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: 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.

 

 

Fireside Chat: Imposter Syndrome

As a first-generation college graduate, to earn a graduate degree was a major milestone. A first for my family.  Women did not attend college let alone seek an advanced degree. I was the lucky one – encouraged to seek an education. Education was a gift – a key that opened doors to opportunities

There was no one in my family to advise me about graduate school or how to navigate the path forward. I was on my own trying to figure things out. I realized early on that if I was going to be successful that I couldn’t do it alone.  That is when I became brave enough to ask a few questions of my fellow grad student colleagues; I discovered what today we call peer mentoring.

When I began my graduate education, I remember feeling the excitement of the journey ahead of me.  Today, I can still feel what it was like that first day. I remember the beautiful crisp sunny fall day – stepping onto the campus as a first-time grad student. I can see the beautiful trees, awesome huge buildings – the pathways across the quads. Most of all, I can feel the joy of taking that first step to achieve my goal

My memories flash to my enthusiasm and passion for learning and the degree I was going to earn – that would create opportunities to become a university professor. My enthusiasm and passion were a way to stay focused on achieving my goal when I encountered hurdles along the way. And there were hurdles – small one, large ones, multiple ones.

Self-doubt liked to loom close by.  Early on, I would say to myself, “oh my … They let me in. It must be a mistake. Everyone else here is so much smarter and they know what they are doing.”  What scared me most was that someone would find out that I got in by mistake – then what?

I wasn’t the only student having self-doubt. I heard several of my friends say some of the same things I was thinking.

Today we call self-doubt the “imposter syndrome”.  Letting self-doubt and the “mind gremlins” take over and squash your dreams.  Guess what – they didn’t just let me in. It wasn’t a mistake.

The faculty admission committee knew what they were doing. They saw promise and potential in me. I realized early on not to let the “mind gremlins” get in the way of achieving my goal – earning that degree.

I had a belief that grad school was going to be an extension of what I experiences as an undergraduate – wrong. With no one to share insight, I was clueless especially as a first-generation student.

Much more is expected of you in grad school, much, much more.  I did find my path through trial and error. Asking graduate students ahead of me a mix of questions about the process, about professors, about anything I needed answered. We call that peer mentoring.  Peer mentoring is essential in graduate school. One has to be willing to ask and seek out others who can serve as peer mentors.

The most crucial lesson I learned was the importance of peer mentoring. The experience of those ahead of me helped to demystify graduate education. It was the experience of benefiting from peer mentoring that even as Dean, I served as a mentor to demystify the process of grad education for students and assisted anyway I could to share experience.

Here are a few of my takeaways for you that I learned that assisted me and I have seen it work for many other grad students. The last one especially worked for me at difficult times in my PhD program.

  • When you’re “stuck” or experience a little wobble, remember that first day of excitement, passion, and thrill, of being new – feel it – and remember your goal!
  • Many – especially women, experience the imposter syndrome. Spot it for what it is and move beyond it.
  • Find peer mentors who can assist and answer questions; be a peer mentor to someone else
  • Finally know there will be bumps and hurdles on your journey. Your task is to get around them, through them, over them, under them and Go for your Goal!

Fireside Chat: Friends and Chocolate

“There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate” especially in graduate school. Making friends in graduate school was so important to me. My friends have lasted me a lifetime. They kept me connected with what was important and hearing from them instantly brings back great memories and a smile.

My friends helped me get through the difficult times like taking my qualifying exams or preparing for my orals. They were my cheerleaders. They shared their experiences. They were someone I could talk to and they helped to make the process of graduate education not be so crazy and hard.

I am still in contact with many of my friends. Even if we do not get to see each other, we take the time at least once a year to drop a line and catch up with each other.

Best fun I had was making friends with people outside my department. It was a great way to let off steam. We might go for hikes or a run (not my favorite) or hang out in the park. Sometimes we gathered our “pennies” and went to happy hour for a beer and pizza at Big Al’s; he was big and his pizza the best in town. Our gatherings over food were always special. It was a time where we would explore and dream about our future.

Sometimes I just needed a friend to listen to me. Like when I was dealing with a difficult major professor. His idea was that I was to work, work, and work; until he told me, I was finished. My idea was to push back and say, I have a job waiting and I cannot just “work, work, work, until you tell me I am done”. Having my friends made the difference of me being able to complete my degree.

We talked about what was going on in the world, elections, weather, and any subject other than school. We celebrated our successes and milestones. My friends made my experience in graduate school full, full of growth, happiness, fun, and of course food. I hope yours will as well; and do not forget to bring the chocolate!