Skip to Main Content
Pathways to Science: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Search for a program . . . find your future.

Mentoring Manual

What to expect out of your mentor and how to get it

There is often a gap between the expectations of mentors and students and the amount and quality of attention mentors devote to students. The mentor’s time and quality of commitment is often the source of praise or complaint about the program experience. It is important for all members of the program to realize that for many students this is the first experience with a sustained mentoring relationship. The student may have had a supervisor, but often only on well-defined tasks, and not on the types of tasks required for good research.

"What to expect" is best defined clearly from the beginning. Not every mentor or mentee is the same, with the same needs and expectations. Understanding your own expectations from the beginning and being able to articulate them, are critical to setting up your experience.

Jump to a subtopic:

Establishing communication expectations

The best way to avoid misunderstandings between you and your peers or superiors is to agree with them about the frequency, medium, format and drivers of your communication. Try to be explicit about what you will need from them and ask for clear statements of what they expect from you. Use these communication guidelines as a starting point for the discussion.

Back to top of page

A guide to meetings for students

Bring tangible results in hardcopy form to the meeting. As a mentor, it is frustrating to hear “the data plot looked good …” when you have not provided the mentor with a copy of the results. There may be something that the mentor can add if you share your results --they may see something in the data that you overlooked. It is always good practice to share your results with your mentor.

Prepare written talking points before the meeting. Focus on what the key points are that you would like to discuss during the meeting. For example:

  • Current results – show plots, point out concern(s) about the level in experiment #3 (should these be repeated?)
  • Chapter # in book XYZ– summarize my key understanding, ask if there is something that I am missing.
  • Ask about helping your mentor on some of his/her other experiments that may have gained your interest.

Back to top of page

Productive meetings

A productive meeting is often defined based upon expected outcomes and sometimes unanticipated events, such as break-through ideas for the work or an unintended discussion about professional or personal development.

A productive meeting begins with planning. It is good to have an agreed upon agenda for each meeting. The agenda can be a formal or merely a list of key discussion topics.

It can be helpful prior to discussing a topic to clarify the desired outcome of the discussion. One mentor reflects:


"In the past I have had a mentee come in and start talking about something and I immediately start interrupting and having the discussion focus on something that I see wrong in their initial statements. I think that they have thought through everything they are talking about, but often they have actually just started thinking about their ideas and just wanted me to hear the whole concept and respond. Hearing the mentee’s goals before hearing the information would have resulted in a good meeting rather than the one we had that was frustrating for both of us."

- Dr. J. Adin Mann, M.E., faculty mentor, Iowa State University

Back to top of page


While it is good to have questions, there are badly asked questions. It is important to keep in mind that how a question is posed provides an impression of the person asking the question. It is critical for the student to provide information so that mentors have an accurate impression of a student's work ethic and efforts. Further, answering a question provides an excellent mentoring opportunity. A well-asked question gives the mentor insight into the student’s thinking and work processes and opens up the potential for a valuable conversation. The mentor can focus on answering key points and often has an opportunity to spend additional time discussing the work or related topics.

Back to top of page

Questions: Key points for students

Asking questions well is a skill that can be learned. Some key points to consider when formulating questions:

  • How you ask a question can communicate your work ethic and attitude.
  • Ask a question in a way that shows what you know, what you have done, and where you need assistance.
  • Ask for assistance at overcoming a barrier, not having others do the work for you.

Back to top of page

Examples of good and bad questions

Example 1


Bad Question:

“I just don't understand this at all.  Where do I start?”


  • While this may communicate your current frustration, it likely does not communicate your understanding or where you need help.
  • This may leave the impression with the mentor that you are not working, particularly if you do not provide evidence that demonstrates that you have completed the background work necessary to be prepared to start the project.
  • This type of statement tends to put the burden on the mentor for your work. Mentors generally expect you to take ownership of the project.


Good Question:

“I read the two articles that you gave me, and what I currently understand is …. However, I am still not sure how to get started on the … that you asked me to do next. Is there something that I am missing from my reading of the two articles or can you help me make a connection between the two articles and the … that you asked me to do? I am hoping that this will help me understand how to get started on the task”


  • This question shows what you do understand, that you have done your work, and that you are taking responsibility for starting the work. You just want some help getting past the initial barrier of getting started. An experienced mentor can hear what you understand and help you develop a path to what you need to understand to get started.
  • This will leave a mentor impressed with you initiative and your commitment to do the work.  You have communicated clear ownership of your work. 

Example 2


Bad Question:

“I did what you said and the equipment does not work.  What is wrong?”

  • It is not clear if you actually did what the mentor said should be done with the equipment.
  • There is no sense that you have tried to diagnose the problem.
  • It is not clear that you are taking initiative.
  • It may sound like you are working through a list of actions (cookbook style work) without interest or effort to understand the reasons behind the steps.


