Graduate students aim to better faculty mentoring

Graduate students and faculty members will finally have a formal setting to discuss one of the most revisited issues at the University and throughout higher education — mentoring.

During the Graduate School’s first-ever Mentoring Week — which was organized by the Graduate Student Assembly and the school’s deans and is set to begin Oct. 29 — students and professors will define what makes an effective mentor and how students can get the most out of the advisers who guide them through everything from conducting research to landing jobs in academia, organizers said.

A graduate student speaks at a meeting discussing the first Mentoring Week, which aims to improve relationships between graduate students and their faculty advisors.
Victor Alquicira
A graduate student speaks at a meeting discussing the first Mentoring Week, which aims to improve relationships between graduate students and their faculty advisors.

The Week, which will consist of panel discussions and lectures, is particularly crucial in a field that relies as much on practical training through apprenticeships with faculty as on classroom instruction and academic guidance, they said.

Despite the graduate school’s targeted focus on improving mentoring, Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said Yale is not the only institution that could improve its mentoring program.

“Mentoring is an issue in graduate education generally,” Butler said. “Most graduate schools at Yale and elsewhere are concerned that the mentoring of graduate students is not as good as it could be.”

Student organizers said the idea for Mentoring Week grew out of several years of casual discussion among students complaining about the need for better mentoring.

Former Graduate Student Assembly President Ian Simon GRD ’08 said preliminary planning for Mentoring Week included consulting with graduate school governments across the Ivy League.

“The goal [of Mentoring Week] is to highlight good mentoring and to affect a cultural shift in all departments across the University,” Simon said.

Although mentoring has been on the minds of students for some time, Simon said the issue really came to the attention of faculty after they debated changing the graduate school grading system from the current Honors/High Pass/Pass to the more widely-used A-F system last year. Simon said after the Graduate School chose to continue the current grading system, professors began to discuss other methods of giving effective feedback to students, including better mentoring.

GSA Spokesman Nicholas Goodbody GRD ’10 said he has not personally experienced a negative mentoring relationship but has heard complaints from fellow students.

“It’s hard for people to get access to their advisors or get the advice they need in terms of navigating the job market,” Goodbody said. “If you can’t hash it out with your advisor at some point, it becomes hard to know if you’re moving in the right direction.”

Public Health professor Mark Schlesinger, whose mentoring was recognized last year with a Graduate Mentor Award, said good mentoring is crucial because it is the only real way for students to learn how to create their own original work. Current problems with mentoring are not due to a lack of good mentors but rather an imperfect system of matching students with appropriate professors, Schlesinger said.

“The idea of being creative and generating new knowledge is at the heart of what doctoral students are supposed to learn.” Schlesinger said. “We really don’t know how to teach creativity to people. Instead what we do is model it.”

Schlesinger said he thinks good mentor listens closely to students’ needs and supports students in publishing work that will be open to peer criticism.

“Part of the issue with helping people learn how to become scholars is helping them find topics that really create a sense of passion for them, a sense of fire,” Schlesinger said. “You have to come from hearing what things cause them to sound more excited when they’re talking about them. That requires a lot of careful listening.”

Although the program will focus on just a few academic departments this year, Goodbody said the GSA hopes to expand the Week’s scope next year.

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