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GSAS Mentoring Strategy Guide

Having success in a graduate program under the present circumstances is no small task. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, graduate students have faced profound challenges with their ongoing coursework, research, and teaching, and these range from practical challenges (e.g., access to research materials, ability to meet deadlines, opportunities for collaboration) to emotional and psychological stress. In the face of these challenges, higher education institutions are learning more than ever that mentoring relationships are essential for success in a graduate program. Mentoring relationships provide the support that graduate students need to overcome unexpected challenges and stay on track. Mentors concern themselves with the individual growth of their graduate students: they work to advance their students’ academic, professional, and personal goals, and they provide students with insight and experience targeted to their present situation. There is simply no substitute for mentoring support in graduate study.
As you face unexpected challenges in your own graduate program, it is important that you step back and reflect on what you can do to maintain a healthy and engaged relationship with your mentors. Consider the following strategies for improving your relationships with your mentors:  

  • Establish regular communication with your mentors. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, graduate students mostly communicated with their 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, graduate students do not have the research access or schedule flexibility required to complete tasks or meet deadlines as they would normally. Task-focused communication has become. for many graduate students, insufficient—it has become necessary to communicate with mentors on a regular interval 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. However you and your mentors might decide to communicate—e.g., email, Zoom, in person meetings—communicating in regular time intervals will help you manage and structure your ongoing progress with more success. Additionally, it will create a greater sense of support from your mentor.
  • 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 progressit 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 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. Having success in a graduate program requires taking care of your mental health and well-being (now more than ever). You likely feel comfortable asking your mentors for resources related to your coursework, research, etc.—yet it is important that you learn to feel comfortable asking 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 of graduate study right now are non-academic (e.g., schedule flexibility, challenges related to health, etc.), now is a good time to reflect on the purpose of mentoring and adopt a broader concept of what a mentor is. Generally speaking, a mentor is someone who concerns themselves with your individual growth and well-being. The responsibility of a mentor goes beyond that of an advisor—they work to advance your academic, professional, and personal goals, and provide the support and structure needed to ensure your continued progress. Given that mentoring relationships are flexible and particular to a graduate student’s own goals, you should consider seeking out mentoring support from fellow graduate students or non-academic mentors (alumni, professional connections, friends, etc.). Sometimes non-faculty mentors can provide the most effective mentoring support. Additionally, non-faculty mentors can be particularly good mentors if you are interested in pursuing a non-academic career: your mentor can teach you 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 mentors for many years, and this network remains strong today. With this said, remember also that your 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.