Fireside Chat: The Importance of Mentoring

What is a mentor? Is a mentor the same thing as a faculty advisor?

The term “mentor” comes from The Odyssey where Odysseus asked his friend Mentor to help watch over his son Telemachus while Odysseus was away at the Trojan War. Twenty years later, the goddess of wisdom Athena disguises herself as Mentor to provide Telemachus crucial advice at the start of the epic story: to investigate what happened to his father.

A mentor can be a trusted guide, or counselor.  A mentor has expertise and can assist the mentee or learner.  “Mentor: learning from someone who wants you to grow.”

Some see a mentor as a coach or a role model.  A person who can provide a support system.  They can help with career advancement or provide insight in how to navigate a difficult situation.

Mentoring can be formal with a specific set agenda and outcomes. Mentoring also can be informal. Most of my experience has been informal both as a mentee and as a mentor.  When I ask a career question of a mentor who I see as a role model – it usually occurs in an informal setting.  As John C. Crosby says, “Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.”

An important key to success in any mentoring relationship is respect and trust.  Both parties must find value in the mentoring process. Keep in mind that mentoring is a dynamic process and changes over time.

One mentor may not serve all your needs as a mentee.  You may find you’re best served by a matrix of mentors – more than one. Can your faculty advisor be a good mentor for you? Sometimes, it depends.

One faculty advisor can’t do it all.  They may not have the answers to all your questions. You may find your major professor is great at directing you in your research but may not be able to assist you in seeking a career outside of the academy.  That’s why it’s important to seek out several mentors; you can gain from their varied experience.

You also may find that your colleagues can serve as peer mentors. Peer mentors were so important to my success and they were a life line for me.

One student recently shared the following. “I had a question – How do comps work? I was uncomfortable to ask questions about things. I wish I had met with students in the 3rdand 4thyears and asked them – What does it look like? Can I bringfood?”

Peer mentors can give you inside information about committee members. Having the right committee members is key to your success in finishing your degree.  You need them to be responsive and read your work in a timely manner.  You need them to get along, so you can avoid being caught in the crosshairs of opposing political views that have nothing to do with you or your research.  That’s where I found peer mentors so helpful.

One of my peer mentors shared valuable insight. She said, “You don’t want Prof X and Prof Y on you committee; they don’t get along.”  Another peer mentor told me, “Prof Z never reads, and it takes months before you get any feedback if any at all.”

Mentoring is a way to pass on what it is you know.  Be a wise-advice giver. Seek out many as well. I know that if I didn’t have mentors I would not have finished graduate school, navigated successfully through the tenure process, and been a Graduate Dean.

“If you cannot see where you are going, ask someone who has been there before.” J Loren NorrisIt’s that simple.


Fireside Chat: A True Story: How A Mentor Saved the Day

Have you ever thought about why Mentors are so important? As a first-generation college student, I didn’t understand how important it was to have a mentor or several mentors. I was clueless as an undergrad and especially as a grad student.

I think of my mentors as “Learning Coaches”.   They provide a model of “apprentice with” not “apprentice to”.  They help create along with others, a rich and robust intellectual community where the quality of transparency is not strained and learning outcomes are explicit.

Having a mentor is so important because as a mentee we are being prepared as the next generation of thought leaders and independent scholars. Our faculty are preparing us to be critical thinkers – an essential skill for our toolbox that we will carry with us through life.   Our faculty are preparing us to be ‘stewards’ of our disciplines and to expand it for the next generation.

Enhancing success. Faculty mentors really assisted me by providing a cognitive map of my program and the process of doing my thesis and dissertation. They can do the same for you and your capstone project.  Think of a cognitive map as a google map or a gps system that assists you with navigation.

As a first-generation grad student, I was clueless about the cultural and political aspects of the department and my discipline.  My mentors provided guidance for the socialization and acculturation into the department.

I can still hear Dr. Ford (one of mentors) say to me, “Grasso, this is the way it is …” I was having challenges with my major professor and needed to understand the lay of the land. She was great, direct, clear, and I got the message.

In the process of mentoring, our mentors (both formal and informal) as well as our peer mentors can include us.  They can create a rich inclusive community by engaging us and reaching out so we don’t feel isolated and alone.  I found my peer mentors experienced many of the same feelings and things I did.  They had helpful suggestions and strategies that assisted me in navigating hurdles.

Think about all the possible pitfalls, sinkholes, and brick walls you can encounter along the way in grad school.  I know I hit a few.  Having mentors assisted me every time I hit a brick wall or that hurdle I thought I couldn’t get over. Dr. Ford, Dr. Lassiter and others helped me avoid the pitfalls. One even saved the day.

