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GSAS Futures Mentoring Strategy Guide

Jesuit professor and student writing while seated at desks.

Adjusting to the reality of graduate study during a global pandemic is no small task. Graduate students find themselves confronted with profound difficulties in their continued coursework, research, and teaching, and these difficulties include practical challenges (e.g., access to research materials, ability to meet deadlines, opportunities for collaboration) as well as exposure to emotional and psychological stress. More than ever, mentoring relationships are essential for success in a graduate program. Mentoring relationships provide the support and structure graduate students need to make progress in their studies.
 
Accordingly, as the COVID-19 pandemic persists, it is important that graduate students take the time to reevaluate what is needed to maintain a healthy and engaged relationship with their mentors. Consider the following strategies for improving your relationships with your faculty mentor(s):  

  • Establish regular communication with your mentors. Before the COVID-19 pandemic you likely communicated with your faculty mentors on a task-focused basis, i.e., only when some specific task or deadline needed to be addressed. In the present circumstances, however, many graduate students no longer have the research access or schedule flexibility required to meet deadlines as they would normally. For this reason, task-focused communication is for many graduate students insufficient – it has become necessary to communicate with mentors on a more regular basis, i.e., to check-in with one another in regular time-intervals (weekly, bi-weekly, etc.). Get in touch with your mentors and voice your interest in establishing regular intervals for communication. Whether you and your mentors decide to communicate by way of email or a synchronous platform (e.g., Zoom), agreeing on a regular time to check-in with one another will provide you with a sense of structure and support that you would normally get from working on campus and around colleagues. 
     
  • Be more open and honest about what you can reasonably achieve. Establishing honest and open relationships with your mentors can be difficult. After all, your mentors are in the position of evaluating your work and overall progress  it can be tough to talk openly about challenges you’re experiencing with your ongoing work. Yet maintaining honest and open communication with your mentors is nevertheless in the interest of you and your mentors.  Being honest and open enables your mentors to provide you with the support that you need – your mentors, after all, do not automatically know what you need or what you will be able to do in the immediate future. Take inventory of factors in your life that might limit your progress with on-going coursework, research, etc., and communicate these factors to your mentors. An effective way to introduce this subject to a mentor is to ask for advice on how to manage some of your more time-consuming tasks and commitments. Your mentor should be able to empathize with the difficulty of your current situation, as well the difficulty of managing these time-consuming commitments all at once.
     
  • Revisit pre-established goals and expectations. While you and your mentors may have established certain expectations and deadlines in the past, these expectations need to be made more responsive to your current situation and the unique challenges of graduate study at this time. Just as your mentors are managing a host of things that prevent them from giving you immediate feedback (e.g., teaching demands, children at home, difficulties related to health), your progress needs to be evaluated in the view of all that you are managing. Initiate conversations with your mentors and outline (1) what you can reasonably achieve in the coming days, weeks, and months, and (2) what you need to achieve your short and long term goals. Having this conversation will enable your mentors to attend more closely to what you are working on and the goals you are prioritizing. It will also give more structure to your work schedule, as you will be working toward goals and expectations that have been discussed and agreed upon recently.
     
  • Ask your mentors for helpful, non-academic resources. It is likely that you already feel comfortable asking your mentors for resources related to your coursework, research, etc. Yet in the present circumstances, having success with your program requirements requires also attending to your mental health and well-being. For this reason, you should feel comfortable asking your mentors for useful resources or strategies related to mental health and well-being. Don’t forget that your mentors were once graduate students themselves: they have things to say about what you can do to work more effectively and make your life easier. Initiate a conversation about mental health and well-being, and take into consideration some of your mentors’ own experiences and suggestions.
     
  • Expand your concept of ‘mentorship’ and seek out non-academic mentors. Given that many of the greatest challenges to graduate study during the COVID-19 pandemic are non-academic in nature (schedule flexibility, challenges related to health, etc.), it is a good time to reflect on the purpose of mentorship and adopt a broader concept of what a mentor is. Generally speaking, a mentor is someone who takes an interest in your well-being, helps advance your professional goals, and provides the support and structure that is best fitted for your continued progress. Accordingly, a mentor is someone who goes beyond the role of an advisor in that their support is not merely task-focused. In times such as these, you might consider seeking out either peer mentors (fellow graduate students) or non-academic mentors (alumni, professional connections, friends, etc.) who can fulfill some of the central tasks of a traditional mentor. This is a particularly good idea if you are interested in non-academic careers: mentorship can be an effective way to learn more about non-academic career possibilities. 

As you continue to manage the unique challenges of graduate study this year, remember that you are not alone. The GSAS community has thrived from a strong network of faculty mentors for many years, and this network remains strong today. With this said, remember also that your faculty mentors are managing challenges of their own. Take an empathetic, understanding approach toward your mentors, and don’t be afraid to ask for the same in return.

For further resources on mentoring during the COVID-19, consult the links below. Check the GSAS website and GSAS Future Fridays for additional updates and resources.
APA: ‘How advisors can best support graduate student researchers during COVID-19
Cornell: ‘Mentoring Remotely During Disruption
UC Davis: ‘Mentoring During COVID-19’ (further resources included on this page)
University of Minnesota: ‘Recommendations to Advise Graduate Students Remotely
Chronicle article: ‘Graduate Advising in the Time of COVID-19’, by Prof. Cassuto. An article written for faculty mentors who want to provide their students with the support they need amidst the outbreak of COVID-19.