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Mentoring Manual

Getting squeezed between a mentee and faculty mentor

It is quite possible that you will end up being the pivotal link between a faculty mentor and the student(s). You may have requests by the faculty mentor to have students accomplish specific tasks, and you may be more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the student(s). Likewise, you may be the one who the student feels more comfortable with and complains to, quite possibly reasonable complaints. There are cases where the student is accomplishing work at a faster pace than the faculty mentor is allowing work to proceed. For example, the faculty mentor may tell you to have the student accomplish a list of tasks and then not do anything until you present the results to the faculty mentor. In such cases, it can be difficult if the student has completed the tasks, but the faculty mentor is not due back in town for a week.

Hopefully, none of these cases are ones that you will experience, but be prepared for being put in the middle.

One general piece of advice is to always provide either the student and / or faculty mentor with specific actions that they or you will take. Work toward having the student and faculty mentor communicate directly. “That would be a great topic to discuss on Tuesday when we all meet? If you would like, I can raise the subject and then you can make you case.”

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How to communicate with your major professor regarding the mentoring load

Assuming that your major professor and the faculty mentor for the student is the same person, the work load for your activities is an important topic for you and your major professor to discuss.  In some cases, close to 100% of the mentoring responsibility is placed on the graduate student.

Remember that load can include the following:

  1. Directly working with the student
  2. Time and emotional energy preparing for a difficult discussion with a student
  3. Discussing the student’s performance with the faculty mentor
  4. Planning work for the student
  5. Communicating with the faculty mentor regarding your mentoring load

If the communication described below is not possible or very strained, then it is likely a symptom of how you and your major professor communicate.  While you may not be able to change how your major professor communicates, working at the model given below, can help you develop your own professional communication style.

Before the placement begins: Discuss the expectations for your time commitment. This is as much about the faculty mentor describing what they are expecting as is it about you describing what you are confident and have time to do. What follows is a negotiation. If this is your first time mentoring, this may require more than one meeting with the faculty mentor. It is not possible to set rigid guidelines because the mentoring load will depend on many unknowns, for example, the student’s personality and capabilities or equipment breaking. In general the discussions before the placement begins should clarify the following:

  1. Define a successful placement experience and the mentoring needed for this. Focus on the mentoring not the research.
  2. Differentiate your role and the role of the faculty mentor to accomplish this successful mentoring model.
  3. Define who will address problems with the student. For example if the student is coming in late or not prepared for group meetings – who should handle this, how and when.
  4. How will your work habits need to change to fit with a student’s schedule?
  5. Define the types of issues where you or the faculty mentor need outside help.
  6. Define how and when you and the faculty mentor want to communicate about the mentoring process.

During the placement: Continue to monitor your mentoring load.  Monitor your own research progress.  If there is a deviation from the load discussed before the placement began then set up a time to discuss this with the faculty mentor.  At such a meeting:

  1. Talk about areas where the mentoring is going as planned as well as where it is not. Define the area that is causing a problem with the mentoring load. Be specific by describing actions and the impact on you. 
    1. Be prepared to suggest a solution.
    2. Do not describe motivation of anyone other than yourself.
    3. GOOD START:  “At the beginning of the summer, we had discussed how the student X would develop a detailed description of their accomplishments that week and the plans for the upcoming week. We agreed that I would work with X to develop a similar format and content to what I provide each week. My goal is to help X learn to write reports as you have shown me. I have worked hard with X to develop and modify her report and the first two you thought were good, but you only provided few comments. Then last week X did not want me to help, saying that I was making the reports too complicated. So X submitted a weekly report that you also said little about. I need your help to determine if I am to go back to working with X on the weekly reports or just allow her to submit them as she wishes and then allow you to provide any critical comments. Taking the time to work on the reports took three hours out of each of the first two weeks and I am  unsure about the level of detail that I should require when overseeing X’s work. It would help to have clear guidance from you of what is necessary. Was I doing too much with the first two reports?”
    4. BAD START:  “This is crazy. I work hard on the first two weekly reports, basically writing them myself, but you give little feedback. And then out of frustration I do nothing this week and you still give no feedback. It seems that you have no interest in these reports and that the student is lazy. Just tell me what to do.” 
  2. Leave with a resolution and specific actions. If you are feeling that the issue is not resolved, then ask to meet again. Ask that the two of you agree on specific tasks for each of you before the next meeting. For example, you will try something different and report back, the faculty mentor will speak with the student, or in the case above, the faculty mentor will read the three reports and make a specific recommendation to you and the student.

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