How to Create the Best Mentoring Relationship with Your Professors

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Updated: February 29, 2024, Reading time: 13 minutes

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A mentoring relationship in college and graduate school is normally associated with thesis and dissertations. For some students, a mentor is equated to a student adviser, as the function of both entities overlaps.

Many experts and research studies advocate the cultivation of a mentoring relationship in these levels of academia.

Still, some students get by with having a mentor for the sole purpose of meeting their graduation requirements. Some do without having any mentor to call at all. Thus, such scenarios beg the following questions:

‘Do college and graduate students need to have mentors? If so, what do they benefit from it? Why do others get by and graduate without one?’

‘If I decide to have one, how do I cultivate a successful relationship with him or her?’

‘Am I the only one, a mentee, who needs to cultivate and foster the mentoring relationship? Is it reasonable to set expectations for my professor or mentor?’

The 2018 Strada-Gallup Alumni Survey examines the effect of mentors, particularly professors, in stirring academic enthusiasm among U.S. college graduates aged 18 and above. All 50 states are represented, including the District of Columbia. It reveals that almost 30 percent of surveyed graduates report to have not received nor made an attempt to seek any form of academic or career advice.

Gears and Mentoring Mechanism on Whiteboard

The survey further reveals that within that 30 percent, many of them changed majors throughout their stay, denoting a brewing problem in student engagement and, to some extent, retention, lack of academic direction, and a waste of time and financial resources.

A clear “mentoring gap” exists in all levels of education in the U.S., but the impact of not having a mentor at tertiary and post-graduate levels has a more lasting effect.

Graduates without mentors wander into the employment market with a low sense of career direction and clarity, eventually taking a series of different jobs, thinking that these are career-building blocks, only to realize that these are mere fillers in a resume that is supposed to say what their expertise is, how can they contribute to the organization they’re applying for, and how evolved do they see themselves in the future.

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How about some helpful hints? Look at this: 8 Ways to Be Productive in Grad School

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The Mentor, the Mentee, and The Ones in Between

To clearly define the roles of a mentor and a mentee, it is important to delineate these against other terms that confuse students. This is important as this will guide them in formulating their goals and expectations from the mentorship.

Mentors vs. Academic Advisors vs. Supervisors

Students may encounter various academic figures who provide advice, feedback, and professional and psychological support. The Council of Graduate Schools clearly defines the often-confused figures associated with these roles.

An academic advisor is a curriculum-driven figure who oversees the students’ completion of required tasks, such as a thesis or dissertation in college or graduate school. This figure may or may not be a mentor.

A supervisor functions more in a training or internship capacity and oversees the performance of students in apprenticeships, on-the-job training, or work-study training.

A mentor is a combination of the two and more. Aside from in-school professional and psychological counseling, mentors also offer emotional support, like a confidant and a formidable academic figure. They also act as sponsors or references for future opportunities, as pointed out by online educational resource ThoughtCo, paving the way for students to develop potential career-shaping relationships and skills.

In a university setting, if the student has the liberty to do so, they predominantly choose professors over a staff member or adviser to be their mentors.

According to the 2018 Strada-Gallup survey, nearly 65% of graduates from 2013 to 2018 affirmed the effectiveness of having professors as their mentors, as it allowed them to better navigate the university and professional life, with the mentorship going past graduation, turning into a meaningful lifelong relationship, unlike with academic advisors and supervisors.

Mentee vs. Protege

On the other flip side are the ones being guided and molded. In 2006, the American Psychological Association (APA) published a mentoring guide that attempts to differentiate the terms mentee and protégé; however, the descriptions clearly show how much of these two functions are similar.

The words “learner,” “junior,” “protected,” “nurtured,” and “under the wing” were thrown in, but concerning what a mentor does, a mentee and a protégé could be the same; even the Columbia Journalism Review concurs. For consistency, the term mentee will be used here instead.

The Value of Having a Mentor

The Chronicle of Higher Education affirms that building and maintaining healthy professional and sociological relationships helps students mold successful academic and career trajectories. It needs to be prioritized by the student, the faculty, and the school itself.

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A nationwide study involving youths aged 18 to 21 by the non-profit group MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership also revealed that having a mentor can draw the line between a student graduating or dropping out. The effect of having a mentor is so profound and enduring that such a relationship can create a skillful leader, an impactful visionary, or a valuable block of society out of every mentee.

Mentors Improve Employee Engagement

From a job market perspective, a mentoring relationship in college and graduate school bridges the gap between graduating and having a thriving professional career.

The APA 2006 mentoring module characterizes mentored graduates as those employees or professionals who, owing to the skills they developed with the help of a mentor, thrive in a highly competitive job market and enjoy high chances of receiving work recommendations, raises, and promotions.

Mentors, in this respect, serve as their gateway to key internships and training, ultimately leading to solid careers.

On the other hand, non-mentored graduates risk being underemployed or landing jobs that do not match their skills. Underemployment also points to an employee without a clear career path, whose path is dictated solely by financial necessity.

The Hechinger Report also describes them as people taking a “circuitous path” or jumping from one temporary job to the next without carving out a meaningful career.

Making Your Mentoring Relationship A Success

Before your very first sit-down with your professor-mentor, as a mentee, picture first what a successful mentorship looks like to you, as this will serve as a guide in cultivating a meaningful professional and personal relationship with him or her.

The George Lucas-led education website Edutopia spoke to experts in academia, who are mentors themselves, about their insights into what a quality mentorship is supposed to be.

The mentoring relationship is comparable to the “from parenthood to parity” concept. It highlights that a mentor—coming from a position of expertise and authority—exhibits empathy, care, selflessness, and resourcefulness to craft a unique approach to mold and guide the mentee.

