Mentoring tips and resources from our peer mentoring workshop

Here are some notes about mentoring from yesterday’s workshop, “I’m an experienced graduate student?! Tips and advice for sharing your knowledge.” Thanks to Janice DeCosmo, Lindsey Madison, and Julie Cass for contributing their mentoring expertise! Thanks also to everyone who submitted questions for the panel.

  • Many people have multiple mentors for multiple areas of their careers and lives – since everyone has strengths and weaknesses, don’t expect one person to be able to fill all roles.
  • Graduate students play many different roles as mentors and mentees, which can be challenging to balance.
  • Setting clear expectations on both sides is essential for successful mentor-mentee relationships. This includes logistical details, like frequency and method of communication, as well as what each party wants to get out of the relationship. Many failures of mentor-mentee relationships stem from differing or poorly defined expectations.
  • Both the mentor and mentee have responsibilities. For example, mentors may be asked to be accessible, know about resources, be consistent, and provide empathy and support; mentees may be asked to have questions, be proactive, and communicate and show up.
  • Awkwardness in the initial stages of the mentor-mentee relationship can come from ambiguous expectations, figuring out how to set boundaries between friendship and professionalism, not knowing what to talk about, or either party wanting to show off. (We’re working on structuring our peer mentoring program to avoid these pitfalls!)
  • Mentees may not show that they’re struggling unless you catch them at a bad time. As a mentor, contacting your mentee spontaneously and informally can help them open up to you; offering to chat over lunch or coffee also helps.
  • Helping your mentee celebrate their accomplishments is really valuable (especially in graduate school, where positive feedback can be lacking)! You can also help connect them with opportunities and help them get involved on campus and in the community.
  • Many mentor-mentee relationships are “professional friendships”. Though it can be difficult to define personal/professional boundaries in grad school, when many of us have close relationships with our labmates and classmates, our goal for the peer mentoring program is to maintain some level of professionalism.
  • If a mentee confides personal information, know when to answer vs. when to connect them with other resources (we’ll collect these and make them available). You don’t have to solve all of their problems yourself, and you probably shouldn’t try.
  • Be considerate of your mentee’s privacy if they trust you with personal information. Establish clear expectations regarding confidentiality.
  • As a mentor, you can help keep the relationship professional by not sharing excessively personal information yourself or bringing up personal topics. Also, don’t disparage others in your department. The mentor often sets the tone for the conversation and the relationship.
  • Different mentees also have different boundaries, levels of trust, and goals for the mentor-mentee relationship. If your mentee chooses not to confide in you, it doesn’t mean the relationship isn’t working.
  • Though you may not click with your mentee on a personal level and become BFFs, mentoring is still good practice for future professional relationships. Whatever career path you take, you’ll likely have to interact with and mentor people you didn’t choose and wouldn’t necessarily be friends with in your personal life.
  • As a mentor, you have the right to maintain your own boundaries. If you’re having a bad day and don’t want to meet with your mentee, recognize that and reschedule. Or, you can show vulnerability and open up to your mentee about your own problems, helping them relate to you and build trust.
  • What if your mentee doesn’t seem to respect you? Many first-year grad students are trying hard to seem impressive, while some are accustomed to being a big fish in a small pond. But many are experiencing impostor syndrome and overcompensating. Acknowledging that many new graduate students are competing and posturing, and starting general conversations about impostor syndrome, can help keep mentees grounded – but make sure not to accuse your mentee of doing this! Share your own experiences and discuss general trends instead.
  • As a mentor, sometimes it can be a good thing to sacrifice your own ego and show vulnerability. Everyone struggles in graduate school at some point, and it can be a relief for mentees to learn that their mentor is human and has problems of their own. There are a lot of inflated egos in academia already; we’re hoping our mentors can make new students feel welcome and empathize with their struggles and uncertainties.
  • All mentees in this program will have specifically signed up to have a mentor, and are genuinely interested in hearing what you have to say!


We’re working on designing our peer mentoring program to account for as many of these points as possible. Our goal is to balance structure with flexibility, making the program expectations clear and well-defined while still accessible to mentors and mentees with different needs, goals, and levels of commitment. We’ve started defining general expectations for both mentors and mentees, but each pair will also fill out a worksheet that clarifies their own goals and expectations. We’ll also plan group events for all mentors and mentees, collect conversation-starter topics you can use to generate discussion and prevent awkwardness, and assemble a collection of campus and community resources for everyone.

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