We all know how important—and challenging—it can be to find a good support system during the grad school process, but what happens when we become the mentors? As teachers, researchers, and colleagues, graduate school often thrusts us into supportive roles before we feel completely prepared, but providing advice for the next generation can be just as important and fulfilling as any intellectual victory.
The real question is where to start. When I first tried to help incoming grad students, I wanted to be the best little mentor this side of the Internet. Given enough time and social energy, I would have taken every new student out for coffee and walked them all past the pitfalls that I ran into during my first year. Of course, none of us have time for that. Below are some ways that you can support your newer colleagues in a way that also supports your own work as an educator and a scholar.
Start Small, but Be Consistent: You don’t need to invite every new student over for dinner, but if you take a new student out for coffee, do it again at the end of the semester. When things start getting difficult and that student starts to feel the push, show that they can rely on their colleagues when the going gets tough.
Be a Matchmaker: You can’t be the best resource for every new student and get your own work done, so keep an eye out for needs that can be met by others. Does a new students need an introduction to the Special Collections in your library? Step up and connect him or her with an enthusiastic librarian and a dissertator who loves those resources.
Think Systematic: It is great if you have a wonderful, supportive relationship with a group of newer students, but what happens when you leave? We may joke about how long it takes to get a graduate degree, but in institutional terms we are all temporary. The best way to serve those who come after you in your program is to make systemic changes that will be there for years to come. That doesn’t necessarily mean starting a new mentoring program from scratch. Make the best use of limited time and energy by strengthening pre-existing support structures. Are there any unofficial supportive events that could be institutionalized? Could they reach a wider array of students or offer a more positive environment? Be the push that makes those resources more permanent and relevant.
Get Beyond your Borders: Many grad programs don’t have enough students to ensure that everyone gets the support and mentorship that they need. One of the best ways to ensure consistency is to make solid, regular connections with grads at other universities in the area. Start by planning one event per semester with a specialty group at one other school and build from there. The event could be centered on a joint speaker or a panel, but sharing a drink can be as valuable as sharing intellectual resources. Which brings me to my final suggestion . . .
Don’t Forget to Share Your Joy: Mentorship shouldn’t be limited to work. Some of the best support can come from connecting newer students to the things that you enjoy outside of your research. Are you part of a potluck group or a community soccer team? Think about inviting a newer grad to join you. They get a connection to something outside of their research and you get a new midfielder. Everyone wins!
Where to Go Next: It isn’t easy to find resources on creating and fostering graduate student community, but here are two blog posts which explain why peer support matters for so much more than the job market:
- Gina Stewart at Chronicle Vitae  speaks particularly to the STEM fields and to the need for community as a women in the sciences.
- Troy Campbell’s post “More Than Friendship: The Importance of Student Peers,” highlights the ways in which our grad school friendships can carry both personal and professional value.
[Image by Flickr user VIC CVUT used under creative commons licensing.]