Previous Page

What is Mentoring?

By Emily Rendek

Graduate students often find that good mentors can make or break their graduate school experience, but what is good mentoring? When it comes to mentoring there are many different perspectives to be considered, but the focus of this article is on the role of faculty in mentoring graduate students.

In an effort to provide a better mentoring experience for graduate students, the Center for Teaching Excellence is host to the Mentoring Graduate Students Community of Practice led by Dr. Murray Mitchell, Professor and Senior Associate Dean of the Graduate School. This informal faculty discussion group is designed to be a forum for faculty members to discuss the mentoring of graduate students and to share stories of success and failure, explore promising practices, and remain abreast of the literature and available resources.

When asked what his main goal was in starting this particular Community of Practice, Dr. Mitchell stated, “Good mentoring can enhance the probability of graduate student accomplishments in terms of academic success and perseverance to degree completion, professional self-image and confidence. A lack of mentoring, and perhaps worse, bad mentoring can have quite the opposite effects. Influencing the mentoring behaviors of graduate faculty is a challenge; it is one of those roles that is frequently overlooked in the promotion and tenure process. And, the literature on ‘one-shot’ professional development—attending one workshop or listening to one speaker—suggests that this is not an approach that has the potential to impact what faculty do and to enhance the experience of graduate students.”

Effective mentoring is not something that only graduate students benefit from—faculty benefit too. When asked about the importance of mentoring, Dr. Heather Brandt, Associate Professor, Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior and Associate Dean of the Graduate School, made sure to emphasize this, stating, “Effective mentoring is essential to the graduate student experience – and we know that when graduate students are mentored effectively, faculty productivity increases as well. There are mutual benefits to an effective mentoring relationship.” These mutual benefits were also recognized by Dr. Jean Taylor Ellis, Associate Professor of Geography and Director of Graduate Studies, who said, “A large component of mentoring is about sharing your experiences. It is challenging sometimes to put your pride aside, be vulnerable, and openly share your failures. However, this experience often will not only benefit my mentee but also me.”

Defining what a mentor is and what roles and responsibilities fall under that designation is critical to clarify and clearly lay out. Dr. Mike Matthews, Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education, emphasizes this point and notes, “Mentoring is a very broad thing. We need to understand what mentoring is. The phrase faculty mentor has to be thought about carefully. Research advisor and faculty mentor may overlap, but they are not necessarily the same thing. A faculty mentor and student need to know and understand what a well-rounded graduate student should be.” Dr. Daniela Friedman, Professor and Chair of Health Promotion, Education and Behavior, also expresses the importance of having clear cut expectations, “Setting up clear expectations for the mentor-mentee experience is critical for the relationship to work. Regular check-ins to ensure expectations are being met by both parties is essential.”

Establishing best practices as a university is also important and something that the Mentoring Graduate Students Community of Practice aims to do. Dr. Linda Hazlett, Clinical Associate Professor and Graduate Director for Epidemiology, states, “I do think we do a lot of things right with mentoring, but I do think it’s important as a university that we have best practices when it comes to mentoring so that we know what’s expected of us when it comes to mentoring and that new faculty have guidance when they come in.”

When graduate students were asked about their thoughts on mentoring, Chelsea Richard, a PhD candidate in epidemiology and Presidential Fellow, stated that the qualities she thinks make a good faculty mentor are “empathy, flexibility, understanding, being able to play devil’s advocate, and having a good network beyond the walls of UofSC.” She also noted, “All I need is a cheerleader and someone in my corner who will go to bat for me when necessary. I also need someone to keep me in check and on course.” There are countless articles written by graduate students with suggestions on how to pick a mentor, from “The Many Varieties of Mentors” to “The Ideal PhD Mentor—A Student’s Perspective,” each showing a variety of perspectives and experiences. 

One thing graduate students should note is that in picking faculty mentors they don’t need to settle on finding a single person for the role of mentor. Venice Haynes, a PhD candidate in Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior, emphasizes this saying, “One of the things I have heard quite often from my mentors is that you need a variety of mentors during this experience. This is one of the main things I would tell new graduate students. One mentor cannot meet all of your professional needs. Seek people at different phases of their career so you can get a wide variety of experiences. Have professional and personal mentors. Be open but also be selective. After all it is your life!” To get an idea of what this might look like the following article suggests building a “Kitchen Cabinet of Mentors”—developing a network of mentors.

Dr. Mitchell also echoes this same sentiment, “I would also suggest that good mentoring doesn’t just happen; it takes some attention to doing it well. I think there may be a helpful analogy between mentoring and knowledge. Once upon a time, to be considered intelligent, you had to know ‘everything.’ As knowledge ‘exploded’ it became more important to know how to frame and find answers to important questions. Similarly, once upon a time, a mentor was a single source for nurturing another. Now it is important to realize that a single person cannot be the sole source for guidance or advice for all possibilities. As graduate students explore different potential career paths, it is important to seek insights from a variety sources.”

In order to help graduate students explore that variety of potential career paths over the past two years the Graduate School has increased the number of professional development offerings it presents to graduate students. This spring the Graduate School plans to offer more programming on mentoring for graduate students. Commenting on this programming Dr. Brandt notes, “A one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring graduate students is unlikely to yield a productive mentoring relationship. As part of our professional development programming, we have offered graduate students exposure to different models of mentoring that are more consistent with interdisciplinary and collaborative scholarship. In spring 2019, we will offer additional professional development programming on mentoring.” To see the remaining professional development events for this semester you can check out the Graduate School calendar.

By taking this multifaceted approach to mentoring the Graduate School hopes to provide the best experience to both graduate students and faculty. If you are interested in joining the Mentoring Graduate Students Community of Practice, or wish to receive further information, please email Dr. Murray Mitchell, at and use MGS-CoP in the subject line.