What to Look for in a Mentor

In This Story

People Mentioned in This Story

by Austin A. Deray

Last year, I called the library one of the keys to graduate student success. I’d like to change the metaphor to be one of the feathers in a graduate student’s bowler or bob hat. We began our bowler’s feather collection with the green feather of libraries; now let’s add the gold feather of effective mentoring. One of the most important relationships to cultivate in graduate school is your mentor. 

Image of man and woman in professional attire looking at laptop.

Three quick notions to dispel from the get-go: 1) a mentor and an adviser are two different things; 2) your mentor does not have to be found in the realm of academic; and 3) graduate students can have more than one mentor.

Dr. Carol Fierke, Vice Provost and Dean of Rackham Graduate School at University of Michigan, in her discussion on mentoring graduate students, asks graduate and professional students to first consider what makes a mentor. She suggests that mentors:

  • take an interest in developing another person’s career and well-being
  • have an interpersonal as well as a professional relationship with those whom they mentor
  • advance the person’s academic and professional goals in directions most desired by the individual
  • tailor mentoring styles and content to the individual, including adjustments due to differences in culture, ethnicity, gender and so on.1

While I do not feel comfortable telling others how to go about finding a mentor (for me, it has been organic experience), I will share my experiences with my mentors and highlight some aspects of the story you may be able to take away and apply as you seek a mentor. My mentors are Dr. Carol Jamison and Dr. Jane Rago. Jamison has been with me since undergrad. The first class I took with her was during a hard time in my life and I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue school or not. Though she taught literature courses, we shared an interest in the medieval period. It was while taking my first steps into an acquisition of both Old and Middle English that I began to see Jamison as a true mentor. She never let us take the easy route, and read the modern translations. I had decided to work on Sin Literature and she suggested/forced me to analyze Piers Plowman’s second vision. I had to work with the literature in its original text and compare it with contemporary discussions of the seven sins, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Jamison has helped me develop my skills into becoming a stronger scholar, as well as a stronger professor. She encouraged me to pursue my master’s and eventually begin my PhD. She was never my advisor, but she served as the co-chair of my thesis committee and has always encouraged me and sought to be a light guiding me along my academic career.

Dr. Jane Rago came into my life quite by chance and profoundly changed it. While in my master’s program in World History, my graduate assistantship in the university’s Writing Center happened to be housed across the hall from Rago’s office. She is the director of Gender Studies at Armstrong and a professor in the Literature department, which was going through renovations at the time. Occasionally, Rago would come by and chat with Caroline, the lead tutor, and I about her courses. The next term, Caroline and I took her “Advanced Perspectives in Feminist Theory” course. That course changed my life and put me on a new path. While I started my master’s work in History department, from that point forward I was a member of both the History and Gender Studies units, working towards both degrees. It was our conversations and the course that helped me find a new way to apply my historical training, through a discussion of how and why gender norms have come about. Rago pushed me to present at conferences and to teach my own course, which just happened to be the same course I took with her. Once I finished both programs, Rago hired me for my first faculty position and I was able to teach Gender Studies courses for 2 years at Armstrong State University.

Woman sitting at messy desk looking at desktop computer. Shelves of books in the background.

My acquisition of both mentors at the time seemed quite organic; however, when considering our history, I can see how our early interactions followed Fierke’s description of a good mentor. Jamison, while she was first a professor of mine, became much more. It was the fact that we worked outside of class on my translations and on my research ideas, as well as the fact that she was willing to oversee independent and directed readings for a student who was not a member of her department. If I can make a suggestion here, find a professor who is willing to go beyond the call of duty for you. They may not be in your department or field; however, if they take an interest and are willing to give up time, energy, and resources on your behalf, consider them as a mentor who may be able to help guide your academic and professional life.

Rago’s early discussions completely changed my life’s direction and it all happened because her office was across the hall from mine. Proximity can be that vital as well as serendipitous. Had I not had my assistantship or had she been assigned another office while the Literature department was being renovated, we may have not met. Take in your surrounds in your department, your work, or social interactions. If there is someone who encourages you in your pursuits and offers to help along the way,hey could have the makings of a mentor.

For me, though both were not mentors, I had sought out, they are the best mentors a graduate student could have asked for. They helped me develop both academically and professionally. They have guided me directly through a majority of my academic career and still check in – making time for me when I am back home – to make sure I am happy in my current program and that I am keeping to the plan we discussed so many years ago. They have helped me find academic work and written recommendations for my PhD applications. I hope you find as good of mentors as I have.

Have a great day and week.

Until next time,

1 Carol Fierke, “How to Get the Mentoring You Want: A Guide for Graduate Students.” Rackham Graduate School, University of Michigan, The Regents of the University of Michigan (2015): 3, accessed September 29, 2017,  www.rackham.umich.edu/downloads/publications/mentoring.

This blog post has been edited and updated to reflect current changes in information.

Edited by Sydney Glass, 9/25/2018