Graduate students discuss mentors

This week, students at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences will participate in forums to talk about the quality of faculty-student mentoring at Yale, as the second annual Mentoring Week kicks off.

Since experiences with mentoring across the graduate school tend to vary from extremely positive to somewhat hands-off, Elizabeth Kim GRD ’10 said, the event aims to foster discussion about how to improve advising across the board. The week will feature a talk and two panels centered around issues of mentoring in specific departments, said Kim, one of the event’s organizers.

“We were looking for a way to highlight positive mentoring,” Kim said. “We wanted to get out the word that there are general philosophies that good mentors seem to share.”

Mentoring Week will begin with a happy hour on Tuesday at the Graduate and Professional Student Center at Yale, which will serve free drinks to graduate students from 8 to 10 p.m. Kim said the Graduate Student Assembly hopes the informal atmosphere will spur discussion among students about their mentoring experiences. Throughout the rest of the week, there will be a speaker in comparative literature and a panel each in psychology and computer science.

Kim said mentoring generally comes from a student’s designated adviser, who she said can make or break a graduate experience. In addition to their official bureaucratic role of monitoring a student’s progress, mentors also guide student research and dispense personal and professional advice, she said.

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, who won the 2007 Graduate Mentor Award, said good mentoring is critical for graduate students.

“It’s not just a relationship between two people but it’s a conversation we’re having as an institution about what makes good mentoring,” Nolen-Hoeksema said.

She added that she thinks Yale’s mentoring is relatively good, though its strength varies across departments and across individuals.

Mentoring styles vary, Kim said, depending on the individuals involved and the dynamic between them. Some pairs meet every week, while other mentors rarely speak with their students unless contacted first. Part of mentoring week, she said, is teaching students strategies to tailor their mentoring experiences to their specific needs.

Additionally, she said the discussions are supposed to encourage current graduate students to think about how they will mentor younger students when they take a faculty position.

“We’re hoping mentoring will become better all over the world, and part of that concern is making good [mentors],” Kim said. “We’re hoping that the crappy mentors will feel guilty and pressured to improve.”

The first Mentoring Week was in October 2007, after Graduate Student Assembly members heard numerous student complaints about bad mentoring, Kim said. But this year’s events are slightly different, focusing instead on specific fields that are intended to represent broader disciplines such as the humanities or social sciences, she said.

Both she and Graduate School Dean Jon Butler attributed this difference to the fact that mentoring needs and styles can vary widely across fields.

“What you say to someone in French doesn’t necessarily apply to someone in physics,” he said. “And what you to say to someone in physics doesn’t necessarily apply to someone in microbiology.”

Butler said the purpose of Mentoring Week is to improve Yale’s deficiencies in mentoring, adding that the University is not alone in needing to improve such programs. Next year, he said he hopes to ramp up Mentoring Week by expanding the number of events.

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