What You Want in a Mentor

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn how a mentor can help support you in your personal, academic, and professional development.


“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” —William Arthur Ward

What is a Mentor?

Ideally, your advisor is also your mentor, but the role of a mentor goes beyond that of an advisor. The mentoring relationship is primarily for you and your development, whereas advising serves more of a mutual benefit for both you and your advisor. In fact, a mentor is often described as playing the roles of an advisor, teacher, role model, and friend.1

Often, mentors interact with their mentees (or protégés) on multiple levels, including formally and socially. They are often sources of frank advice and guidance that may not be available — or appropriate — from your faculty advisor. Moreover, mentors often provide more emotional support and individualized attention than advisors.

The benefits of having a mentor are significant and often include:

  • Increased productivity, degree completion, and professional success
  • Professional networking opportunities
  • Identity modeling
  • Moral support

What are You Looking For in a Mentor?

The following is a list of attributes, functions, and roles played by mentors that students have valued, some of which may give you ideas of what you would like to seek in a mentor.2It is important to note that some of the supports listed below may come from other important people in your life, such as from a friend, relationship partner, or family member. Mentors are another resource for personal and professional support.1

Which of the following resonate with you? Which do you have, and which do you need? You may use the checklist below to mark whether you currently "Have" or "Need" each item in the list, as well as to rate each item as "Important" or "Not Important" to you.

Offers honest,frank,constructive feedback and guidance
Provides encouragement and support
Demystifies the graduate school experience
Offers emotional support by relating to your experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field
Engages you in ongoing conversations that are relevant to your life and work
Serves as an advocate and ally in times of struggle
Helps to foster networks of academic and professional support and opportunities
Validates your experiences and feelings by providing a listening ear and respect
Interacts with you on multiple levels(e.g., formally,socially)

How to Find a Mentor

Cultivating mentors is possible through a variety of avenues.

Connections with mentors can be made by:3

  • Looking through mentoring Web sites, such as MentorNet, that are designed to connect students and professionals in a given area
  • Contacting professionals who have received awards in the past for their mentoring contributions
  • Browsing alumni Web sites and publications for active professionals who take an interest in their alma mater


Ashley looks up to one of her adjunct professors, Clara. She feels that Clara embodies what Ashley would like to be professionally after graduating, and she finds Clara to be approachable. Ashley would like to regard Clara as a mentor, but is unsure how to proceed.

Which of the following would be the best option?

The best answer is C. Answer A, while it does initiate some contact, may come across as awkward or even strange to Clara, and it does not directly address Ashley’s desire to include Clara in her network of mentors. Similarly, answer B initiates contact with Clara, but it may cross some interpersonal boundaries. It also dances around the real issue. Answer C initiates contact directly, and it also is a clear and express request.

Mentors: The More the Better

Different mentors are able to provide different things. For this reason, cultivating a “team” of mentors is encouraged.4 You may wish to consider having mentors for career development (i.e., a professional in your chosen field), a peer mentor (i.e., another woman further along in your graduate program who can guide you through the process based on her similar experience), and even a personal mentor (e.g., someone who balances their work with their family life or other priorities that are important to you).4

How to Get the Most From Your Mentor(s)

  • Be proactive and initiate contact with mentors.
  • Focus on shared interests and your strengths.
  • Clarify each person’s roles and expectations
  • Respect your mentor and his or her boundaries
  • Be open-minded and receptive to feedback
  • Ask questions and listen to your mentor’s advice
  • Give feedback to your mentor on what is most and least helpful to you
  • Make the relationship work for you; use your mentor’s guidance in a way that suits your needs and fits your desired career path


  1. National Academy of Sciences. (1997). Advisor, teacher, role model, friend: On being a mentor to students in science and engineering. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=5789
  2. Grant, C. S. (2006). Mentoring. In P. A. Pritchard (Ed.), Success strategies for women in science (pp. 85-106). Burlington, MA: Elsevier Academic Press.
  3. The Graduate School of the University of Washington. (2005). Mentoring: How to obtain the mentoring you need. Seattle, WA: University of Washington. Retrieved from http://www.grad.washington.edu/mentoring/GradStudentMentor.pdf
  4. Regents of the University of Michigan. (2007). How to get the mentoring you want: A guide for graduate students at a diverse university. Retrieved from http://www.rackham.umich.edu/downloads/publications/mentoring.pdf

Separate Advisors and Mentors
The importance of having a variety of mentors throughout your graduate experience.

Developing a Scientific Identity in an Advisor's Shadow
Challenges faced with establishing yourself as an independent researcher separate from an influential advisor.

Words of Wisdom: Dr. Anderson-Rowland
The importance of finding a good advisor and making sure to get everything in writing.

Pros and Cons of an International Advisor
Experiences with an international advisor.

Advisor Issues
How a positive advisor challenged his students to think for themselves.

Special Characteristics of Your Advisor and Struggling with Life Balance Issues
Advisor's experiences encourage well-informed career decisions.

Options for Support
Urges students to seek multiple campus resources for support.

Key Elements in Good Advising
The importance of being open and honest with your advisor.

Trade Offs and Choices
The tradeoffs and choices of graduate life.

Persuading an Advisor
Suggestions for defining research.


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