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Look at your students holistically to include mentorship in supervision

“Mentors [are] advisors who [respond] to and [see] the student as a whole person… not simply as another graduate student in a sea of semi-anonymous others. By seeing students in full view, mentors [can] personalize the mix of direct teaching and independent learning as they [respond] to student needs” (De Welde & Laursen, 2008).


One of the major differences between supervision and mentoring is that the former is often task-oriented (e.g., completion of a thesis or dissertation) whereas the latter is more about caring for an individual’s long-term development (Acker, 2011).

Parameters of mentoring


Mentoring involves:

  • offering advice on both academic and non-academic careers and whether present behaviour is consistent with long term goals;

  • providing information about the university’s culture and ways of working;

  • showing respect for the mentee, and maintaining a confidential relationship;

  • acting as a sounding board and being open to new ideas;

  • providing honest feedback and the chance for the mentee to reflect and be challenged;

  • being a facilitator and providing practical help, such as teaching observation; and

  • being available for regular meetings.

Adapted from Harper & Sawicka (2001).

Mentoring doesn't involve:

  • setting goals for or managing the mentee’s career;

  • doing work for the mentee;

  • assessment or appraisal;

  • personal/problem counselling;

  • an intimate relationship;

  • departmental politics; or

  • providing a substantive discussion on a specialised field of knowledge.

Before you begin mentoring

  • Be honest about your own strengths and weaknesses, and do not force yourself to be a mentor. Research has shown that supervisors do not need to be considered "mentors" by students in order to be perceived as good supervisors.

  • Make known your willingness to serve as mentors, as many students find it intimidating to ask faculty members to be their mentors.

  • Encourage students to find peer mentors too, because more advanced students, or postdocs, can provide good psychosocial support.

Adapted from Baker and Griffin (2010); De Welde and Laursen (2008); Grant-Vallone and Ensher (2000).

Questions that potential mentees should ask

As a supervisor, you may suggest that your supervisee consider the following when looking for a mentor:

  • What are my personal goals (e.g., meeting basic program requirements, pursuing a career)?

  • What areas or specific fields am I most interested in? How do these interests relate to my personal goals?

  • What are my greatest strengths and my areas in need of improvement?

  • What do I enjoy doing (e.g., for the near future and for the next 30-35 years)?

Adapted from Baker & Griffin (2010).

What story from your career might help your mentee with hers or his?

A mentor’s career and its trajectory can furnish many tales that can be told for many different purposes, whether cautionary, inspirational, or matter-of-fact. Mentees benefit from the experience of their mentors. As your mentoring relationships evolve, you can call on different experiences to personalize your guidance of the mentee.


Mentoring relationships differ from one case to another, mostly depending on each mentee’s different needs, the capabilities and experience of the mentor, the time commitment and the emotional involvement of both the mentor and the mentee. Accordingly, mentoring relationships evolve, due to the changes to these factors (Harper & Sawicka, 2001; Kram, 1983). The following story, between a mentor and a graduate student, provides a sense of how a mentoring relationship begins, progresses, and eventually ends.

Case study: Evolution of a mentoring relationship

Dr. Launch was a professor of management specializing in organizational behaviour, and Erick was a first-year Master's student in Dr. Launch’s business seminar. Erick gained Dr. Launch’s attention with his high grades and unusually cogent written work. At first, Dr. Launch invited Erick to talk after class, but Erick did not respond. Then, Dr. Launch emailed Erick to offer him a formal appointment. At the first meeting, Dr. Launch had to put Erick at ease because Erick was very nervous. When Dr. Launch learned that Erick had not decided on a research topic, he encouraged him to choose organizational behaviour and offered to be his supervisor. Erick soon made his decision and named Dr. Launch his supervisor, but their first interaction as supervisor-supervisee was not smooth. Erick never initiated meetings and did not talk a lot during their conversations.

Having noticed this, Dr. Launch gave Erick the “assignment” to come to his office once a week to “check in.” At the meetings, they talked about Erick’s adaptation to grad school, things he missed about home, and interesting issues that had come up in class. Gradually, Erick began to enjoy the interactions with Dr. Launch.

