How to work with Advisors, Mentors, and Peers in Academia

How do you succeed in graduate school? How do you get “the most” from the experience? What keys to success are there, beyond mastering coursework and conducting research?

Graduate study is not just a set of courses and degree requirements, to be ticked off in sequence as a student moves through a degree program. It is a many-sided process that profoundly transforms the ways a student thinks, acts, and interacts with others. A key element of this process is the rich social environment of peers, mentors, and advisors in which students learn crucial skills, behaviors, styles of thinking, and modes of interaction. 

Knowing the field, knowing-what, is only part of what a graduate program must help a graduate student do. For this, naturally, there are guidelines, like syllabi, courses, and sequences of courses that set out the optimal paths to a goal. But the other major part, knowing-how to succeed as a member of a scholarly, professional, or scientific community, can be even more challenging than the tough work of mastering field knowledge. Just as you can improve your study and research skills to facilitate your acquisition of field knowledge, so too you can learn how to use your social community of peers, mentors, and advisors more effectively to acquire valuable know-how. A first step is to observe the distinction (and overlaps) between “advisor,” “mentor,” and “peer,” and clarify what you need from, what you expect of, each.

It is, in many cases, a formal requirement for graduate students to have an advisor, who plays the official role of guiding a graduate student’s research and the writing of a thesis or dissertation. An advisor also has an important responsibility as a “lead recommender” for academic employment related to the graduate student’s research: for academic positions, post-doctoral appointments and fellowships, adjunct researcher or teaching positions, and so on. Ordinarily, the advisor will be the faculty member with the strongest professional reputation in the particular area of research a student is pursuing; will have had a high degree of academic contact with the advisee over multiple years of the student’s graduate career; and may, in the case of students supported on faculty grants, have sponsored the student financially to a substantive degree as well. 

In light of these core aspects of the advisor role, then, graduate students should expect from advisors:

  • regular guidance on their research and related areas of disciplinary expertise;
  • professional advice and support related to the specific area of research;
  • clarity and candor about evaluating the student’s research and related areas of academic performance. 

It is, of course, not a bad thing if an advisor is also someone you like and feel friendly with; someone who gives you good advice about a broad spectrum of professional issues; and someone who gives you confidence to talk about concerns that go beyond your work as a graduate student and researcher. But if your advisor isn’t all these additional things, it does not mean he or she is a bad advisor. It may mean that you should look to other “mentors” to fulfill your needs for other kinds of advice and support for your success in graduate school and professionally.

Mentors should, in almost every case, be thought about in the plural. Almost never will a single person be able to perform, well and consistently, all of the mentorship you need as you make your path from beginning graduate student to early-career researcher and professional. Even your advisor, who offers key elements of academic mentorship, won’t be able to do it all—whether because of the limits of their own experience, their personal disposition, or the restrictions on their time and energy.

We all have complex constitutions: as teachers and scholars, we have different commitments within a shared field; as individuals, we have different histories, values, and affiliations. So it is important to think of mentorship as a process that recognizes and adapts to this complexity. Strong mentorship will typically engage more than one person, will touch multiple aspects of your experience and aspirations, and will change as your graduate student career develops. Different circumstances and different needs call for different mentors. While advisors will almost certainly be faculty members directly in your field of research, mentors may be other faculty more distant from your immediate area of work. Mentors may also include staff members, university administrators and leaders, alumni, members of particular communities, or workplace colleagues.

It is a good idea to reflect carefully about your expectations and needs for mentorship, and to be intentional about engaging people who can help you work through your concerns and define your individual road to success. Having more than one mentor can also help you put challenges in better perspective and avoid one-sided advice that may not serve your purposes. Rarely are there simple, unambiguous answers to the questions that really matter to us, but with a network of trusted mentors, you can get a spectrum of advice, consider carefully your options, and then make your own judgments about what way to proceed.

Reflecting on your mentorship needs and identifying people who might mentor you are only first steps. You will also need to reach out to them, ask if they would be willing to act as a mentor to you in a particular area, and discuss with them how this might take place. The most important elements of this conversation, which you should plan before reaching out to a potential mentor, are: 

  • What specifically do I want to get from engaging this mentor?
  • What framework can I suggest in which their time is respected while I receive what I need from them as a mentor?

 A potential mentor is far more likely to agree to engage with you if they are clear what you want from them. “Would you be my mentor?” is too indefinite; but better defined goals such as “I’d like to be able to touch base with you periodically about developing my leadership skills,” “I’d like to be able to discuss with a senior woman engineer my professional challenges,” “I’d like to understand better how to balance my research and parenting,” or “I’d like to get a perspective from a PhD in my field who went on to an industry position,” will help a potential mentor understand what their role might be.

It is also crucial, in soliciting a mentor, to have a concrete suggestion (of course, subject to their approval or counter-suggestion) about how, when, and how frequently the mentorship will take place: “Could we meet monthly on campus for coffee?”; “Could we have a quarterly lunch?”; “Could we meet for a touchbase when you are in town for board meetings?” If they agree, you must take responsibility for setting up those meetings and establishing an agenda for them. Don’t expect your mentor to be chasing after you; they are, after all, being generous with their time, and you need to make the burden on them as limited as possible. For the most part you will need to manage the relationship, keeping in communication and setting things up for a good exchange when you get to meet with your mentor.

Lastly, though your mentor is agreeing to help you, you should also be attentive to the ways in which you may be able to help your mentor. Mentorship is above all about broadening your perspective and drawing upon the experience of others. Senior experts, too, benefit from broadening their perspectives through the views of more junior people, whose experience, moreover, may be different from or more diverse than that of the mentor. If you are aware of ways in which you might be able to offer them a kind of “reverse mentorship” as they mentor you, you may find the mutual relationship growing in value. Moreover, insofar as you take charge of managing your mentorship relations, you are giving guidance to your mentors about how to mentor you most effectively. This too can be a valuable learning experience for a mentor.

Your graduate peers, finally, may be another valuable source of mentorship for you. Your peer community is composed of individual students with diverse perspectives and backgrounds. Some students come in with significant prior professional experience that makes them valuable sources of advice; others, especially more senior graduate students, may offer useful ideas on how to successfully navigate aspects of the graduate program; still others may help you to face family, health, and other personal challenges more successfully. While your professors are an extraordinarily important element of any graduate program, so too are the intellectual, professional, and personal connections between graduate peers. These relationships often endure well beyond graduate school, so intentional generosity, patience, and care with one another—including your willingness to take part in mutual mentorship among peers—can be the basis of lasting, highly valuable connections.

Advisors, mentors, and peers each have their roles to play in helping you through the challenges and transformations that graduate study represents. Learning to cultivate and sustain these important relationships can greatly contribute to success in your graduate study.