I can remember this as if it were yesterday.  Back then, our prelims or qualifying exam lasted over 5 days.  You didn’t know what question you would get to write on each day.  After the written exam, you had to do an oral defense of the prelim.  It was during the oral defense that my major professor started asking questions unrelated to my exam.  I began to get flustered.  I was about to lose my composure when Dr. Lassiter stepped in and started asking my major professor questions.  Perfect distraction! Perfect time to allow me to catch my breath, breathe, and get my composure back.  Dr. Lassiter wasn’t a formal mentor, more of an informal one and he save the day for me!I passed the exams but not before experiencing extreme undue stress.

Clear expectations would have been great to have from my major professor about the exam process.  That’s what a good mentor or learning coach will do for you.

My informal and peer mentors helped guide me through the dissertation process. What should it look like? How will the process be handled?  Who not to get and who to get on my committee.

Mentors have your best interest at hand.  Their goal for you is to complete your degree.  My goal was to get through, around, over, and under each hurdle and reach my goal – graduate.

On a final note, my experience as a grad student shaped me to be who I am, who I was as Associate Dean of the Graduate School, and Dean of two Graduate Schools. I know from experience how important mentoring was to me.  I am passionate about mentoring such that I made it one of my strategic goals to improve mentoring for grad students; to mentor faculty on how to be better mentors, and to mentor grad students on how to be great mentees and be mentored.

My career path would be different if it weren’t for mentors along the way.  They were the Learning Coaches I needed. My learning outcomes, well I have to say accomplished!

Fireside Chat: What Do I Know Now – Advice From Grad Students

“What do I wish I knew then that I know now?”

This is a question I ask graduate students as they are finishing up and getting ready to graduate. They have great insight and wisdom to share. Here are a few pointers from several students with whom I spoke recently as well as other thoughts that I have shared with my students. The direct quotes are from the students with whom I spoke.

Before I begin, people always ask me so what is graduate education? I reply, think about your experience as an undergraduate or someone you know. Undergraduates are consumers of knowledge and graduate students are producers of knowledge.  If you hold the thought that graduate students are producers of knowledge, then these remarks may make more sense for you.

More is expected of you. More than what was expected of you as an undergraduate. I mean, much, much, more.  It took me my first semester to figure that out.”

It’s not like being an undergraduate. More is expected, and you can’t expect people to hold your hand.” “They will not feed you information like – telling you want’s going to be on the test. It’s no longer appropriate.” You are a professional now and the faculty expect you to behave and perform as a professional.

It’s up to you to figure things out.” Take initiative, read and learn on your own. While it’s more demanding, there is life after graduate school so work effectively and efficiently now and get to your goal.

It takes longer than you think. Things don’t always work out the way you think they will nor in the time frame you’re expecting them to.” “Not everything goes as expected.”

One student told me that as she entered the Master’s program, she thought she had all the time in the world to figure out her topic of research.  She took her time the first semester or as she said, “I later realized that I needed to get going at the start of the program that first semester because I found myself behind at the beginning of the second semester.  It goes by faster than you think.”

As I tell my students, your time here is limited. You are not here to earn tenure. Before you know it, we’ll be at fall break, then winter holiday, and when we return there are only weeks before spring break, then graduation. Each year seems to go by a little faster, which can be overwhelming when you have to meet deadlines.

Right now, you have the luxury to focus on one research topic or one project. Once you leave the university you may not have that luxury again as there will be many more demands on your time. Enjoy the process and the gift to focus on the one project now.

There is a need for patience and persistence.“I didn’t realize that I needed to be resilient.”  “Things wouldn’t work out as I expected in my research. I learned that it was ok to fail. Through failure I learned to get up and try again and again.”

I always told my students we expect that things will not always work as we expect and if it weren’t for the failures we wouldn’t have the discoveries and innovation that we do today. The key is to “fail early” rather than later.

Take advantage of every opportunity. There is so much to be gained.  Go to conferences, attend seminars, meet speakers.  “I found the Grad School workshops on teaching and writing to be valuable not only while I was there, but also now that I am in industry. I use what I learned everyday with my team.”

In their own way they each told me, and I know as well, that graduate education is a transformative process. A transformation takes place from the time you enter until the time you leave. You sharpen your problem-solving skills. You develop and enhance your critical thinking skills that last a lifetime. You become a lifelong learner and create knowledge that we all benefit from in the process.

Remember that completing a graduate degree might appear to be a big job, but in fact “it consists of a million small chores” Haggerty & Doyle. Organize those million chores and ensure that you check them off on you way to that Big Goal – completing your degree!

Finally, never forget that you are giving yourself a gift – a gift of education that will last a lifetime and benefit your family, your community, and the world.