When done properly, mentorship plays an important role in graduate student success. Mentoring relationships encourage the transfer of relevant knowledge, skills and, competencies that will allow graduate students to be successful during their studies and in their professional careers.

When done properly, mentorship plays an important role in graduate student success. Mentoring relationships encourage the transfer of relevant knowledge, skills and, competencies that will allow graduate students to be successful during their studies and in their professional careers. Mentors help students navigate the often troubled waters of academia: helping them figure out which professor to talk to, which journal to publish in, and even what form to fill out. A mentoring relationship can enhance a student’s productivity, grade point average, and self esteem while giving her or him a chance to forge important professional connections for the often uncertain “life after graduation.”

Most research around the utility of mentors and the success of mentoring relationships focuses on the point of view of the mentee – the person being mentored. Professional practice and the sometimes consumer- or customer-service model of higher education dictates that graduate student mentorship must work to satisfy the needs of the consumer, in this case the graduate student. My time mentoring students , as well as my experience researching and developing mentorship programs, also tells me that graduate student mentorship is developed and evaluated from the point of view of the students. While the importance of mentorship for the new graduate student must not be overlooked, we need to know more about the mentor’s needs. A successful mentorship must include the satisfaction of both the student and the mentor.  Since the mentee’s satisfaction and success, while certainly tied to their own abilities and effort, is also dependent on the performance of their mentor, a mentor may be more likely to be an effective guide if they, too, are adequately supported.. A review of what mentors need can provide valuable insights into how to support a truly successful mentoring relationship.

First we need to understand the mentor’s motivation. Many mentors’ primary motivation is their own experience of benefiting from a mentor’s valuable guidance and support. They feel compelled to mentor a student because they know the strong, positive benefits it had for their own academic and professional success.

Another motivation is that mentoring is an important way for professors and senior graduate students to develop further the skills they gained during their graduate career. Mentors may also have the opportunity to develop new competencies in their new role as mentor. If one of the most effective ways to learn is through participating in varied experiences, mentoring can enrich a professor’s development. Finally, a mentor may be motivated by the desire to build a resume and make more professional contacts. While perhaps not the most admirable of motives, career advancement remains a motivation for many activities that graduate students, faculty, and staff engage in.

In order to fulfill these desires, a mentor may look for certain features in a mentoring relationship. Just as a student will use a mentor’s personality and temperament to measure her or his satisfaction, a mentor may use the same criteria with a mentee. For example, many mentors cite the frustration of working with an unresponsive mentee as a primary factor affecting their dissatisfaction with the mentoring relationship. If a student does not respond to repeated emails or phone calls or  participate in any  meetings, the mentor can feel unvalued and, ultimately, useless, not just to the student but also, perhaps, to the overall mentorship role. If mentors are committed to a relationship, they demand their mentee be just as engaged.

Sharing similar academic programs and professional goals is also important. A mentor and mentee with similar goals, beliefs, and past experiences can better support each other’s development while making it easier to create and maintain a relationship.

Mentoring job descriptions and contracts reveal the expectations, for the prospective mentors, their mentees, and those who supervise them. Words commonly used to describe the mentor include “advisor”, “guide’” and “teacher”, to a mentee who is “younger” and “new” to the organization or school. These labels place a mentor in a position of power with the mentee, who is thus seen as a vessel that must be filled with knowledge in order to advance and succeed. From the first instance of mentoring, when Odysseus entrusted his son to Mentor, “mentor “has referred to a wise teacher or counsellor. This traditional concept — of a powerful advisor overseeing the development of a younger protégé — continues to inform the development and maintenance of any mentoring relationship.

If a mentor is working within a formal mentorship program, he or she will have expectations of program’s administrators and of the mentoring process itself. A mentor, wanting support, will look for resources to guide them in the mentoring role. Just as a mentee is being mentored, then, a mentor may should be mentored by the administrators who run the mentorship program. This dual role of mentor and mentee affords the mentor the ability not only to develop skills as a mentor but also to benefit from seeing the mentoring relationship from the point of view of a mentee.

