Developing these professional relationships can be life-changing. Here's how to find one and why they are so important.
Faced with the many challenges of graduate school, students may find that the important goal of connecting with mentors gets lost in the shuffle of classwork and research. But developing those professional relationships is worth the time.
"Research shows that mentees generally perform better in their programs and after they get out of school" than students without mentors, according to W. Brad Johnson, PhD, a psychology professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of several books about mentoring. "Students tend to get tied into the mentor's network of colleagues, and that creates more open doors."
Graduate students with mentors are also likely to be more satisfied with their programs, be more involved in professional organizations, and have a stronger sense of professional identity, Johnson says.
Of course, finding a mentor or mentors isn't always easy. Many graduate programs pair students with an advisor, but advisors typically focus on administrative matters or short-term assignments, not overarching questions about a student's career goals and how to achieve them.
"It is optimal if mentors stand by your side and help you figure out what you want to do with your life," says APA President Nadine J. Kaslow, PhD, an Emory University psychology professor and chief psychologist of Atlanta's Grady Health System. "Getting through grad school and an internship and postdoctoral work is a complex process, and the more support and encouragement we can get along the way, the better off we will be."
About 70 percent of psychology PhD students and 50 percent of PsyD students say they had a mentoring relationship with their advisors, Johnson says about his research. "Very often, mentoring is left to the luck of the draw or chance," he says. "Program leaders assume that graduate students will just gravitate to a faculty member who may become a strong mentor for them, but that isn't always the case."
Learning from peers and professors
It's best for students to find more than one mentor, Johnson advises. "Make a constellation of mentors," he says. "Don't put all of your expectations on one person to meet your needs developmentally. Faculty are incredibly busy and are often overwhelmed with the number of students they are assigned."
Creating that constellation of mentors — faculty members, peer students and outside professionals — takes a multi-pronged approach and a willingness by students to be assertive, says Johnson, who also teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. If an advisor doesn't become a mentor, students can reach out to other faculty members by scheduling meetings, volunteering to work in a research lab, or assisting with grant writing. "Joining faculty in the work they are already doing helps make these relationships collaborative and collegial more quickly," he says.
Todd Avellar, a fifth-year psychology doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found a mentor early. While he was still an undergraduate at Santa Barbara, psychology professor Tania Israel, PhD, met with him and discussed his career goals and helped convince him to enroll in graduate school, where she still serves as his mentor. Avellar has traveled to conferences where Israel has introduced him to some of her colleagues. "She really showed me the ropes," he says.
Avellar also has been on the other side of the mentoring relationship by serving as a peer mentor to new graduate students. His program assigns more senior students to help first-year students navigate the unfamiliar waters of graduate school. Peer mentors can offer a behind-the-scenes look at a graduate program and answer questions that students might not feel comfortable asking a faculty member, Avellar says. He often takes new students on campus tours, shows them cheap places to eat, and fills them in on internal politics in his department.
"A peer mentor is just a few steps ahead of you, so they have a good idea of where the potholes and land mines are," he says.
As a former APAGS committee member, Avellar pushed for the association to develop a position statement on the need for high-quality mentorship opportunities at graduate schools. The statement, which was approved by the APAGS committee in July, calls on doctoral training programs to ensure faculty mentoring opportunities for every student.
"Certain areas are traditionally not discussed in the classroom, such as close guidance on networking, navigating the post-graduation working world, acquiring publishing and business-of-practice skills, and other areas necessary for the successful passage of a graduate student to early-career psychologist," the position paper states. "These areas befit the mentoring relationship."
The position statement also encourages the use of programs such as "speed mentoring" events, mentoring groups and paired mentor matches. In speed mentoring, students move among tables and speak briefly with professionals with various expertise to get career advice and potentially develop a more lasting connection. "We need to recognize that mentoring isn't one size fits all," Avellar says. "It really needs to be adapted to each student."
Gina Raciti wasn't sure about her future when she was studying for a master's degree in counseling at Johns Hopkins University. While taking a course taught by Johnson, she started talking with him after class, and he suggested that she pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology. He also helped her focus on research and writing skills to make her a more competitive applicant to doctoral programs.