Good Question:

“I am having difficulties using the equipment to get the results. Can I tell you the steps that I took and then share some ideas that I have for why it is not working? I hope that you can verify my understanding of the equipment, see if my ideas for the cause of the problem and how to fix it are reasonable, and give additional ideas that I can then investigate.”

  • You are being specific and focused on understanding not just actions.
  • The mentor will get to hear what you have understood and where additional clarification is needed.  (i.e. The mentor does not have to start from the beginning or guess where you are having difficulties.) 


Example 3

Bad Question:

“I wrote this program and it does not work.  Can you find the error?”

  • “Writing a program” includes the effort involved to get the program to run properly – to someone experienced in programming, you are communicating that you are not willing to make the necessary effort.
  • It is not clear that you knew what steps you took to make the effort when you wrote the program.
  • This can communicate a poor work ethic.


Good Question:

“I have written a program to implement these equations.  Currently the program is not working.  I would like to walk through the logic in the program and the ways that I have tried to find errors in the program.  Can you see if there are errors in my logic and help me think of additional ideas for finding errors in the program?”

  • You are giving all the information that you have.
  • You have indicated that you want to find the errors, and primarily want help in understanding the appropriate steps to take.
  • You are taking the initiative and ownership of the program and the process of getting it to work.
  • It is clear that you want to know how the program works.  This gives the mentor the confidence to follow up and ask you to expand the program if appropriate for the research.
  • You are demonstrating that as a student, the process of learning how to accomplish the work is as critical as accomplishing the task.


Example 4


Bad Question:

“I have tried to derive the equations, but can’t get the math to work.  Can you find my error?”


Good Question:

“I have been working on deriving the equations that we discussed at the last meeting.  I have worked through the derivation in two different ways, but they give different results.  Both methods are based on books that I found in the library.  I would like to show you both methods and hope that you can help identify errors in my logic, and ask you to suggest any other references that I can review for additional information.”

  • You are taking ownership of the work – you want help to identify the methods to find the problem in the derivation, not have someone else do the derivation for you.
  • You have indicated that you have done extensive work before asking this question.


Example 5


Bad Question:

“I am so frustrated with this not working and don’t see the point of this.  Tell me again why I need to do this?”

  • This communicates that you were not listening the first time.
  • It is not clear that you respect the experience of the mentor to know how the research should proceed.


Good Question:

“The experiment is not working well, and I am getting very frustrated.  I need to step back and make sure that I understand why this experiment is important and what I should be learning from it.  Then I think I can approach the experiment again with renewed clarity.  Can I explain my understanding so that you can correct or add to my current understanding?  If you have other suggestions, such as putting this aside for example while I work on the computer program, I would appreciate your advice.”

  • This shows that you are taking responsibility for your frustration and have developed a strategy to cope with the situation.
  • You are willing to explain your understanding, so that the mentor can focus on any error in your understanding and confirm what you do understand.
    • It can be very encouraging for both the mentor and student to recognize that you do understand significant portions of the work.
  • You are open to additional suggestions on strategies to deal with your frustration. It is likely that the mentor will also give you examples, personal anecdotal experiences, of when they have coped with similar frustrations.

Back to top of page

When to e-mail, phone, or meet face to face

In general, the following is recommended:

Use e-mail for:

  • Sending a document or information for review.
  • Quick communication – e.g. scheduling a meeting.

Use phone for:

  • Clarification to follow up a previous discussion or e-mail.
  • An issue that needs to be resolved that may be difficult, but there is no time for a face-to-face meeting.

Face-to-face interaction:

  • Always preferred – this provides an opportunity for details to be shared and discussed as well as additional follow-up conversations.
Social media, e-mail, texting, are all very convenient, but also fraught with danger: misunderstandings resulting from not communicating clearly an accurate sense of mood. Conversely, there are times, when a well composed e-mail can be much more constructive than having a face-to-face meeting when frustration about the work progress or having pressures from outside of the program work is dominating a person’s thoughts. So consider the purpose of the interaction and your mood.

Remember, that with any electronic communication it is best to assume that the intended person has not received it until there is confirmation. Similarly, when you receive electronic communication, respond as quickly as possible, even if only to indicate that the communication was received and to provide a time line for when you plan to act on it.

Back to top of page

General guide for graduate students in getting the mentoring you want

The Rackham Graduate School at University of Michigan has published an excellent guide to finding and establishing fruitful relationships with faculty mentors: How to Get the Mentoring You Want: A Guide for Graduate Students.

* Additional content under development

Back to top of page

Consequences of an absent mentor

* Additional content is in process

Back to top of page

Addressing mentor issues

The skills of Identifying, addressing and resolving conflicts with peers and superiors are important for all members of an organization or project team to learn. Healthy conflict is the soul of creative and productive collaboration, so don't develop the habit of avoiding conflict. Instead, …

Back to top of page


Download just the Undergrad section of the manual to share with peers and colleagues