Best Mentoring practices for Graduate Students.
By Dave Kieda
Dean, The Graduate School
Professor of Physics and Astronomy
University of Utah
Mentoring of graduate student research is a substantially more complex task than traditional course lecturing, because the typical graduate student research project will lead the student into a new, unexplored territory where there may not be any clear answers or guidance, and the thesis advisor is likely not to know the answer to the research question. Consequently, the student no longer can rely upon simple, solvable problems that have been learned from the literature; they often must invent their own solutions and approximations by extrapolating or interpolating from the known world to explore the unknown.
The situation is even more complicated due to various external pressures applied to the student and faculty member: students have a fixed amount of time (and funding support) in the program, student are generally older and may have additional family commitments, whereas faculty mentors are often motivated by completely separate timelines such as grant deadlines, teaching constraints, and tenure clocks. In addition, the mentorship and research supervision relationship in ongoing and continuous, lasting several years. A faculty member’s commitment to a student in a class generally lasts only a single semester, and then the student moves on.
Consequently, proper mentorship of a graduate student’s research activities requires careful consideration of several concerns:
1) The particular strengths and weaknesses of the student academic background and research skills.
2) The stage of the graduate student’s career: the student’s academic strengths will generally evolve as the student progresses through their career.
3) The student’s long term career goals, which may also change with time and
4) The student’s personal situation and family commitments, which also may evolve with time.
5) The faculty mentor’s personal career trajectory, and their ability to commit to secure and provide resources to support the graduate student’s progress through their degree completion.
The items above generally form an unspoken `contract’ between the mentor and the graduate student, and they establish the benefits that will result from the relationship between the mentor and the student. As the faculty member’s relationship with the student extends over multiple years, successful mentoring requires reevaluation of each of these expectations on a regular basis. The student and the mentor should strive to maintain open lines communications so that changes or conflicts generated by changes in any of the above expectations may be openly discussed at the earliest possible time. Delaying an uncomfortable discussion regarding a mentor-student conflict generated by changes in the above circumstances will only lead to larger conflicts and a widening gap in the student-mentor relationship. If left unchecked over a year or more, the widening gap will lead to eventual disappointment and failure for both the student and the research mentor. One of you main tasks as a successful graduate mentor is to constantly work to keep the open dialog between yourself and your students, and be equally successful at holding a congratulatory, job well-done discussion with your student as well as a difficult, change-of-course discussion. In doing so, you will ensure the success of your graduate student, as well as the success of your own career.
Fortunately, you are not facing this challenge alone. Developing quality mentorship of graduate students (in every discipline) has been an ongoing discussion for many decades, and there are many resources available for your consideration, both from the general perspective as well as from the perspective of individual disciplines.
Consider the following resources and begin to open up new possibilities for mentoring styles which are different from the way you were mentored, but which may be better tailored to your individual student’s needs:
1) Faculty members in your own Department are an excellent resource in providing specific ideas regarding their experiences in effective graduate mentoring.
- When you are faced with conflict, consult with other faculty who have established themselves as successful graduate mentors in your department. Ask them what they would do in a similar situation.
- Consult with your Director of Graduate Studies regarding their opinion of best practices, and resources available at the University level for Best Practices
- Consult with faculty members whose graduate students are successful, and find out what tools and resources they are using to build the success of their graduate students.
Assignment Week #1: Consider the faculty members in your own department, and which ones have had the most success in mentoring their graduate students. What are the hallmarks of successful graduate student mentoring? Quality of thesis work & number of publications? Low time to completion? Job/postdoctoral placement? Or are there additional metrics of success: raising the level of a marginal student to become truly excellent? Schedule a meeting with a successful graduate student mentor in your department and discuss the techniques and philosophy they have used, and explore a difficulty they have faced and overcome.
2) The University’s Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence (ctle.utah.edu) has workshops, courses, and online content associated with improving both lecture teaching and research mentorship. CTLE runs a yearly panel on tips for successful graduate mentorship, which features recent winners of the graduate School’s Distinguished Graduate and Postdoctoral Mentorship Award.
3) For an set of excellent, general graduate mentorship guidelines and perspective, read:
Research Student and Supervisor , by DeNeef and King (published by the Council of Graduate Schools, Washington, DC 2009.
Available for purchase at:
As Dean of the Graduate School, I purchased a small number of these as well, and I am glad to distribute these on a first-come, first serve basis for people who are interested (email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Assignment Week #2: Get a copy of Research Student and Supervisor and read it. Pay special attention to the special circumstances and pitfalls at each stage of the graduate students’ career, and the summary reflections of the Ingredients of Success for Doctoral Study. The book also contains additional resources for further study and reading.
3) Explore resources Online for best practices for graduate student mentoring. , You can Google `Best graduate mentoring practices’: and find a wide range of general and discipline specific resources. Some excellent resources include
- The Council of Graduate Schools: http://www.phdcompletion.org/
- The Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan: https://www.rackham.umich.edu/faculty-staff/information-for-programs/academic-success/mentoring-advising
- The Graduate College at the University of Illinois UC: http://www.grad.illinois.edu/faculty-staff/toolkits/mentor
- The University of Nebraska-Lincoln: http://www.unl.edu/mentoring/mentoring-resources
- University of Utah Mentoring Resources http://research.utah.edu/mentoring/students/index.php
Many of these web pages will contain multiple resources, so you will need to explore a little to find a great deal of useful content.
You should also explore online resources in your own discipline (e.g. American Physical Society, American Chemical Society, American Mathematical Society, etc.). Most academic disciplines provide mentoring toolkits which have mentoring advice tailored to the specific needs of your own graduate students.
Assignment Week #3: Spend an hour exploring at least one of the general mentoring links above, and read one or more articles regarding different mentorship techniques. Then find discipline specific techniques by exploring your own discipline’s professional society website, and seek out your society’s advice for mentoring as well as for graduate students. Consider how you might implement and test some of these ideas in the mentorship of your own graduate students.
4) Explore the establishment of an inventory of resources for your graduate students’ success. These may include items found on the web resources above, but also think innovatively. Students in the sciences should work to develop a broader view of science and science policy in the United states, and establish knowledge of breakthrough results outside of their own discipline. Encourage innovative use of common resources: for example, ask your students in the sciences to spend 15-30 minutes every day reading The New York Times, and looking for the connections between their discipline and federal and state politics. Exploring Science Times on Tuesdays. Encourage them to attend the University’s Frontiers of Science Lecture Series. Encourage students to explore local and regional meetings, including entrepreneurial workshops to expand their view of the impact of their discipline beyond the academic world.
Assignment Week #4: Meet with one of your graduate students and explore their long term goals and aspirations. Encourage them to sign up as a student member of your professional society, if possible. Develop set of goals for the next six months to build their career and explore beyond their own research project, such as utilizing the Graduate School’s Graduate Travel Fund to attend a conference and present their research to a wider audience. For bonus points, have them attend a meeting of your discipline’s professional society, subsidized by The Graduate School’s Travel Fund!