Student Authors: Alberto Alonso, Noel Bourne, Ethan Bush and Organizer Authors: Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Pamela E. Harris, Vanessa Rivera Quiñones,
Luis Sordo Vieira, Shelby Wilson, Aris Winger, Michael Young
We recently participated in Math SWAGGER: Summer Workshop for Achieving Greater Graduate Educational Readiness. This workshop was organized by a group of underrepresented mathematicians, who know first hand the many challenges and situations that underrepresented students, like ourselves, must navigate in order to successfully complete a PhD in the mathematical sciences. In one of the workshop’s sessions, we discussed the mentor-mentee relationship and its effects on a student’s experience in graduate school. In this article, we describe the main takeaway from the session: that open communication in the mentor-mentee relationship was crucial for student success.
As part of the session, we read the article Mentoring minority graduate students: issues and strategies for institutions, faculty, and students by Thomas, Willis, and Davis, in which they discuss how miscommunication leads to a dysfunctional mentoring experience. The authors state that “when the lines of communication… are not left open and properly defined, incidences… become more evident, and in some cases cause conflict.” Of course, communication establishes a baseline for current and future interactions, and without articulating clear expectations or without having open lines of communication it could lead to potential problems within the mentor-mentee relationship. Yet, through our discussion, it became evident that some of us had expectations of mentors that we had never directly communicated nor agreed on with them. For example, some students expect their mentor to be able to advise them on job searches/placements and to help expand their network and connections with other people in the field. Yet, the reality is that not all mentors can or should serve in this capacity as this type of mentoring requires a mentor to be well connected to other scholars and to help students find people who might be more equipped in addressing more specific goals.
Being able to fully articulate expectations in a mentor-mentee relationship is key to building a strong and supportive relationship. Through the setting of mutual expectations, we can avoid the hurt feelings associated with being let down, which can be experienced both by a mentor and by a mentee. In fact, one great way to work on building a list of mutual expectations is by completing a Mentor-Mentee contract such as the one found here. Although that contract is based on a research mentor-mentee relationship, many of the items used for building strong communication skills apply to general mentor-mentee relationships. These include:
- A strong mentor/mentee relationship starts with a conversation to discuss what each person is trying to get out of this relationship. It is important to establish this at the beginning of a new relationship because the potential mentor may not have certain characteristics that you may initially expect a mentor to have. This will help you to determine if perhaps searching for another mentor is the most appropriate course of action. Note that you cannot force a mentor to have a certain characteristic if it is not within them already. For example, if you need a more hands-on mentor, and the mentor does not believe in hands-on interactions, then the relationship will probably not work.
- It is important for the mentor to acknowledge their own limitations, and know when to direct their mentee to other experts in the field or a more suitable mentor. It is unrealistic that a single mentor will know everything. As a mentor, you have to become familiar with what you can provide to a mentee, and be comfortable with not knowing all the answers. It is a sign of maturity to know that you have to direct your mentee to other experts in the field that will be able to answer your mentee’s questions and who could potentially serve as better mentors.
- Familiarizing yourself with each other’s career goals is important in the mentor/mentee relationship. The responsibility of the mentor is to help the mentee reach their end-goal, and knowing what the mentee wants to achieve will help guide the mentor in providing resources to the mentee, as well as stimulate constructive conversation during one-on-one meetings. Coming up with 30, 60, and/or 90 day milestones can be beneficial in approaching career and life goals. This is meant to be used as a measure to see how far along you are to achieving your goal within a specific timeframe. What can be achieved in 30 days? 60 days? 90 days? Goals that are broken down from short-term goals to long term goals can be helpful in keeping track of one’s own progress.
Even with a contract in place to guide the mentor-mentee relationship, we must acknowledge that there may be reasons to end the relationship. The contract linked above has specific language to address this and mentions: “In the event that either party finds the mentoring relationship unproductive and requests that it be terminated, we agree to honor that individual’s decision without question or blame.” Although this is within the contract it can be a source of stress for either the mentee or the mentor to bring up that the mentor-mentee relationship might not be a positive and mutually beneficial one. Yet, there are times when it is best to simply end such a relationship. Even when it may feel like a “breakup” we should know that not all mentor-mentee relationships will last a lifetime. Some can simply be for a predetermined amount of time. In fact, reassessing the benefits of the relationship every so often can be quite productive in either addressing new needs and new challenges within the mentor-mentee relationship.
Although we have described the mentor-mentee relationship in a contractual way, it would be a missed opportunity to not mention that these relationships are deeply personal and at times emotional. Mentors are people that guide you throughout your academic and professional career. They are someone who can give you guidance and wisdom. The mentor-mentee relationship often extends beyond just school-related and professional work. A mentor is someone that you can talk to during times of distress. When a mentor-mentee relationship works, they are deeply meaningful and impactful to both parties. Given this impact, it is important to focus on how to build strong communication skills so that the mentor-mentee relationship is a positive one for all involved. We encourage the use of a Mentor-Mentee Contract to begin having these conversations.