Mentoring and advising are a serious component of any scholar’s job – yes, that includes undergraduate and graduate scholars. We should all take responsibility for building a community of colleagues that we support and support us, so peer-to-peer mentoring can be as effective, and in some instances more effective, than going to a faculty member for help.

That said, there are of course many times you need to go to a faculty member (or teaching assistant or other kind of instructor) for help, and I want to say a few things about how I imagine this to work. Consider it a manifesto for future students and advisees if you like, but I’d like to think it’s practical, if unsolicited advice, that will help us all negotiate positive relationships.

Do you need to write that email or come to office hours?

First, here is a bit of a checklist to determine if and when to contact your instructor or advisor:

1. Can you find out the information another way?

If you are trying to determine course information, is that information already on a syllabus, web site, or earlier email? If so, you should take responsibility for finding out this information yourself rather than try to delegate it to another person. Imagine how unfair that may feel to your TA or professor if you can’t be bothered to check out the website, especially if you are one of dozens or even hundreds of students asking the same question.

2. Is this the right person to be contacting with your question?

Perhaps you are curious about whether the History major would be a good fit for you, but I am the only faculty member you have gotten to know well over the semester. While I appreciate that you may feel you have the easiest time talking to me, it is unlikely I have the kind of information that would help you make this decision. This may be a conversation for someone in History.

3. Do you have all the information you can think of before arranging a meeting?

Let’s say you are trying to figure out whether to apply for an internal research grant. Before meeting with an advisor or committee member, you should find out – and digest – everything you can about the grant. Read the website, and if the website is inadequate, determine who you need to call or email with your questions. Your meeting with your advisor will run that much more efficiently if you already know the mission of the grant, the due dates, and what kinds of graduate research gets most frequently funded.

Building a good mentoring relationship – your end of the bargain

So now you’ve gotten all the information you need – excellent! You may have even realized you didn’t need that meeting after all. But if you do need to schedule a meeting, you are as prepared and knowledgeable as you can think of to be, and have scheduled a meeting with your faculty member of choice. How do you have a productive meeting that excites the academic interests of both parties, and leaves us both feeling wonderful about the relationship? This does mean a little more work on your end.

1. Figure out what you want in the relationship.

If you are trying to work out a relationship with your advisor, it would make sense for you to try and figure out how you will best work. Are you the kind of person who would like to have half hour meetings once a week, or sprawling meetings every month or so? Would you like a project handed to you or the freedom to do research only tangentially related to your advisor’s? You don’t need to absolutely know the answers to these questions, and of course the answers may change over time, but you should have some sense of what you want to get out of your mentoring relationships, because otherwise the style of the other person will likely become the style of mentoring you get.

Related to this, if you are a graduate scholar you should already have a strong sense of why you are in graduate school. Check out Stephen Stearns’s modest advice about this, and about surviving graduate school in general.

2. Be clear about what you want in the relationship.

You’ve figured out at least some sense of what you want from this faculty member – one letter of recommendation, some help writing a grant, a long-term advising relationship – and how you want it to look (frequent meetings, infrequent meetings, etc). Now you need to tell the faculty member what you want and see how that person takes it. If the faculty member is fairly inflexible about the kind of relationship they want with you (for any reason, nefarious or not), you will have to reevaluate your priorities. Is it more important to have this person as a mentor however they’ll be one to you, or to have a different mentor whose style is more compatible with yours?

3. Document the relationship.

This is one of those things I wish I’d thought to do when I was a graduate student. After every meeting with a faculty member (or your committee), I think it’s an excellent idea to write a follow up email that summarizes the conversation. I suppose it’s possible some faculty will be bothered by this, but the reality is that few of us have the space in our minds to entirely remember every conversation we have, and I suspect that is why advisees and students sometimes feel as though they’re getting contradictory advice from us from one week to the next (this is the most generous interpretation of why this can happen, and I’m sticking with it for now). Getting a brief, friendly email from an advisee that appreciates the meeting and reiterates the content of it, then – this is the most important part – outlines the next action steps for the project (letter of rec, grant, dissertation, whatever), is information that will be useful to both parties. You have your next steps, as does the faculty member if necessary. Then this is something you can review (or even bring in) if there needs to be a next meeting.

Building a good mentoring relationship – my end of the bargain

It doesn’t make sense for the quality of a mentoring relationship to rest solely on you; you wouldn’t want to be in other relationships that demand that much of you, so your mentoring relationship should be no different. So here are my thoughts on what I need to do to help maintain decent relationships with my advisees, mentees and students. I’d like to think some of these are universal, but I wouldn’t want to impose my own thinking on smart, competent scholars who have figured this out differently.

1. Be clear about what I want in the relationship.

I need to be as clear as you are about how I function best and where I am willing to compromise to help nourish a relationship. I have largely figured out by now how I work best, and where I need to implement things to make this happen I need to make it clear rather than just have students figure it out on their own. These are things I will discuss with you early in the relationship.

Related to this, there may be times where you want more of a relationship with me than I think is best. I will be transparent with you if this should ever occur, and I will explain my reasons. I will be honest, so if my stated reason for not writing a letter of recommendation for an undergraduate travel award is that I have too many other deadlines, that is actually the reason.

2. Provide as much information as I can.

This page does a lot of the work for me, in that I am trying to articulate the kind of work space and collegial relationship I want with you. But I will also try to have clear information available to you about research (field and laboratory), and coursework. I will not be offended if you ask for more information because you feel as though something is missing.

3. Never treat you as anything less than fully human.

The university lifestyle is a tough one, and we’ve all learned from early in school that hierarchies can be inflexible and not learner-centered. Students often learn that education is a means to an end, and that they just have to slog through a number of seemingly irrational requirements and exercises and exams in order to graduate. They learn to assume that school is not supposed to make sense, and that they have no responsibility for how curriculum or advising should look. This is completely understandable given the school systems in most of the world. However, I have found that sometimes this assumption occurs even when the work is rational, the faculty member has gone to great lengths to articulate why, and the faculty member seeks to induce student participation in determining the direction of curriculum or advising. Thus, it is sometimes a misplaced assumption, especially once a student gets to be an undergraduate or graduate. I ask only that you be aware of this.

Though you may have been treated as less than human in the past, though you may not have been given enough information to determine the rationality of your education in the past, it ends here. I will always do my best to explain why I think a particular literature search, statistical method, in-class exercise or paper revision is necessary; when it is not clear I am willing to listen to you to figure out how clarify my intentions or reasoning. If ever I treat you as anything less than human, I want to know it so that I can fix it. Chances are good that the vast majority of the faculty you encounter are just like me in this regard: we want to treat you as human, we want our pedagogical and research goals to be transparent, and we actually do have reasons for many of the things we do. Just ask if this is ever unclear.