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Best Practices in Mentoring: Advice from Northwestern Faculty

These observations are drawn from interviews with 40 Northwestern faculty renowned for their excellence as mentors.

Optimizing student progress

  • Mentors are also responsible for making mentees successful 
  • Break tasks into manageable pieces 
  • Enable the student to learn from and with the team and see each other’s process 
  • Diagnose the student’s skill set (and develop a plan for utilizing and extending it) 
  • Instill motivation and enthusiasm about the student’s projects 
  • Find out what gets your student excited 
  • Help your mentee recognize what they’re suited for among specialties 
  • Convey the kind of commitment your field requires to excel 
  • Undertake bi-directional negotiation about topics 
  • Care about your student; think about their career; take time to give critical feedback 
  • Model how to be a good researcher 
  • Help your student to understand the processes and techniques of research 
  • Figure out what to tell this student to help him/her succeed 

Discussing student progress

  • Hold regular meetings 
  • Give explicit and frequent evaluation of achievement 
  • When there’s a problem, call attention to it sooner; don’t let problems build up 
  • Respond promptly to the student’s work 
  • Keep focus and priorities clear 
  • Take notes: these may become a useful basis for letters of recommendation 
  • Plan forward 

Communicating critique

  • Pay attention to all forms of verbal and non-verbal communication 
  • Always deliver difficult news in person and privately 
  • Be tough, yet keep the intellectual criteria clear 
  • Trust your expertise and give direction 
  • Consult with your advisor on any serious difficulties 
  • Maintain openness, yet preserve confidentiality 
  • Be honest. When there are setbacks, look for a positive spin 
  • Ensure that a mentee understands what you are trying to communicate, otherwise you will just have to repeat the information over and over again

Personal and social interactions

  • Keep it work related, though friendly
  • Advise and assist
  • Recognize individual strengths; do not assume homogeneity

Pathways to graduate school

  • Demystify research and academia
  • Let the student see all aspects of your job; let them help when feasible and appropriate (“legitimate peripheral participation”)
  • Coach the student on how to be savvy in personal interactions
  • Teach the student how your field and discipline works
  • Help students to come to problems through investigation and to develop their questions through study

Aligning expectations 

  • Mentor because you’re interested and motivated
  • Casual conversations can be valuable teaching moments
  • Remember that mentees can also help you think about your work in new ways, and sustained contact with students can change your thinking
  • Your commitment to mentees can be returned with their best efforts, passion, and loyalty vis-à-vis your (or your group’s) efforts
  • You will understand minds by building them
  • It is rewarding to see someone grow and understand something new, with or without a great result

Advice to new mentors

  • Getting formal training in mentoring will make the learning curve more manageable; fewer mistakes will result
  • Mentoring can be both frustrating and fun; learn from and enjoy it all
  • Be conscious of power dynamics in mentoring relationships and how that dynamic can be impacted by gender, ethnicity, cultural background, etc.
  • Remember times when you have felt isolated or lost and work to always promote civility, respect, and collegiality
  • Your personal style will emerge; be comfortable with yourself in this role
  • Enjoy your mentee’s successes when they get a good result
  • Be patient
  • Don’t take your own strengths for granted (if it’s easy for you, that doesn’t mean it’s not unimportant)
  • There is a status difference between mentor and student; respect the gap between buddy and gatekeeper
  • Advice and love are cheap. Be reassuring and affirmative
  • Small things can matter a lot
  • Remember that you can have a huge impact on someone’s future career