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Home » Discover Rackham » How I Get – and Give – Good Advice in Graduate School

Mentoring, as a concept, is something that gets discussed fairly often in academic circles. A friend recently posted this article on social media, which focused on advice for white faculty members looking to mentor scholars of color. The article from Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, an academic who runs the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, is definitely worth reading, but one thing in particular struck me as very useful. Dr. Rockquemore writes that people – in this particular case, a new faculty member – have many sets of needs. She suggests that “no one person could possibly meet all of these different needs.” I thought this was a particularly insightful and useful observation, and wanted to reflect on it a bit more.

I have been truly fortunate to have multiple mentors during my graduate training, which is why I think Dr. Rockquemore’s observation about needing a “mentor map” is spot on. My most obvious mentors have been my dissertation co-chairs, who give me regular feedback and support with my research project and help with professionalization and career plans. I have another committee member who has been an important teaching mentor, and is someone who is a good model for being a productive scholar while still maintaining some sense of balance. Other faculty members in my department and other historians not at Michigan have offered help with work/life balance, professionalization, publicly engaged scholarship, and teaching. Others have offered a critical eye to my work from fields outside my own. I’ve also had mentors from outside of academia, who have helped me define my goals and career path with a (sometimes necessary) critical eye towards the university system. I know that, for instance, one of my committee members is a really sharp critic and is good for advice when I’ve got a polished piece of writing; another committee member is more helpful when I’m still thinking through things and am at the beginning stages of writing. So, of course, there are moments when I rely on some mentors more than others, depending on what the issue at hand is.

Perhaps most valuable of all have been my friends and colleagues in graduate school. Some of the research and analysis that I am most excited about and proud of grew out of conversations I had with a close friend in my cohort. It has been so important to read and discuss texts with her, and test out new (and sometimes off-the-wall) ideas with her. Other friends have been tireless supporters of my hobbies, passions, and interests, and have offered a sensitive ear or stopped by my house with cake in trying moments. Friends who were a few years ahead of me in my program (most of whom have since graduated) offered advice on which classes to take, sent me their old grant proposals, and read through my job application materials. One friend even mock interviewed me on Skype when I was preparing for job interviews at the annual history conference. There have been moments in my grad career when I have not wanted to share something with my committee, or with a faculty member at all, and my colleagues have truly come through with their support.

I think it has been really easy for me to be mentored (maybe my mentors will disagree!), but I have to think harder about how to be a better mentor myself. I tend to take up a lot of space and will talk a lot if given the chance. My personality has not always lent itself to being a good listener. But this is a skill I have actively tried to cultivate in my own mentoring. This has been truly helpful in working with undergraduate students, who have often come in to office hours or sent me an e-mail looking for my perspective. I used to be a person who wanted to simply fix people’s problems for them, or tell them exactly what I would do. Instead, I’ve tried to be better at asking my mentees what their goals or hopes are. That way, I can tailor my advice toward what they want, versus offering my advice assuming I already know. I have also started to offer multiple options or possibilities, so that the conversation feels more collaborative than authoritarian.

I like this idea of a good mentor opening up possibilities for you – it always feels affirming to have multiple courses of action or options, and I think a good mentor allows you to see possibilities that you might have overlooked otherwise.

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