Establishing Best Practices in Graduate Mentoring

The Laney Graduate School Executive Council seeks to build on graduate mentoring initiatives

P. Barry Ryan

Chair, Laney Graduate School Executive Council, and Professor of Environmental Health

Cathryn Johnson

Senior Associate Dean, Laney Graduate School, and Professor of Sociology

Barry RYanMentorship is a cornerstone of graduate education. Not only does the mentor-student relationship shape the graduate student experience, but it can also have a lasting impact on a student’s career. Indeed, many current faculty can point to the relationships with their own mentors as major influences in the direction of their careers and in their own mentoring practices. In national conversations, mentorship is increasingly discussed as important to the recruitment, retention, and progress of graduate students. It is also a critical component to student professional development, particularly as students negotiate career options beyond their graduate studies.

Cathy JohnsonQuestions to ask ourselves

What does it mean to be a good mentor? What does a good mentoring relationship look like? What do students expect of their advisors and mentors? What practices do faculty believe to be characteristic of good mentors and advisors? In major research universities such as Emory, what should the mentoring expectations of faculty be as they try to balance their advising responsibilities and their own research? How do faculty mentor students whose careers interests or trajectories significantly differ from their own? What is the student’s responsibility in strengthening the mentor relationship? How can graduate schools strengthen mentorship? 

No single document or dedicated project can answer all of these questions. And the answers to some of them will naturally evolve over time to meet the changing demands of students and faculty, and of higher education. With these points in mind, the Laney Graduate School Executive Council is leading a project on best practices in graduate mentoring in 2014-15. The LGS Executive Council is the elected body of graduate faculty that oversees curricular and related policy matters pertaining to graduate programs. The Council also provides critical feedback and recommendations to LGS leadership on both ongoing and emerging issues of significance. 

Establishing best practices

Mentorship has become a primary focus in LGS professional development programs as students and faculty negotiate new realities in the changing job market, as well as emerging areas of professional opportunities for students. But to date, there have been no documented best practices that capture those activities and behaviors that constitute good mentoring in the Laney Graduate School.

To address this, in spring 2014, the Executive Council initiated a mentoring project, the mission of which is two-fold: 1) to enhance the quality of mentoring in graduate faculty; and, 2) to prepare LGS students to become good mentors themselves. The project’s goal is to produce a best practices document that serves as a reference and guide for students, faculty, program leadership, and LGS as it develops new programming.

Mentorship has become a primary focus in Laney Graduate School professional development programs as students and faculty negotiate new realities in the changing job market, as well as emerging areas of professional opportunities for students.

To launch the project, LGS and the Executive Council hosted an inaugural event on September 18, 2014, featuring keynote remarks by Jeffery Gibeling (Vice Provost of Graduate Education and Dean of Graduate Studies), who oversees the Mentoring Critical Transitions Program at UC-Davis. The event also featured a moderated panel discussion with Gibeling, graduate faculty, and graduate students.

To establish a baseline of perceptions and practices, LGS solicited information from each graduate program on current mentoring in summer 2014. In fall 2014, LGS administered surveys to both graduate students and graduate faculty to assess experiences, expectations, and mentoring processes across LGS. The survey results are being discussed with the Executive Council and in discussions with the directors of graduate studies. 

Based on the survey responses, discussions with directors of graduate studies, and conversations emerging from the inaugural event, a sub-committee of the Executive Council will begin preparing a draft of a mentoring “best practices” document. The Graduate Student Council, along with several directors of graduate studies, will also be involved in the design and direction of this document. In consultation with LGS leadership throughout the academic year, the Executive Council aims to have a final product ready in fall 2015. 

A best practices document is important for several reasons:

Accountability: Mentoring relationships, by nature, vary across disciplines and research contexts. They also vary according to culture, experience, and individual needs and expectations. The document would help to define and manage mentoring expectations and develop pathways to negotiate and communicate those expectations and needs. A best practices document builds in some accountability in developing and sustaining an effective mentor relationship because it establishes a broad-stroked baseline of practices against which the relationship can be assessed by the student, the faculty member, program leadership, and LGS.

Training: A best practices document would be a valuable tool in the systematic training and preparation of faculty and students. As a reference, the document could be incorporated into LGS longstanding programs such as TATTO (Teaching Assistant Training and Teaching Opportunity) and Pathways Beyond the Professoriate, into new programming such as the NIH-funded Broadening Experiences for Scientific Training program and the NIH-funded Initiative to Maximize Student Development program, and in new training programs developed specifically to address mentoring.

LGS Programming: Mentorship is a component of several relatively new LGS professionalization programs, such as the LGS Jones Program in Ethics and the NIH Pathfinder Series, and including those that are federally funded (noted above in Training). A reference for best mentoring practices would not only help LGS shape new programming, but also signal
to extramural funders that mentorship is a priority of LGS.

Eleanor Main Graduate Faculty Mentor Award: And finally, a best practices document would also guide the selection criteria for a new Laney Graduate School faculty award, the Eleanor Main Graduate Faculty Mentor Award, to be established in 2014-15. LGS graduate faculty is a diverse group of nearly 1,000 distinguished researchers and teachers representing almost every school at Emory, as well as partner institutions in Atlanta and across the globe. This award will be presented to an LGS graduate faculty mentor annually at commencement and carry a monetary prize. In addition to honoring the important legacy of Dr. Eleanor Main at Emory, it will be a visible commitment of the importance of mentorship in graduate education at Emory, as well as recognition of those that do it well.

An ongoing effort

There are many moments when mentoring interventions propel a student’s graduate career forward. Mentorship can come from a primary advisor, from faculty in another program, or from a network of individuals that guide a student in specific areas, from research to navigating the job market. 

Establishing best practices in graduate mentoring is an opportunity for all of us to learn about the many rewards and challenges of graduate mentoring, to understand student needs from the students themselves, and to identify areas where LGS might support and strengthen mentorship with dedicated programming and resources. 

The Executive Council project is just the beginning step in what LGS plans to be an ongoing effort to create space for discussions and to offer training to both faculty and students as their needs and challenges evolve.