How can I help my students take responsibility for their mentoring relationships?

Students must take responsibility for their own learning goals and outcomes at the graduate level. Without falling back on the "sink-or-swim" models of mentoring that over-rely on the ability of students to negotiate the expectations of their discipline in terms of research and personal or professional development (and which are often unrealistic and unfair to students, especially those from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds), faculty need to acknowledge that the onus of professional development and mentorship often falls largely on the student. Part of the job of the mentor is to make clear to students this personal accountability, while supporting their efforts to develop meaningful mentoring relationships.

If you encounter a student who does not seem to understand his own responsibility as leader of his academic and professional future, you might first consider the causes. What does this student not understand about academic research or departmental citizenship that is holding him back from competent and self-initiated scholarly work? Some students, despite the department's best efforts, come to the end of doctoral work without an understanding of how to formulate a valuable research question, or how to pursue long-term, self-directed research projects of their own (Walker, et al). Understanding the nature of a student's difficulties is crucial, as it is in any pedagogical endeavor.

Utilizing a mentoring contract is one way to explicitly address the expectations of graduate faculty mentors and student mentees. Developing a mentoring contract is one way to broach the subject of expectations and accountability with your students, as it requires you to articulate your expectations together, and allows you the opportunity to address misconceptions about the student's role in research and development, when necessary.

In addition to your guidance and encouragement, students might also benefit from the interdisciplinary peer conversations sponsored by the Graduate School. In this context, students are given the opportunity to express their concerns about their own mentoring relationships in a "safe space" of graduate student peers and staff outside of their own discipline, and will be encouraged to reflect on their own assumptions about mentorship. If you have a student who is interested in improving their mentoring relationships, or demonstrates a need for purposeful discussions about mentoring practices and expectations, please refer them to the Mentoring Series of PLAN workshops. These workshops will be advertised on the PLAN calendar, and more information is available by contacting Michelle Rodems at