Student Meghan Canter, Scieneering participant with Faculty Mentor Birgit Scharf, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences

Faculty mentor and student

Mentoring plays an integral part of the professional growth and development of graduate students at Virginia Tech. Mentoring is defined in several ways from broad based support of faculty, staff and fellow student in the university community to direct one-on-one advising by the students’ academic advising committee. At the heart of the process of effective mentoring is the relationship between mentors and students. This involves assessing the current level of knowledge held by students, as well as evaluating study habits and identifying any impediments to the professional development process that may be present. Once mentors have a basic understanding of the needs of the students, it is possible to individually tailor the mentoring process.

Mentors could be anyone who show special interest in the growth of the student and their role goes far beyond simple instructions outside the classroom. Similarly, a graduate student could have multiple mentors including their academic advising faculty, staff, community leaders, and peers. Mentors should: be passionate about and show enthusiasm toward students’ interests; be willing to invest time and effort in helping the student mentee; be sensitive to the needs and concerns of students; appreciate individual and cultural differences; show respect regardless of the status of the mentees; and be well rounded in their knowledge and widely receptive of new ideas. Mentors are sensitive to mentees’ needs both professionally and personally, such as finding the right balance between work and family responsibilities, coping with cultural transitions after a move from a different part of the world, developing confidence in a culture that may not be welcoming, or opposing ethnic or gender bias if it arises.

Academic mentors also will make sure students are aware of any resources that may prove helpful in the professional development process. If appropriate, academic mentors may accompany students to the specific type of resources they need. Mentors could be other students enrolled at the same institution of learning. Since the relationship is more peer-to-peer, student mentees are often more open to the suggestions of the student mentors. Often, student mentors can connect and support student mentees in ways that are not possible through faculty or staff mentoring relationships.

Academic mentors serve as role models for students engaged in their learning process, providing positive examples in attitude and conflict resolution, serving as advocates  and confidants to the students, and ensuring students are aware of various resources that are available that may prove helpful in their professional development process. The actions of good mentors include: being available when needed (open door policy); providing timely advice that is clear and explicit; offering inspiration and optimism; being able to balance direction and self-direction; being a good listener; and helping students navigate and secure needed resources.

Two Graduate Students at the National Capital Region facilities

Choosing Mentors

Mentors may be assigned to graduate students by the academic departments or sought out by students who sense their need for support to successfully pursue a course of study. Students should have the option of changing mentors or advisors without repercussion. In addition to seeking mentors, graduate students can also serve as mentors for undergraduate students and help them become successful professionals and future graduate students.

Recognizing Mentors

Beginning in 2017, the Graduate School established an award recognizing and honoring outstanding mentors in each of the university's colleges. Graduate students are encouraged to nominate mentors they believe are exemplary, and the mentors selected for the award are honored at the annual Graduate School awards dinner, held during Graduate Education Week. Details about the award and the nomination process, including deadlines, can be found here. The 2017 award winners are featured here.

Resources on mentoring

Expectations for Graduate Education by Dean Karen DePauw

Academic Bullying by Dean Karen DePauw

This blog post includes links to a number of articles and resources

Great Mentoring in Graduate School: A Quick Start Guide for Proteges  

Clear expectations for the student-advisor relationship can help minimize problems down the road.  This worksheet can help start a conversation about expectations.