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Mentoring Manual

Communication guidelines

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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.

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How to send an update or question via e-mail

E-mail is a professional communication tool.  So an e-mail should be written in a formal language.  Consider an e-mail to be a memo.  Content should follow some basic rules:

  • Address the person in agreed terms.  Always err on the side of formality.
  • Provide sufficient detail.
  • Separate information from a request.
  • Provide your justification for the request.
  • Compose the e-mail so that a single response from the recipient will address your request. If you want to meet, include your available times. If you do not do this the mentor will have to e-mail you back with their available times and then you respond.
  • Do not expect a professional e-mail in response.


NO:  Hey Dr. M – I got some slick results today and want to talk.

YES:  Dr. Mann,

     The experiments today were successful.  We were able to get results and based on my initial analysis, they appear to be in the range that we expected but are also surprising.

     I would like to meet with you briefly, 15 minutes, to show you the results, tell you my plans, and get some initial feedback from you regarding my interpretation of the results and my next steps. I would like to adjust my work plans before our regular weekly meeting since these new results are motivating me to consider a different approach

    Today I will be in the lab from 1-5 and then tomorrow morning from 8-11.  (note: there is a workshop on applying to graduate school starting at 11 tomorrow and then some lab tours the rest of the afternoon.)  Please let me know what time will work best for you.

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Writing an update report

Update reports are an important tool for the mentors, students, and program director. While they may be more formal than is typical for a short term program such as a summer research experience, using an update report is an important skill that a student will find useful in their future education and professional life.

Considerations for why an update report will help you (the student):

  • During those final two weeks of the placement when a full report is being written, the update reports from throughout the placement can be strung together to form the backbone, if not most of the full report.
  • Writing a report requires you to reflect on your work.  This will help with planning "next steps" as well providing a useful structure for examining both failures as well as the successes of your work.
  • Knowing that you need to submit a report will help you to stay on task: for example, completing a data analysis to the point of creating the plot or table that shows key facts.
  • A well written report will provide information that will assist your mentor in providing effective advice and assistance.

 Key features of an update report:

  • Project goals are clear and stated within the report.
  • Conciseness.
  • Information is clearly presented and the question(s) are focused and clearly stated.
  • Provide critical data.
  • Make a clear request of the reader.
  • State the next work to be performed.

Consider the following outline for an update report:

  1. Executive Summary.
    1. 2-5 sentences giving key points of the report.
    2. This should be written after completing the update report.
  2. Report Goal and Action Request.
    1. Clearly state the goals of the report.
    2. Clearly state the actions that you want the reader to take - ask for a meeting, indicate needed materials, pose questions …
  3. Work Accomplished.
    1. Summarize your accomplishments since the previous report.
    2. Include supporting data.
  4. Barriers.
    1. Identify work not completed as planned and the reason.
    2. Identify new barriers identified for future work.
    3. Identify resources or information needed from the mentor.
  5. Work Plans.
    1. Describe the planned work for the upcoming period - decide on this with a mentor.
    2. Address barriers and resource needs - if you know what will be done to overcome barriers, then state the plan.
    3. Express your needs - if you need something, for example a meeting with the mentor to discuss the work, then state this.

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Social media

Many useful tips for improving your teaching and learning experiences can be found on The Chronicle of Higher Education website, including this one on the power of social media.

Think Before You Tweet (or Blog or Update Your Status).

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Communicating with an absent mentor

It is inevitable that at some point, mentors engaged in professional or scholarly activities will have to leave the lab or field area for periods of time during your placement. Planning your communication with your mentor(s) during their absence is crucial to receiving the mentoring support you want. When you discover that a mentor is planning to be away, request a meeting to agree on a communication plan that includes the following:

Clear guidelines on:

  • the frequency of communication expected from you
  • the content to be communicated
  • the communication medium to be used

What you need from the mentor:

  • specific areas of feedback and comment you expect to continue to receive
  • specific time span within which you can expect to receive a reply to a question or issue

If there is any doubt that the mentor will be able to communicate with enough frequency or depth to support you, you and your mentor should consult the faculty supervisor or director to decide whether a new mentor should be found.

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