Quick Tips to Being a Mentor to Undergrads!March 25, 2021
by Austin A. Deray
Good day, Mason graduate students! I hope y’all are having a good Spring 2021 and beginning to enjoy the warmer weather. Today’s blog was inspired by a conversation I had with one of my many writing groups (y’all know I love a writing group: “Virtual Writing Communities: How Can We Work Together, while We Stay Apart?”), and I decided to bring it to everyone this week on Mason’s Grad Insider… so let’s get to talking about mentoring.
A lot of time in grad school, we talk about finding a mentor (“What to Look for in a Mentor”), but recently, one of my writing groups had a long conversation around us as mentors and I decided that not enough attention or conversation is given to graduate and professional students as mentors ourselves. We talk about our experiences as researchers, as scholars, as teachers, and professionals, but how much attention is given to us as mentors; and, out of those discussions, how much is there on graduate students as mentors beyond research mentorship? This all in short, got me to thinking and that is how I came to today’s topic. How can we, as graduate students, become effective mentors to others?
First and foremost, and what scholars seem to write the most about, is our role as research mentors to undergraduates. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) offers what I consider a good guide on how we can become good mentors, especially if we are working with a group of undergraduates. UNL lays out 4 easy steps on becoming a mentor:
- Adopt a mentor state of mind
- Build an effective team
- Give credit where credit is due
- Think outside of the lab1
Now I think the first step, “Adopt a mentor state of mind,” should be a no brainer; however, one thing they stated interested me: “it’s important to understand your students’ expectations as well as what they expect from you.”2 As an instructor, I go over syllabi and set course expectations with my students; currently in my graduate assistantship, as an advisor to student organization leaders, we review mutual expectations (what I expect, what they expect). But in the informal conversations and support I provide to fellow graduate students and to undergraduate students, I usually just jump in because of the little time I have with them, and we make it up as we go, but setting those expectations from the beginning is a good idea. “Building an effective team” and “give credit where credit is due” would apply particularly to graduate students who are helping lead research teams that include undergraduate and less experienced graduate students who are all contributing to the collective project. If you are in a supervisory role within a team of students, keep working dynamics of the group in mind and remember that a little praise goes a long way..
“Think outside of the lab” seems particularly focused on lab-based STEM fields, but I think the advice applies for any grad working with undergrads, independent of the field of research or discipline. Think about how to help your students develop a well-rounded experience beyond the specific duties or responsibilities they may have. If you’re working in a lab, also assign your team members articles to provide background context and writing assignments to help them prepare journal articles. If you’re in the humanities, assigning some mental problems and logic arguments go a long way to help them prep for future work and possibly the GRE.
While I found UNL’s blog interesting, I searched for resources addressing the professional and social aspects of mentorship. The Association for Psychological Science answered my query in the form of a student notebook. In 2017, while still working on her PhD, Hopkins outlined three main areas of mentor focus: intellectual, professional, and social support.3
For professional support, I was pleased to read I am already doing it right, at least according to Hopkins. Mentors should share and talk through their own experiences in research, in their academic careers, and in their professional associations, giving them the skills and insights you have learned yourself through lived experience and helped shape you, whether in academia or in a professional industry. The second takeaway was the importance of championing participation in conferences. It is never too early to start going to academic and professional conferences; as graduate student mentors, we can help our mentees with knowing what to expect at conferences, writing abstracts, preparing presentations, and providing feedback on papers and practice presentations.
I was particularly interested in reading about mentoring and social support. Since graduating from undergrad, I have worked with fraternities as a volunteer, consultant, and general officer. Working with fraternities has given me a healthy respect for boundaries, and I always wonder and think about whether or not I am crossing the imaginary line. Hopkins related that sharing your experiences is the idea, the good, the bad, and at times the personal. It is okay to discuss personal aspects of your journey and how it relates to how you got here, just keep it professional and appropriate.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down mentorship lane with me. Being intentional about your work as a mentor will not only allow you to foster the growth and learning of others, but will also help you be more effective as a mentor, leader, or supervisor in your future career. And, at the end of the day, isn’t that all we really want to be?