I often talk about my strong feelings about mentoring, especially our obligation as faculty to mentor students of color. I mentor students throughout the country. I also care deeply about providing rich and rewarding advising experiences for my own students.
Yesterday, one of my mentees from another university visited with me. Our conversation began with some small talk, but, after about 45 minutes, he began asking about his dissertation. Within a few minutes I figured out that he wasn’t sure how to proceed and wasn’t getting any direction from his dissertation advisor. Within about 20 minutes the two of us re-worked his dissertation plan into something realistic, manageable and fresh.
Of course, I told him to share the plan with his advisor as she would have to approve the changes. Before my mentee left, I told him how many times I’ve had to guide this process with graduate students who feel lost and ignored by their advisors. This conversation with my mentee made me think about the responsibilities advisors have and what happens when they don’t follow through on these responsibilities.
Before being critical of lax advisors, I think it’s important to say that graduate students need to be forthright about what they need and must also uphold their end of the relationship. That said, I have talked to far too many students (mostly students of color) who have to beg for time with their advisors. They often forgo months of progress because they can’t get a meeting. E-mails and phone calls are often ignored. Other students are given priority.
Students also tell me how their ideas are immediately quashed because they are different from that of their advisors’ ideas. This leaves these students unmotivated. As advisors we need to remember that the work of our students is their work and not ours. Yes, we need to make sure the work is rigorous and that it meets the standards of our field but we don’t need to trample on the voices of our students.
Students also express frustration with the lack of guidance they receive from their advisors. Most graduate students have never written a book or a dissertation. The task is daunting and has to be broken down into manageable chunks. Advisors need to lead students through the lonely process of writing, checking in with them often and providing them with the necessary motivation and feedback.
Students tell me that they feel overlooked when it comes to opportunities. As advisors we have to remember that our role is to provide learning experiences to our graduate students. It’s wonderful that we are teaching them, but we also need to offer apprenticeship-like opportunities in which they can get their feet wet when it comes to research, writing, presenting, grant writing and experiencing the life of a faculty member.
When advisors don’t take on these roles and don’t fulfill their responsibilities to graduate students, the rest of us end up picking up the slack. I don’t mind mentoring the advisees of others as I think that students need multiple mentors, but students need immediate, hands-on advisors at their own institutions as well.
I hope that as this new academic year begins those of us who serve as advisors to graduate students will reflect upon our role and how we approach it. In order to create the next generation of faculty, especially faculty of color, it’s absolutely imperative that we take our role seriously and approach it with openness and enthusiasm.
A professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Marybeth Gasman is the author of “Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of “Understanding Minority Serving Institutions” (SUNY Press, 2008).
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