Mentoring Graduate Student Scholars

Mentoring Graduate Student Scholars

Written by Guest Author, Dr. Tera R. Jordan, Assistant Provost for Faculty Development and Associate Professor of  Human Development and Family Studies

In recent months, I have engaged in conversations and workshops about the significance of graduate mentoring to Iowa State University’s (ISU) mission to create, share, and apply knowledge to make Iowa and the world a better place. Excellence in graduate mentoring is critical for furthering key strategic goals related to ensuring access to the ISU experience (Goal 1). As well as, growing the impact and scope of ISU graduate programs (Subgoal 1.5), and continuing the enhance and cultivate the ISU experience where all are safe and feel welcomed, supported, included, and valued (Goal 4). “Good advising contributes to scholarly output, our reputations as individual scholars, colleagues, and mentors, our department’s reputation, and by extension to the reputations of our universities and institutes” (Shore, 2014, p. x).

At ISU, we honor strong mentors with the Margaret Ellen White Award, which was established in 1985 to recognize superior performance by graduate faculty members. Award recipients are regarded as effective major professors, supporting students’ efforts to complete their work in a timely and scholarly manner and continuing to mentor these scholars after graduation.

In this teaching tip, I will integrate suggestions from some Margaret Ellen White Award winners and offer advice for strengthening mentoring approaches with graduate student scholars. It is important to note that though I emailed all award winners, some faculty did not respond to my request for input. At the end of the document, I provide additional resources at ISU and other institutions and national networks.

Promote a Welcoming and Inclusive Environment

Treat all graduate students regardless of background or identity with respect and consideration.

  • Validate graduate student scholars and acknowledge their presence. “Hello. How are you today?”
  • Seek opportunities for more significant interaction with students, especially those who are underrepresented and may feel invisible. Pursue meaningful discussions about research, teaching, and service, along with their qualifications, merits, and interests.
  • Listen actively to concerns they express and seek to understand their perspectives.
  • Allow graduate student scholars to share information about their personal lives and interests on their own volition. Recognize individual differences in readiness to disclose these matters.
  • After establishing a trusting relationship, you may earn the privilege to support the graduate student’s holistic development and well-being. A recent article published in Diverse Issues in Higher Education highlighted some considerations.

Strengthen Your Approach to Mentoring

One of the strongest predictors of student success is the quality of the major professor-student relationship (Schlosser & Kahn, 2007; Tompkins, Brecht, Tucker, Neander, & Swift, 2016). Frances M. Craig Professor in Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Molecular Biology; and Margaret Ellen White Award recipient, Dr. Basil Nikolau offered this: “The relationship between the Ph.D. graduate and their major project is the second or third most important in their life, namely the order of importance— being parents followed by major professor.”

Setting clear expectations and roles at the beginning of the relationship is vital for promoting mutual understanding and respect (Shore, 2014). Spending time focused on your mentoring philosophy and expectations will aid this process. In his book titled, The Graduate Advisor Handbook: A Student-centered Approach, Bruce Shore (2014) asks the question: “Would I be pleased if we exchanged roles?” (p. 40) Later in the book, he asserts, “Many advisors are survivors of sink-or-swim experiences, including graduate school. We even take some pride in having made it, and some of us assume that running our advisees through the same gauntlet will make them better graduates. It does not” (p. 135).

Reflecting on their mentoring philosophies, other ISU faculty and Margaret Ellen White Award recipients gave these recommendations for cultivating scholarly development and honoring graduate student scholars’ talents, goals, and needs:

Cultivate Scholarly Development

“To me, the most important aspect of my responsibility as a mentor of graduate students is summarized by my motto: ‘I teach confidence.’ That entails many aspects of mentoring them through their graduate school experience, including presenting their work at professional conferences and learning to network, to help them prepare for the job market. My favorite quote for graduate students is: ‘Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.’ –Abraham Lincoln.” –Joel Coats, Distinguished Professor of Entomology and Toxicology

“In front of your committee, and even more so as you prepare for a defense, I like to remind them that they will be the experts in the room and that they inform their committee members of new knowledge that only you (the graduate student) knows. So, inform, educate, and entertain.” -Basil Nikolau, Frances M. Craig Professor, Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Molecular Biology

“An important aspect of mentoring graduate students is creating an environment in which students learn from each other and feel comfortable to have open interactions with faculty. Our daily morning coffee breaks for graduate students, post-docs, and faculty serve as an important part in establishing such an environment.” –Jack Dekkers, Distinguished Professor, Animal Science

“Much of my approach to graduate education is to give students enough freedom and responsibility to fail, then encouragement and guidance to overcome and learn from their mistakes. It’s their education, and they have to learn to assume responsibility for it. I am a hands-off professor, providing a lot of leeway for them to develop hypotheses and ways of approaching a problem.” –Steven Rodermel, Distinguished Professor, Genetics, Development, and Cell Biology

Honor Graduate Students’ Individual Talents, Goals, and Needs

“Communication is the prime ingredient for faculty mentors to work well with student mentees. In particular, it is essential for mentors to listen carefully to the needs, concerns, and hopes of their mentee(s), so they can provide better support and establish a basis of mutual understanding and trust that can lead to more effective collaboration.” –Mack Shelley, University Professor and Chair, Political Science

“Treat each graduate student as an individual rather than adhering to rigid practices to which all students in your group must conform.” –William Graves, Dean, Graduate College; Professor, Horticulture

“Discuss career goals with students and support their Fight for your students. Keep in touch after they graduate.” –Leslie Hogben, Dio Lewis Holl Chair, Applied Mathematics; Professor, Mathematics

Donald Beitz, a Distinguished Professor of Animal Science, cited a reflection from a former doctoral Leah Whigham who wrote: “You are distinctive among university professors and research mentors in your ability to encourage a love of science and emulate that passion daily, while letting each student or mentee know that you truly care about their individual success. Whether it is a stroll through the lab, a group meeting, a classroom lecture, or a presentation at a scientific meeting, you always have a sparkle in your eye and a child-like enthusiasm when you talk about teaching and research. For you, these two components of an academic career always seem to go hand in hand.”

“Ask not what your student can do for you; ask what you can do for your student. Focus on helping students achieve their goals. The benefits to you will inevitably accrue.” –Dan Nettleton, Distinguished Professor, Statistics; Laurence H. Baker Chair in Biological Statistics

To close, devoting time and energy to strengthening one’s mentoring skills with graduate student scholars is an essential area of faculty development. Consistent with ISU’s land grant mission, offering strong graduate student mentorship is one route by which everyone, regardless of background, can experience and benefit from the educational opportunities that the institution affords.


ISU Resources on Graduate Mentoring

National Resources on Graduate Mentoring

Access one or all of the following resources:


  • Schlosser, L. Z., & Kahn, J. H. (2007). Dyadic perspectives on advisor-advisee relationships in counseling psychology doctoral programs. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 54(2), 211-217. DOI: 10.1037/0022-0167.54.2.211
  • Shore, B. M. (2014). The graduate advisor handbook: A student-centered approach. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Tompkins, K. A., Brecht, K., Tucker, B., Neander, L. L., & Swift, J. K. (2016). Who matters most? The contribution of faculty, student-peers, and outside support in predicting graduate student satisfaction. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 10(2), 102-108. DOI: 10.1037/tep0000115