I recently learned about an approach to mentoring that I think has a lot of potential. My initial conversations with others suggests they think it has promise, too. The goal of this post is both to share the idea and to (hopefully!) hear from people with experience with this approach.
Here’s the general idea: some larger graduate programs at Michigan use an approach where each cohort is assigned a mentor. So, there is one mentor for all of the first year students, a different one for all of the second year students, etc. That person is an additional resource for those students – someone who they can turn to for advice. They also host regular events (I think maybe ~monthly) for the cohort, which helps them develop skills, explore different topics, and crucially, helps build community.*
A few more details:
- This apparently is really helpful even for students who have good relationships with their research advisor; we can all benefit from more support and more mentoring
- It seems to work better when one particular mentor does not follow the students all the way through. Instead, it helps if one person always (or, at least for several years) mentors the first year students, another the second year students, etc. This allows people to specialize on particular topics they care about (e.g., how to find a research project, how to deal with the lack of structure that occurs after coursework ends) and allows them to build up expertise relevant to a particular stage of graduate school over time. It also allows the grad students to interact closely with more faculty over the years (which is also helpful if they don’t click with one particular mentor).
- “Larger” graduate programs was defined as ~30 students per cohort. That’s about three times as many as in my program, but I could imagine a modified version of this – one person who mentors the first and second year students, another who mentors third and fourth year students, and a third who mentors the students in years 4 & beyond.
- I’m pretty sure (but not entirely) these positions are in addition to a general “grad chair” sort of position that handles the larger programmatic issues, grad admissions, etc.
I think this seems really appealing, and think I’d especially like mentoring students who are mid-way through the program — I feel like a lot of the issues I’m especially interested in crop up around then. (I’ve written about the mid-grad school doldrums before.) A downside is that this adds extra service responsibilities, and the people who are likely to do this are probably already doing substantial service. But I think it has the potential to really improve the experience for grad students.
I’ve mentioned this idea to a few folks since hearing it, and they all have seemed enthusiastic about its potential. But I haven’t spoken to anyone yet who has actually been involved in such a system (either as a mentor or a graduate student). So, while I welcome comments from anyone, I would especially love to hear from people who have experience with this approach. What parts of it did you find useful? What did you wish had been done differently? What recommendations would you make to programs thinking of implementing something like this?
Note: the “bright spot” term in the title comes from Switch by Chip & Dan Heath. These are “successful efforts worth emulating” — it turns out I was looking for bright spots last summer when I wrote this post, even though I hadn’t been introduced to the bright spot idea yet! Heath & Heath describe the bright spot philosophy as being captured by this question: “What’s working and how can we do more of it?” We tend to focus on what the problem is, but it can be really powerful to focus on solutions that have already been demonstrated to be effective in the real world. They note that bright spots “can illuminate the road map for action and spark the hope that change is possible”.