Sunday, January 31, 2010

THE TRANSITION FROM STUDENT TO MENTOR: HOW TO PREPARE FOR A CAREER IN ACADEMIC MENTORING


Allyse Ferrara* and Quenton Fontenot

Department of Biological Sciences
Nicholls State University
Thibodaux, Louisiana 70310
allyse.ferrara@nicholls.edu
Life as a graduate student can be difficult but it can also be very rewarding. Graduate students should take advantage of and learn from good and bad graduate school experiences. Unfortunately, graduate courses on how to be a good academic advisor or mentor are not offered. Being cognizant of the relationships you have with your mentors and of the relationships your fellow students have with their mentors will allow you to apply what you learned as a graduate student when mentoring future students. Your academic advisor is only one of the many mentors from which you can learn. Potential mentors may include graduate committee members, instructors, other graduate students, department heads, university staff, and farm and agency personnel. Use a journal to record descriptions of student/mentor relationships. Make notes of effective and ineffective relationships. As a mentor, the journal will allow you to use and apply lessons learned as a graduate student.

Be aware of what your academic advisor does outside of the classroom. The majority of an academic advisors time is spent on grant research, writing, paperwork, writing publications, committee and professional society membership, and coordinating non-classroom activities. Many of the skills and tasks that are required to run a successful research program are not taught in graduate school. Additionally, as an academic advisor you may mentor students that are experiencing difficult personal and possibly legal issues. For some students, the mentor/student relationship may include all aspects of a students life.

Successful mentors must balance guidance and allowing a student to take control. An over controlling mentor may not instill or cultivate problem solving skills in their students. Students that receive little guidance from a mentor may make mistakes that compromise research quality or the student may flounder for years without direction. No single or one-size-fits-all method for guiding graduate students exists because students enter graduate programs with varying skills and levels of experience, although a mentor should always strive to keep students on an agreed upon timeline for degree completion. When dealing with new a student, remember how prepared (or unprepared) you were when you started graduate school. Striking the appropriate balance between preventing mistakes and allowing a student to learn from their mistakes is difficult. Some students may be overly confident while others may have very little confidence and are afraid of making any mistakes. Often the lessons learned from mistakes are more valuable than coaching to avoid mistakes. As an advisor, you must make the decision to allow students to make a mistake or to guide students away from mistakes.

Enjoy your time as a graduate student but learn from your graduate school experiences. Be aware of what advising/mentoring techniques are effective

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