This dual role, though, can lead to conflicting priorities for the mentor; mentors may find themselves caught between the potentially conflicting expectations of a mentee and the administrators supervising the relationship. Even in the case of informal mentoring roles, the expectations of a mentee may differ from the institutional policies and practices that govern interactions between faculty, students and staff. These confused expectations are what often lead to both the mentor’s and the mentee’s dissatisfaction with the mentoring relationship.

The theme running through these common difficulties for mentors is how hard it is to create realistic expectations and to manage them. While a mentoring is valuable, both personally and professionally, many students and professionals enter into this relationship with unrealistic expectations of both their mentee and their own responsibilities. A mentor may believe they are in a privileged position of power over their mentee and that the student should be grateful for any attention and advice. While perhaps a bit callous, this  is  a very common conception of mentoring, that is,  one person is in a position of power and privilege on account of  their knowledge and expertise, which are to be passed on to a less expert mentee. This assumed one-way flow of expertise can affect how a mentee is expected to behave and respond.

These expectations may not be challenged at the start of the mentoring relationship. Mentors therefore often have fixed ideas about mentorship, and these ideas influence their entire mentoring style. At the first stages of a mentorship, formal mentoring programs will concentrate on implementing their administrative plans; while informal mentoring relationships will t initially focus on schedules and other logistics. These initial priorities may omit a vital discussion about mutual expectations and rely instead on notions and ideas that mentors already possess.

The notion of a mentor as a powerful, knowledgeable expert may also be an obstacle to mentors receiving essential training for the mentorship role. As mentors are often chosen because of their high intelligence and professional achievements, it is assumed their training need only include administrative details, particularly if they participate in a more formal program. The underlying assumption here is that a mentor is qualified by virtue of their achievements and status and that any sort of knowledge transfer or opportunities to network will make the relationship a success. Using this belief, a mentor may be under the impression that a mentee will be continuously asking for, and benefiting from, the mentor’s knowledge and expertise. A mentee who is unresponsive may therefore puzzle a mentor who only understands the traditional mentorship role.

Furthermore, the belief that the relationship is built on the passive receipt of knowledge colors how mentors and mentees view themselves. The implied “power-over’’ role allows a mentor to feel some sense of entitlement in the relationship and see the mentee  as a passive consumer of knowledge and expertise. In this way, the mentor wields almost total control over the relationship. Any challenge to these assumptions, as when a mentee takes on a more active role in the relationship, is often met with resistance and confusion. Once the role of the mentor as the only purveyor of knowledge is threatened, the mentoring relationship is challenged, and the mentor’s satisfaction with mentoring may be in jeopardy.

Why are these expectations are left unexplored, especially when the traditional, power-over relationship does not fit well with what many institutions are trying to teach their graduate students? At the graduate level, students are expected to be passionate advocates for their own education and professional development. But once entered into a mentoring relationship, they are expected to remain passive in their receipt of knowledge, information, and professional contacts. This may be owing to the inherent expectation of the young to be respectful of those with more experience, or it may be the more academic rule that students remain as passive consumers of knowledge. While graduate studies involve more active engagement in learning, there remains a noticeable switch in this thinking once students enter into a mentorship role. The mentor no longer expects a student to actively question ideas and theories, but, rather, to acquiesce to ideas and expertise in order to further their academic futures. Any deviation from this model can result in a mentor’s being confused, frustrated, and dissatisfied with mentoring. An effective mentoring relationship, therefore, relies as much on ensuring that mentors’ expectations are realistic as on the training mentors in administrative details. While mentorship often focuses on the satisfaction and development of the younger protégé, the expectations that mentors bring into their role must be looked at as well For if their assumptions about a power-over relationship are not challenged, mentors may become frustrated and dissatisfied with the role whenever a mentee challenges that expectation by taking a more active role in the relationship. A shift in thinking, where the mentor and the mentee are on equal footing, can help ensure that the mentoring relationship becomes a chance for mutual growth and development, instead of relying solely on the use of power to “build up’’ or ”improve” a young protégé through the guidance of a the knowledgeable mentor.

Lisa Endersby is a recent graduate of the Master’s of Education program in Leadership Studies at the University of Victoria in Victoria, BC.