Graduate Students Should Seek Multiple Mentors

You need guidance beyond what a faculty adviser can offer, writes Tithi Basu Mallik, who recommends identifying other people who can provide three key dimensions of support.

November 15, 2021
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The importance of having good mentors in graduate school cannot be overstated. As a recent graduate student, I can personally attest to the value of having strong ones. I was fortunate to have more than one mentor in graduate school who provided me advice that helped me navigate many of the challenges I faced—from feedback on shaping my research to strategies for job searching and dealing with stress. It was a huge source of comfort and strength to know that I could turn to certain people for support with different issues.

The term “mentor” is often used quite loosely and might refer to various kinds of supportive relationships between two individuals in a professional context. What I mean by “mentor” here is someone who provides support to an individual with aspects of their identity as a graduate student by connecting them with resources, sharing advice and feedback, and in general being accessible to them. By this definition, someone who is not a faculty member can support a graduate student as their mentor.

Graduate students, however, usually think of their faculty advisers as their mentors. But faculty advisers might not have the training or the capacity to help their graduate students navigate the diverse challenges they may experience. What happens in those cases where the adviser is not equipped to assist someone with their needs? Whom can the graduate student turn to for support with navigating such a situation? I want to strongly encourage graduate students to seek mentors beyond just their faculty advisers.

Graduate students who have multiple mentors are able to benefit from a diversity of perspectives. As a graduate student, even if you are fortunate to have an adviser who is able to guide you effectively with all your needs, a different mentor might offer you a fresh viewpoint on the same issues. Their knowledge and expertise might be very different from your adviser’s, and they may be able to connect you with different resources. For example, if you had a mentor who is a faculty member in a different discipline, they might introduce you to a novel technique that you can apply to your research. If they are a career professional, they may help you discover an interesting career path you had never considered before.

Another advantage of having multiple mentors is that they might provide access to a larger network. Perhaps your adviser is well connected to industry partners, former students, postdocs and other faculty associates. It can be great for you in terms of building your own professional network if your adviser introduces you to some of those connections. Now if you had multiple mentors, you may be able to establish connections with an even wider group of people. If you have a sizable network, you might be able to leverage your connections to find an internship, a fellowship or a job opportunity.

When you have multiple mentors, you have more people in your support network. Having a support network means more people whom you can learn from and who can assist you with your different needs as a graduate student. Your mentors might serve as references for you, provide you with feedback on improving your writing or just offer a patient ear to discuss the issues you are grappling with.

Three Dimensions of Support

People navigate various issues while they are in graduate school. Can a single person consistently provide reliable support as a mentor on all of these aspects at all times to their graduate student? While it is possible that some people are able to do this, graduate students would be wise not to leave this up to chance and seek other mentors in addition to their advisers.

I want to advocate for the idea that graduate students should be intentional about seeking mentors to support their research, career and well-being needs. These needs might not be exclusive of each other and may be interrelated. For example, high research output might be tied to someone’s sense of well-being. An individual who is a well-being mentor to a graduate student can also be their career mentor, research mentor or any combination thereof.

A research mentor is someone who provides support to a graduate student with various aspects of their research, such as discussing ideas, writing and publishing. Aside from their faculty adviser, graduate students might seek a research mentor in individuals whose scholarly areas or interests align with their own. This could be someone internal to their institution like postdocs or faculty members in other departments who work on similar topics. It might also be someone external to their institution, like a researcher whose work they might be familiar with.

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If you are a graduate student, consider reaching out to a potential research mentor and sharing what resonated with you about their scholarship. You can also mention how their work might be connected to your own research. If this opens up a channel of communication between you, share a brief overview of your work with them and request their feedback. Try to incorporate their suggestions to improve your work. Over time this can lead to a research collaboration or organizing a conference presentation together.

A career mentor would assist a graduate student by helping them prepare and navigate into a career of their choice. This may be a professional in industry, government or the nonprofit sector, or someone in a faculty role. A person who is knowledgeable about different career pathways can also serve as a career mentor.

As a graduate student, if you have some ideas about your career interests, try to find someone in your network who has recently transitioned into related positions. Think about alumni from your program or individuals you might have met at conferences. You can also conduct a virtual search to find professionals whose career trajectories are attractive to you. Conduct informational interviews with them—you can inquire about how they were able to navigate into their roles and ask for tips to prepare yourself for a similar transition.

If you are able to establish a connection, make sure to sustain it. Consider requesting follow-up meetings to learn more about their work or share your progress and seek their feedback on your job-search strategies.

A well-being mentor is someone who supports a graduate student in terms of their general wellness, such as mental health needs or navigating family care responsibilities or immigration issues, just to name a few areas. Individual needs are the biggest determinants of the support graduate students might require from their well-being mentor.

If you are a graduate student, reach out to people who are best suited to helping you, depending on your personal requirements. For example, if you identify as an international student and visa issues are a concern, you might find it beneficial to connect with an international student support professional or someone who has navigated visa challenges successfully.

Building any mentoring relationship takes time and an investment of effort. You can’t always plan the relationship. Nurture your existing professional relationships by engaging with genuineness and communicate your aspirations and needs to the extent possible. You might find mentors in people you already know, even if you are not expecting it.

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Tithi Basu Mallik is the assistant director for graduate/professional students and postdoctoral scholars at the Stuckert Career Center and the Graduate School of the University of Kentucky. She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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