FSIG.23: Filling the Chair: A Conversation About Graduate Student Mentorship
Reviewed by Megan Keaton, Florida State University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Co-Chairs: Caddie Alford, Indiana University
Jennifer Juszkiewicz, Indiana University
Speakers: Laura Micciche, University of Cincinnati Christina LaVecchia, University of Cincinnati Katie Zabrowski Dickman, St. Louis University Dana Anderson, Indiana University Caddie Alford, Indiana University Jennifer Juszkiewicz, Indiana University
This Special Interest Group (SIG) was designed to address graduate students’ concerns by creating a space for dialogue among graduate students and faculty from a variety of universities. Each year, the chairs choose a topic for discussion, such as preparing for the job market or managing an academic digital presence. At the meeting, speakers begin by sharing their experiences with the topic then give members an opportunity to ask questions. Most of the meeting is guided by these questions.
At the 2016 conference, the Graduate Student SIG came together to discuss choosing a faculty chair and committee members, as well as ways to navigate the relationships among mentor, mentee, and committee members. The speakers were made up of mentor–mentee teams; with this balance, speakers were able to offer perspectives from both sides of the relationship. Because the opening remarks and answers to questions covered some of the same topics, I will organize this review by the themes of this year’s conversation.
Choosing a Mentor
The mentee speakers—Christina LaVecchia, Katie Zabrowski Dickman, Caddie Alford, and Jennifer Juszkiewicz—began by explaining why they chose their mentors. These speakers recommended that a graduate student choose a mentor based on personalities, personal and academic interests and habits, and motivational strategies. They suggested that the student choose a chair whose personality traits are complementary with the student’s personality. The speakers also recommended that a student find a mentor who has similar personal and academic interests as the mentee; this makes the relationship easier because the mentor and mentee can relate on multiple levels. Additionally, the speakers recommended that a student select a mentor whose motivational strategies work well for him or her. Some mentees, for example, may need a mentor who sets specific deadlines and workload, while others may need a more relaxed mentor. In a similar vein, the speakers suggested that a student identify a mentor who has work and organizational habits that work well for the student. Dickman, for instance, shared that she and her mentor both use color-coding when organizing their work.
Interspersed in this advice, the mentor speakers—Laura Micciche and Dana Anderson—explained what they see as the qualities of an effective mentor. The speakers asserted that an effective mentor celebrates the mentee’s successes, advocates for the mentee, and points out opportunities in which the mentee could be involved. Micciche stressed that the mentee has responsibilities in the relationship as well; mentors want mentees to set deadlines for themselves and to ask their mentors for advice and feedback. Anderson emphasized that a mentor must be predictable to his or her mentee. To accomplish this, the mentor and mentee must discuss early on their expectations for the relationship, work habits, deadlines, and so on. Finally, both speakers maintained that the relationship between mentor and mentee will change as they work together, and it continues even after the student graduates.
Anderson stated that, prior to selecting a mentor, students must have specific ideas for their dissertation or thesis. If a student does not yet have specific ideas, it is too early to select a mentor. He recommended that, when the student is ready for a mentor, he or she should email the professor to set up an appointment to talk. During the meeting with the professor, the student should discuss their ideas about the project and then ask the professor to be his or her chair.
Choosing a Committee
The mentor speakers emphasized that the mentor and mentee should work together to select committee members; the mentee should not make these decisions alone. They recommended that the mentee consider a wide variety of committee members who have different interests and academic pursuits. Different perspectives, even those that disagree, are helpful in working on and revising one’s project. Anderson stated that students should ask themselves whether they are “using all available means” when selecting committee members. At the same time, it is important to choose committee members who understand their roles in the committee and what each role entails. Micciche explained that committee relationships are influenced by institutional cultures; more collaborative departments will often produce more collaborative committees.
Talking about Pedagogy
Often, mentees think about their mentors helping with their research and turning that research into publications and conference presentations. However, the speakers emphasized that the mentor is a resource for one’s teaching as well. The speakers recommended that a mentee ask his or her mentor to observe their classes and offer suggestions for improvement. A mentee can also come to their mentor when they are struggling with, or have questions about, their mentor’s teaching. The mentor speakers suggested that, in addition to seeking advice from the mentor, students should ask other faculty members to observe their teaching; this offers the student a variety of perspectives.
Breaking Up with a Mentor
The mentor speakers discussed the difficult situation of beginning work with a mentor and realizing that the mentor is not the best person for the mentee and their project. The speakers recommended that the mentee pin the agency on the project because the project matters most; that is, they recommended talking in terms of what's best for the dissertation project and its direction. They emphasized that the project is the mentee’s work and he or she must be comfortable with the direction it is going. When ending a mentor mentee work relationship, the mentee can explain to the mentor that the project is heading in a different direction, and another person may be more appropriate for the project. The mentee may also offer for the mentor to remain on the committee. Regardless of how the mentee presents the situation, he or she must be respectful to the mentor.
Making Use of the Cohort
All of the speakers emphasized that, though the mentor is an important person in a graduate student’s life, there are other resources the mentee can use. In particular, the speakers pointed to the mentee’s cohort. Because they are going through similar experiences as the mentee, a mentee can go to his or her cohort to seek out advice about work-life balance, share academic and professional struggles, and ask for feedback on their writing. After graduation, one’s cohort can then become project collaborators, writing group participants, and/or lifelong friends.
During the meeting, participants made use of the session's hashtag #fsig23. Visit a Storify project of the SIG’s Twitter activity.