It harnesses trust and respect between the two parties. This, along with their mutual enthusiasm for their topics of interest or subject areas, creates a sense of eventual parity, especially if the relationship is sustained over time.

Mentorship, just like any relationship, takes two people to work. When nurtured the right way, both parties learn valuable lessons from the relationship.

Normally, however, it is the mentees that make the first move, whether the professor mentor was deliberately chosen by the student or assigned by the institution. A proactive approach and the right initiative on the part of the mentee will go a long way toward having a quality mentorship.

Set Goals and Expectations Before Attempting an Approach

Notice how tasks or course curricula have set objectives or goals that are expected with each activity.

The same goes for mentorships; in fact, this is a paramount step. Margaret Simonis, Program Faculty Director for Western Governors University (WGU) in Utah, suggests that a mentee’s goals should be broken down into simpler, smaller ones to gain focus, to appreciate the continuity between these, and to see the bigger picture.

Speaking to Business News Review, Vicki Salemi, a career expert for job portal Monster, also notes that aside from what a mentee expects to gain from the mentorship, the mentee should also assess what he or she can contribute to the relationship.

The mentor can only give the kind of guidance the mentee expects and needs if the goals are communicated clearly, and the mentee is forthcoming on what the mentor can expect in return. There must be clear and mutually agreed schedules and arrangements.

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Begin the Search (If You Have that Option)

If the university allows you to choose your mentor, then enjoy that liberty and scour the web for possible candidates. A good starting point would be your school’s website or directory. The advantage of going for in-house mentors is their familiarity with the institution’s program and structure.

Second, it’s also easier to check on references because a professor could have mentored the institution’s alumni. W. Brad Johnson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist professor at Johns Hopkins University, suggests asking around for the professor’s personality, professional interests, teaching styles, and if he allows significant time to meet his or her mentors.

Third, if on-campus meetups are part of the commitment, then the logistics of it will not be a problem. Expanding the search to mentors outside the campus (if allowed by the institution) may pave the way for a greater number of options.

The mentor’s possible unfamiliarity with the mentee’s university rules, programs, and structure should be a factor. Checking in on references shouldn’t be a problem, thanks to social media, and the possibility of holding meetings or mentorship sessions virtually due to location differences should also be considered.

Initiate the Mentorship

Once you’ve found a match or learned the name of your assigned mentor, don’t just show up to class or the office unannounced.

Speaking to the APA, clinical psychologist Helen Pratt, Ph.D., suggests that instead of just showing up and blatantly asking the professor to be your mentor, try enrolling in his or her class or lectures. You may also seek permission to join the research team or work as an assistant for a project or initiative.

Volunteer for activities such as reading or reviewing manuscripts or references, preparing lecture materials, or doing information dissemination on his or her behalf. Once you are accepted and establish rapport, ask the professor for a meeting about a prospective mentorship relationship with you.

Ease into the professor’s attention first before jumping the gun to determine if a working rapport could be established. You would want to find out If the professor spontaneously offers you advice or tricks of the trade during your time volunteering for his project or if the professor’s teaching style and material are both relevant and resonant to you.

Only when you are certain of the situation can you bring up the subject of forging a mentorship with your professor. If the professor accepts the mentoring work for you, communicate your goals and expectations, and nourish the relationship beyond academia.

Allow it to evolve as you delve into your professional life and other personal milestones. If the professor says otherwise, don’t take it personally and move on with the search.

Grow and Tend the Relationship

Although it is the mentor who has the professional and academic high ground in this relationship—at least in the beginning—sustaining it is the responsibility of both parties. Both need to stay in contact with each other, but according to APA’s 2006 mentoring module, the responsibility falls more on the mentee.

The mentee needs to be proactive in maintaining communication through regular meetups, whether physical or virtual, as this is essential in achieving a lasting mentorship.

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Respecting the professor’s valuable time and treating him or her ethically, whether within the confines of the institution or in social circles, are equally important.

Mentorship should be treated as a sacred relationship as your mentor is your academic and professional confidant; thus, gossiping about the professor or what has been discussed shows a lack of professionalism and may lead to a falling out between the two of you.

Remember, as you navigate the tumultuous roads of college and graduate school, it’s much better to gain friends rather than lose one, and a valuable one at that. Tending and nourishing the mentorship is probably the most challenging part of this endeavor, more than initiating the mentorship itself.

It gets more difficult as the landscape changes when the mentee graduates and becomes a young professional. This is the time when some mentorships may hit a plateau since the student mentee is slowly becoming at par with the mentor skills-wise as he or she develops new experiences outside of the institution.

Reframe the Relationship Moving Forward

Knowing how long the mentorship should last may be difficult to gauge in the beginning unless it’s a formal mentorship program sanctioned by the institution, in which case it may be framed within the time you’re still earning your degree.

However, for most mentorships, its longevity is determined as time goes by. Some mentees outgrow their mentors as they venture out into the real world of employment, where the mentees develop skills or interests in areas that the mentor may not be familiar with, and this is a well-known reality.

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When this happens, thank your mentor by remembering how far you’ve come, thanks to his teachings, and feedback on your work, or by simply devoting his precious time to guide you. Be grateful for the professional network and the apprenticeship opportunities that landed on your lap because of your professor.

After deeply expressing your gratitude—a letter or a small gesture like a book, wine, or other tokens would usually suffice—wish him or her well and go on your separate paths. It won’t hurt to touch base once in a while.

Some mentorships evolve through time, transcending graduations and the halls of the institution. The fact remains that as the mentee approaches a state of parity with his or her mentor (thanks to a budding career, new learnings, and an expanding professional and social network), the relationship transforms into a mutual symbiosis between two professionals.

Such a sustained relationship is built on constant communication, gratitude, respect, and a mutual understanding of the redefined parameters of the relationship.

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