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Mentoring Manual

Accepting the responsibility of mentoring

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What is mentoring?

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."
"Good idea!"
"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.

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How to choose a mentor

Alliant International University focuses on preparing students for professional careers in the applied social sciences. They have published informative and straight-forward introductory guides for mentees as well as mentors who are focused on career development.In particular, these guides highlight issues of cultural compentency, interpersonal dynamics and psychology, and include several additional references on these topics.

Guide for Mentees

Guide for Mentors

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What to request from your faculty mentor before you accept the responsibility of mentoring a field placement (REU)

There are two basic things to remember:

  • Be clear and do not assume that it will all be OK. Take action before the placement experience begins to ensure that it has the best chance to be a great experience for all.
  • Clearly understand your responsibilities, your major professor’s responsibilities and the support that you will receive.

Before you accept the responsibility of mentoring, it is critical for you to assess your skill, time, and motivation for mentoring.  Mentoring a student will take time out of your schedule with no guarantee that the progress of your work will advance faster or more effectively than if you just did the work yourself.   However, you can also look at this as a professional development experience.  If you are going into industry, you will likely be given opportunities to learn to mentor before being given people who will report to you, but if you plan on a faculty career, then you will likely need to mentor undergraduate students and graduate students from the day you start your faculty job.  So you can consider working with students as an opportunity to develop your mentoring skills during a shorter term commitment (semester, summer, academic year).

You need two things from the faculty mentor:

  • Her or his time to mentor the REU student.
  • Mentoring from them or someone else to help you to be an effective mentor.

 Such support will help make the REU placement effective for you and the student.

Many students speak to the impact a faculty member has on them.  You may be the expert in particular lab work and the primary resource for a student to be successful, but the interaction that a student has with a faculty member has been noted as a critical element from the perspective of the student.  It is important to maintain a strong connection with both the student and the faculty member.

One of the most difficult positions to be in as a grad student is to have a faculty mentor state that they will assign the student work while your role will be to describe and manage the work. The student may not be able to do anything beyond what was approved until you talk to the faculty member. This can put you in the difficult position of having completed the assigned work and, if the major professor is unavailable, you and the student have to wait for the next set of instructions. This type of problem can be avoided with some thoughtful planning.

Before accepting (or beginning) an assignment to mentor a student, consider the following list to ask from the faculty mentor:

  • A written description of the research plan for the student.  This may also include a description of how it connects to your work.
  • A description of the expectations of you.  Are you there as a resource or are you the primary contact for the student?
  • A plan for preparing for the student and working with you during the placement to answer your questions about the research and effective mentoring.
  • A plan for how decisions will be made regarding the student’s work.

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