Cohort-based mentoring for graduate students: a “bright spot” worth emulating?

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”.

* I’ve been reading Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead and was really struck by an extended excerpt of a letter she received from someone in the Air Force, Colonel DeDe Halfhill. Colonel Halfhill talks about a conversation she had with airmen at a squadron event. It started out talking about exhaustion, but, because of a recent Harvard Business Review that Colonel Halfhill had read, ended up talking about loneliness and mental health. What had originally seemed like a busyness and exhaustion problem for that squadron (and others) ended up really being a loneliness and lack of connection problem. One of the things Colonel Halfhill notes is that we are much more willing to talk about exhaustion and disconnection (which is a pretty sterile word) than we are about loneliness.

7 thoughts on “Cohort-based mentoring for graduate students: a “bright spot” worth emulating?

  1. Great idea. Having additional mentors/advisors for grad students will be very helpful. I have a daughter starting graduate school (UGA) in the fall. Finding information/getting advice from current students has been difficult. This is a great idea. Thanks for the post.

  2. The UK has an interesting top-down structure composed of Doctoral Training Centres (or sometimes Centres for Doctoral Training), where cohorts of students are funded altogether from a big research project grant (and often industrial sponsors interested in particular kinds of projects, with varying levels of involvement). These programmes have some issues (e.g. often the funding for them is synchronized, so Universities and departments can see widely varying student intake depending on success of applications), but they also have some excellent social benefits for the graduate students. The cohorts are typically encouraged to have a sense of camaraderie, and they all take the same coursework or training together, including group projects etc. In addition to research supervisors, these cohorts have access to administrators specifically there for them, so secretaries and other people are often very helpful in dealing with issues specific to their funding/travel/training etc. There are also directors and other people who can serve as additional mentors, as well as older cohorts of the same DTC, who are encouraged to help mentor younger students.

    There are other systems in place at some places in the UK too. Oxford and Cambridge, for instance, have a College Advisor associated with every student, who they can go to in order to discuss things which their main research supervisor may not be as helpful with (or, of course, if they are having difficulties they are not comfortable discussing with their main supervisor). Overall these systems lead to a wealth of places for students to go if they feel the need to, as well as additional opportunities for training and other benefits of mentorship. The system is quite different in many other regards to North American Universities though, so it is unclear what lessons can be transferred easily.

  3. I think cohort-based mentoring is a reasonable idea, and perhaps a great one. However, it raises the larger question of when mentoring should be assigned and when it should develop organically, i.e., with individuals seeking the help they want from the people best suited to helping them. I think most undergrads don’t really know what advice they should be seeking from whom, so assigning advisers/mentors to them makes sense. However, by the time people are in grad school, perhaps they should take more responsibility for directing their ship? And perhaps the support to them at that stage should be “here’s how to find mentors who are right for you” rather than “here’s another mentor”? Or would that result in the most awesome faculty being completely flooded by mentoring requests, and/or depressed/struggling students not seeking or getting any mentors?

    • I’m usually big on personal responsibility but in this case I really like the program Meg outlined for a lot of reasons:

      First, it takes time to get to know people in a new department. Most likely, a new grad student is familiar w/ some people in h/her research area but not others in different subdisciplines.

      Second, if grads choose their own mentors, they’ll stick to their research area. The science part is obviously important but maybe there’s someone in another discipline who is great at writing proposals or helping people handle their TA responsibilities or with programming or whatever, this gets students exposure to those people

      Third I like the structure where mentors stick to their year group so they have a better handle on what students at a particular level of progress are facing

      Four I just like that it makes more contacts for everyone in the department, profs and students alike.

      I also agree with your point that faculty who are generous with their time and expertise would carry more of the load in the independent system.

  4. Pingback: Graduate student mental health at Michigan: some key factors & potential things to address | Dynamic Ecology

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