Through interactions, Dr. Launch learned that what Erick needed the most was support and encouragement. So he often commented on Erick’s excellent performance and potential for doctoral study. Shortly afterward, Erick began to attend all Dr. Launch’s seminars and cite him in other classes. Dr. Launch knew that Erick began to see him as a role model. He then invited him to review papers with him and write presentation proposals and manuscripts. He appointed Erick as the student member of a committee he was chairing so that Erick could observe him chairing a meeting.

When Erick was preparing to apply for other graduate schools, Dr. Launch wrote him letters of recommendation and reviewed his applications. But Erick was also thinking about joining a former classmate who had started a successful new business and wanted a partner. When Erick was invited to interview at some schools with PhD programs, Dr. Launch arranged a mock interview session, but they also talked about the non-academic career path that Erick was contemplating. That summer, Dr. Launch helped Erick land an internship with a large company, and Erick continued to talk with his friend about a potential partnership in business.

When Erick was admitted to an excellent business school, he was also offered a job at the large company, and Dr. Launch talked with him about the options, including the startup. Erick made the difficult decision not to enrol and instead took the job at the large company. Dr. Launch proudly announced the good news in a meeting of graduate students that spring. When Erick moved to another province, the two continued email conversations and Dr. Launch continued to provide Erick with advice and support. Over the following years, the two had less and less contact and eventually only greeted each other via holiday cards. Nevertheless, Erick looked back on Dr. Launch as the guiding figure of his adult life: a mentor.

Adapted from Johnson (2007), pp. 32-35.

Questions about this case study

  • What story (for you to imagine) from Dr. Launch’s career might help Erick with his?

  • How did the mentoring relationship evolve in this case?

  • What does Dr. Launch do right?

  • Would Dr. Launch be able to mentor all his students in this way?

  • What are the risks of tacitly supporting Erick’s idealization of his mentor?


Guiding questions for mentors

  • Which part of my career trajectory might cast light on important questions that my mentees have about their careers?

  • What guidance can I provide to help the mentees to achieve their personal goals?

  • How do I want to benefit personally from the mentorship? For example, how will mentoring help me to better understand the experiences of graduate students and early-career academics and to reflect on my supervision and teaching?

  • To what extent do I want to be friends with my mentees? When is that appropriate? What are the boundaries?

Definition, benefits and costs of mentoring

There is ambiguity and inconsistency with uses of the term mentoring. However, generally, mentoring involves a personal level of caring for a student’s development. Mentoring in academia does not have to be a relationship between one faculty member and one student; a student can have more than one mentor, and more advanced students can serve as mentors. 


Four types of mentoring

  1. Instrumental help: support aiming to enhance the mentee’s knowledge and skills in a specific field.
  2. Psychological help: emotional support, empathizing, counselling, encouragement. Student mentors tend to provide more psychological help than faculty mentors.
  3. Career development: support for setting goals and choosing a career path.
  4. Role modelling: the mentor serving as a role model for the mentee.

Adapted from Brown II, Davis, and McClendon (1999); Crisp and Cruz (2009); Grant-Vallone and Ensher (2000); Harper and Sawicka, (2001); Jacobi (1991); Kram (1985); Waldeck, Orrego, Plax, and Kearney (1997).

Personal characteristics that make a good mentor

  • Enthusiasm: Students appreciate a mentor who is passionate and positive about their (the students’) work.

  • Sensitivity: Students appreciate a mentor who shows compassion and understanding by listening and supporting them, particularly when the student is struggling to make progress.

  • Appreciating individual differences: Students appreciate a mentor who tries to understand them as an individual and how that relates to the student’s research.

  • Respect: Students appreciate being seen as equal collaborators rather than just an extra pair of hands.

  • Unselfishness: Students appreciate a mentor who is willing to share ideas and provide them with resources.

  • Support for other than one’s own: Students appreciate receiving support from all professors, even if they don’t work on the same projects.

Adapted from Lee, Dennis, & Campbell, 2007.


Many scholars (e.g., Baker & Griffin, 2010; Brown II et al., 1999) have pointed out that mentoring should not involve assessment or evaluation of the mentee. Brown II et al. (1999) called mentoring “frientoring”, a concept that “addresses the asymmetrical nature of mentor-mentee relationships by establishing a collegial tier in which each party can contribute as equals. In frientoring, the faculty member provides guidance and wisdom, and the student provides respect and a modicum of reverence to the interactions. The faculty member is not a dictator, but a colleague” (pp. 115-116. Reprinted with permission of the publisher (Taylor & Francis Ltd.)).

