3 Tips for Graduate Students to Consider When Choosing a Faculty Mentor


By SMU Graduate Studies on June 21, 2018

3-tips-for-graduate-students-to-consider-when-choosing-a-faculty-mentorYou’ve started studying in a great graduate program and are ready to dive into your research, make your mark in the profession, and become a well-respected faculty member or industry researcher. The only question is...how? Enter your faculty mentor.

A faculty mentor can play a myriad of roles in your life, but one of the most important is helping you learn how to be a professional in your field. What are the up-and-coming research fields? Is a postdoc really necessary? What is the most popular conference where all the bigwigs meet up every year? What are the journals you should be targeting for publication? Will kids derail my career? These are the types of questions a good faculty mentor can answer for you.  

How do you go about finding a faculty mentor? It would be great if the preeminent researcher at your school would come up and say “hey, you seem promising, I’m going to mentor you.” However, that is pretty unlikely. Often times faculty are happy to serve as a mentor, but they won’t volunteer or assume you need or want them. It is up to you to seek out those mentors and forge that relationship.

What should you think about when searching for a faculty mentor? There are a lot of factors that can impact whether a faculty mentor is the right fit for you:

1. Is the faculty mentor familiar with the discipline in which you want to work?

Each field has their own professional norms, and if someone can guide you on them instead of you having to find them all out for yourself, you will be far ahead of the game.  

2. Do you and the faculty mentor have a similar outlook in how to achieve your goals?

If a mentor pushes you to get out of your comfort zone, that can be very useful. However, if the mentor is promoting strategies or approaches that you don’t think are appropriate, this might not be the person you want providing guidance. For example, if you strive to be collaborative with colleagues, then a faculty member who believes in being aggressive and territorial won’t be providing the example you wish to emulate.

3. Is the mentor available?

The smartest person on the planet who only has time for you once a year isn’t going to be very helpful. Everyone is busy, but ideally a mentor will be available to you on a semi-regular basis.

You might even end up with more than one mentor.

Keep in mind that – if you’re lucky – you’ll have multiple mentors in your life. One faculty mentor might have an overlapping research interest and can give you very specific guidance in your work. Another faculty mentor might be outside your discipline but can give you guidance on, for example, what it’s like to be a woman or underrepresented minority in academia. The more people you have in your life who care about your success and can give you guidance, the better positioned you will be to succeed.

Finally, don’t assume that your official advisor is going to be your true mentor. It is great if the person overseeing your dissertation is also the person you can go to for career advice, but that is not always the case. Your advisor is often chosen by virtue of your research alone, and as we can see, there are a lot of other considerations that go into finding a good mentor. Don’t be disheartened if you and your advisor don’t click  start getting to know other faculty members and look for someone who can fill in those gaps for you.

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