"I think it was a good confidence boost that he believed I could do it," says Raciti, now a fourth-year doctoral student at George Washington University. "He's the one I've kept in contact with the most, and he's also been an emotional support."
It's really important to have someone supporting you in grad school, Raciti adds. "As grad students, we often doubt ourselves, and there's that imposter syndrome where you feel like you don't belong but you're still here. It helps to have someone who believes in you."
Seeking outside help
Both APAGS and APA offer mentorship opportunities that can extend beyond the university to professionals already working in the field. For example, during her time as a graduate student at the University of Memphis, Ayse Ciftci, PhD, found mentors outside the university through her volunteer work with APA Div. 17 (Society of Counseling Psychology). APA divisions and regional conferences can offer networking opportunities that may lead to mentorships, Ciftci says.
Ciftci now mentors students as an associate professor and training director of the counseling psychology program at Purdue University. She says the benefits of the mentoring relationship go both ways: She is still learning from her mentees, who offer fresh perspectives and curiosity. "It's important to remember it's not a one-way relationship," she says. "Students should have an active role."
APA and APAGS offer some mentorship programs specifically for students who may be underrepresented on campus or have difficulty finding mentors who understand their needs:
- APA's Office on Disability Issues in Psychology pairs disabled graduate students with mentors with similar disabilities. Both mentors and mentees can apply online at the APA website.
- APAGS's Committee on Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity offers a free yearlong mentoring program (September through August) that matches LGBT students with LGBT professionals. Applications are due by Aug. 15 each year and can be completed online through the APA website.
- APA Div. 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Culture, Ethnicity and Race) offers a mentorship program for graduate students from ethnic or racial minorities or for students interested in psychology issues relating to those groups. Applications are accepted in June at the Div. 45 conference and in December through an online application. More than 40 students have been matched with long-term mentors through the program.
Dos and don'ts
Whether a mentorship involves a faculty member or a professional, there are some important issues to consider to avoid potential pitfalls. The APA Centering on Mentoring Task Force created a free guide with advice for mentors and mentees, including issues that can create problems, such as sexual relationships, bullying by mentors who expect unpaid work from mentees, or overdependence by mentees on a mentor's advice.
Other advice for mentors and mentees includes:
- Be sure to establish appropriate boundaries and expectations at the beginning of the relationship. Mentees shouldn't expect mentors to serve as their therapists, says Eddy Ameen, PhD, assistant director of APAGS. The relationship also should evolve as the mentee advances in his or her education. "You're moving more from being a student in their eyes to being more of a colleague," he says.
- Since faculty members are often very busy, mentees should take the initiative to schedule meetings to seek advice, Johnson says. "Many of these relationships wither on the vine if there isn't good exchange and contact early in the relationship," he says. "You don't want to be annoying and obnoxious, but you certainly want to bring yourself to that faculty member's attention."
- Mentors should provide honest feedback without being overly critical, and they shouldn't steer a mentee's career decisions, Kaslow says. "You want to guide people," she says. "You want to give them information and let them make their own choices. You want to encourage them to capitalize on their strengths."
- Mentees also should be able to reject a mentor's advice without facing retaliation if the advice doesn't mesh with the mentee's own career goals, Johnson says. "Many faculty unconsciously try to shape their mentees in their own image," he says. "For example, they may try to push them into their area of research."
- The imbalance in power between the mentor and mentee also can lead to problems, such as questions about authorship of studies that involve work by the mentee, Ciftci says.
If a mentoring relationship becomes unhelpful or toxic, then mentees need to consider terminating the relationship or consulting with other students or faculty members, Johnson says.
While problems can occur, most mentoring relationships offer many benefits for both mentors and mentees. "I really love mentoring," Kaslow says. "It's a wonderful way to give back to the community and help new people grow and learn and advance our profession. I also learn so much from my mentees."
Mentorships may continue long after students graduate and advance in their careers, Ciftci says. "A lot of learning happens outside of the classroom, and mentoring is a critical part of it," she says. "I believe mentoring is probably the key factor for success in graduate school."
By Brendan L. Smith
- This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of gradPSYCH.
- Brendan L. Smith is a journalist in Washington, D.C.