits of “peer support networks” in which graduate students provide mentorship to each other, especially in cases where more advanced students and recent graduates can offer guidance to students still in earlier stages of their degrees.
Having a network of mentors decreases the chances that mentees will be unsatisfied with the mentorship they receive. Mentees can certainly still have expectations for the mentorship that each member of the network should provide, but those expectations will be tuned to the person. The idea of a network of mentors is also important for mentors to keep in mind. Within this model, mentors can reflect on their own strengths and limitations. If they can’t provide the help a mentee needs in a certain area, they can encourage the mentee to seek support from other people or sources who can.
Clearly, for the mentor-mentee relationship to function at its best, both the mentor and the mentee have active roles to play. In my next posts, I elaborate further on these roles and how they can help us select good mentors and overcome problems that come up between mentors and mentees.
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. 3.
 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.