Oct 31, 2022

Finding your research advisor and mentor(s) in graduate school

Overview: For a research-based MS or PhD program, you will need to identify a research advisor. This faculty member is responsible for collaborating with you on your research contained within your thesis or dissertation. You advisor will help you set your research hypothesis, scoping your experimental plans, dealing with technical questions, resolving any emergent ethical questions, etc. 

In some cases, your research advisor can also become a mentor. A mentor provides their mentees with motivation, emotional support, serves as a role model, and gives support in determining career path options. However, the assumption that all research advisors will be able to provide every one of their advisees with mentoring in every area should not be made. While some faculty are excellent research advisors, they may not have the skills (or passion) for helping students balance graduate school responsibilities while raising children, perspectives on negotiating job packages, networking, etc. Therefore, we encourage graduate students to find a research advisor who can guide them on a research project they are passionate about and then to also assemble their own team of formal and informal mentors for their professional and personal lives. This mentorship team will help guide each graduate student as they enter and then matriculate through graduate school.

Post Contributor(s): Drs. Marian Kennedy and Oliver Myers


Photo by Josep Martins on Unsplash

Applying to and completing a graduate degree program can be an exciting time in your life. It can also be the first time that you notice that your existing network of friends, parents, etc. does not have answers to your questions or guidance on the things you need to know. You might need advice about what graduate programs to apply to, guidance on how to undertake paper revisions, resolve personal conflicts with peers in your research group, manage your finances without the support of parents, etc. If that is the case, as it is for many, you should add at least one mentor your network. A mentor has more expertise and experience than you in some domains and their guidance can increase your academic and professional success (including numbers of research publications and citations, recognition in the field, and research self-efficacy). In addition, this person will provide support (and enthusiasm) for your ideas and efforts. A mentor can share their knowledge and personal experiences with you to address your issues. This is different from a role model, who demonstrates the professional attitudes or values that you would like to embody but do not necessarily interact with you.

The need for a mentor is not new or a symptom that young people today are particularly unsuited to independence. Indeed, mentor-advisee relationships go back to early civilization! The term “mentor” originated with a character named Mentor in Homer’s The Odyssey. For those of you who have never read it, you can find a quick summary here. Mentor was a friend and advisor to Odysseus to whom the latter entrusted the care of his son when he went to Troy to fight. While the term did not come into use until much later, Socrates mentored Plato in the fifth century BCE and the Bible tells of Paul’s mentorship to Timothy. Mentors act as coaches, confidantes, advocates, guides, etc.

Reflecting back on our careers, we have both sought out mentors in various phases. In graduate school, Dr. Myers sought mentors to help him persist through his graduate program, leading peers and identifying his first position outside of graduate school. These mentors supplemented the work of his research advisor who oversaw Dr. Myers’s dissertation work, and he credits them with his success in becoming a researcher.   

For both of us, most of our mentoring relationships have been informal. That is, we never specifically asked someone to be our mentor. Instead, we simply ask them for input on a specific concern or situation that could not be answered through a little bit of reading or Googling. A description for how to do this is outlined well in the “Are you my mentor?” chapter in Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandburg. In this chapter, she suggests that asking questions and gauging the response results in much more productive relationships between an advisee and mentor than a formal request. When identifying your mentor, geography is not vital. You can absolutely have a mentor who you talk to on a phone, Zoom with, or just email. What is important is that they can hold your questions in confidence, are willing to give you time in their busy lives and that you respect them enough to take their advice. In addition, you will need to identify a system that determines when and how many mentors you connect with each month.

There are some advantages to formally asking someone to be your mentor. This may make it easier to work together to identify the scope of the mentoring relationship—that is, how you will communicate, the outcomes you want from mentoring, etc. Both of us asked for formal mentoring during the tenure process. We wanted a formal relationship with another faculty member in your departments to discuss the unwritten rules for promotion, and by having a formal mentor we were able to get consistent feedback and guidance over the six-year tenure process. Without this, we might have been tempted to put off those vital, but sometimes uncomfortable, discussions.

The last path for mentoring that you can take is peer mentoring. During peer mentoring, you are part of a team who want to grow in a particular area. Dr. Myers entered a program like this as a student, as part of the University of Maryland Meyerhoff Scholars Program

As we conclude, we want to emphasize that it is rare to find a perfect mentor, that is, a person who can help you in all situations. Therefore, we would strongly suggest that you create a mentoring team for yourself as you apply and then matriculate through graduate school. These mentors might include: 

  • Graduate students who can provide you insight on how to navigate the application process for graduate school, choosing an advisor at your institution, etc.
  • Faculty members on your research committee who can help you think through your possible career paths after graduation.
  • Researchers publishing in your focus area can help you with methodology, theoretical frameworks, etc.
  • Researchers who may will give you perspective on the different benefits between collaborative efforts with large teams of researchers vs. those that will just include you and your research advisor.

Remember that mentoring is not a one-sided action. To get the most out of mentoring, you must be able to collaborate with your mentor. In addition, you need to be honest with them and be open to constructive criticism. Finally, as your experience changes, your relationships with existing mentors will change. That is, you will need to continuously evaluate your team of mentors and adjust by either changing the intervals in which you meet with them or add new mentors. Students who were previously in our research groups normally transition into valued colleagues at the end of our mentoring relationship. And when we realize that has occurred, it is always a great moment. 

About our guest contributor:  Oliver Myers is the Associate Dean of Inclusive Excellence for Undergraduate Studies in the Clemson College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Science/. He is also an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering where his research group focuses on the characterization of smart materials and structure mechanics.

Acknowledgements: This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords. She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate at epsteinwords.com.