Benefits of mentoring


Benefits for mentors include:

  • learning through reflection upon own performance and career directions;
  • gaining a sense of satisfaction from guiding less experienced colleagues;
  • an enhanced reputation; and
  • developing managerial skills.

Benefits for mentees include:

Adapted from Harper & Sawicka, 2001.

  • growth and development of skills;
  • provision for receiving constructive criticism and encouragement;
  • feedback on workplace performance;
  • enhanced access to organizational, professional, and technical knowledge;
  • learning cultural norms;
  • learning specialist information;
  • creating networks and ongoing work relationships that can reduce isolation; and
  • personal support.

Other researchers (Lunsford, Baker, Griffin, & Johnson, 2013), however, noted the costs to faculty members as a result of problematic mentoring relationships, including psychological costs (e.g., burnout, anger, grief/loss due to mentees’ leaving of academic programs) and career costs (e.g., limited career advancement related to underperformed mentees, decreased research productivity, ethical violations sometimes related to the mentor’s lack of mentoring experience).


Acker, S. (2011). Advising and mentoring graduate students. In B. Bank (Ed.), Gender and higher education (pp. 330-336). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Baker, V. L., & Griffin, K. A. (2010). Beyond mentoring and advising: Toward understanding the role of faculty “developers” in student success. About Campus, 14(6), 2-8.

Brown II, M. C., Davis, G. L., & McClendon, S. A. (1999). Mentoring graduate students of color: Myths, models, and modes. Peabody Journal of Education, 74(2), 105-118.

Crisp, G., & Cruz, I. (2009). Mentoring college students: A critical review of the literature between 1990 and 2007. Research in Higher Education, 50(6), 525-545.

De Welde, K., & Laursen, S. L. (2008). The “ideal type” advisor: How advisors help STEM graduate students find their "scientific feet". The Open Education Journal, 1, 49-61.

Grant-Vallone, E. J., & Ensher, E. A. (2000). Effects of peer mentoring on types of mentor support, program satisfaction and graduate student stress: A dyadic perspective. Journal of College Student Development, 41(6), 637.

Harper, J., & Sawicka, T. (2001). Academic mentoring: A pilot success at Victoria University of Wellington. In C. Hall (Ed.), Nga Taumata Matauranga O Aotearoa/Higher Education in New Zealand: Occasional Paper Series. Wellington, New Zealand: Syndicate of Educational Development Centres of New Zealand Universities. 

Jacobi, M. (1991). Mentoring and undergraduate academic success: A literature review. Review of Educational Research, 61(4), 505-532.

Johnson, W. B. (2007). On being a mentor: A guide for higher education faculty. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Kram, K. E. (1983). Phases of the mentor relationship. The Academy of Management Journal, 26(4), 608-625.

Kram, K. E. (1985). Mentoring at work: Developmental relationships in organization life. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company.

Lee, A., Dennis, C., & Campbell, P. (2007). Nature's guide for mentors. Nature, 444, 791-797

Lunsford, L. G., Baker, V., Griffin, K. A., & Johnson, W. B. (2013). Mentoring: A typology of costs for higher education faculty. Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 21(2), 126-149.

Waldeck , J. H., Orrego, V. O., Plax, T. G., & Kearney, P. (1997). Graduate student/faculty mentoring relationships: Who gets mentored, how it happens, and to what end. Communication Quarterly, 45(3), 93-109.

Further Reading

Nerad, M. (1996). Mentoring auf den zweiten Blick - einige provokative Thesen (A second look at mentoring graduate students: Some provocative thoughts). In S. Metz-Göckel & A. Wetterer (Eds.), Vorausdenken, querdenken, nachdenken (Thinking Ahead, Thinking Against the Stream, Reflecting) (pp. 119-126). Frankfurt, Germany: Campus.

Selwa, L. M. (2003). Lessons in mentoring. Experimental Neurology,184, Supplement 1(0), 42-47.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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