Mentoring is giving your time, attention, insights, and advice.
Mentoring is about helping a mentee develop social capital to complement their development of technical and intellectual capital. Simply providing resources for a mentee to accomplish a research project (i.e. assisting a mentee in developing technical/intellectual capital) is not mentoring. Mentoring involves moving beyond technical/intellectual assistance and entering into a meaningful personal interaction with the mentee.
A well-run research group can assist with the technical development of the students' work. But what can a mentor provide? Sometimes the most valuable contribution a mentor can make is just time and attention. It is always surprising to talk to former mentees about their experiences and what they found valuable. Often, their comments focus on a few themes: (1) it helped to have someone believe in my potential, (2) it helped my confidence to know that I could talk or write to someone of your stature, (3) it helped to have you listen to some of my professional development plans and then hear your suggestions.
When mentoring, don’t forget that just your time and attention can have a very significant impact. The combination of the mentor’s accessibility and approachability is critical and even small actions can be impactful. Examples may include having lunch with a student and establishing an open-door policy, or in a class setting learning students’ names and making a point of requesting student feedback on course material during class time (Gall et al. 2003).
You can set up sufficient support for a student to get the resources for the technical accomplishments, but you alone can give them attention from an accomplished professional.
The NASA First Mentoring Program Handbook adds this useful summary: "A mentor is an experienced individual that serves as a trusted counselor, loyal adviser and coach who helps and guides another individual’s development. The mentor is a confidant who provides perspective, helps the candidate reflect on the competencies they are developing, and provides open, candid feedback. Mentors have a unique opportunity to serve as a 'sounding board' for the candidate on issues and challenges they may not share with individuals within their own organization" (2008, p. 6).
Phrases that make an impression:
"That was great work."
"I also struggled with that."
"Based on the goals you've expressed, graduate school would a good next step."
"You are definitely excellent graduate school material."
"If you are not really sure, then working in industry for a couple of years may provide you that insight into graduate level work that motivates you."
"Tell me what you think we should do next."
These kinds of phrases and the interactions that support them show mentees that they are valued as thinkers, learners, and future practitioners.