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The Graduate School

G-1 Communications Building
Box 353770
Seattle, Washington 98195-3770

Phone: 206.543.5900
Fax: 206.685.3234

How to Mentor Graduate Students

How to mentor graduate students

Conduct initial meetings with students’ interests in mind

Encourage students to assess their needs and consider the types of people who might best help them. Use the following questions as “talking points” to guide your first meetings with mentees.

Goals for graduate school and beyond
  • Ask about the student’s educational and professional experiences and how he or she connects these to graduate study. What does the student hope to accomplish with an advanced degree?
  • Discuss your own research or creative projects and how they complement or diverge from the student’s interests.
  • Offer suggestions about courses, other training and work experiences that would aid the student in reaching his or her goals.
  • Refer the student to colleagues inside and outside the University who could serve as additional mentors. If you know someone well, offer to send a letter of introduction on the student’s behalf.
  • Recognize that students may want to use their graduate study to contribute positively to the community, either during or after graduate training. Refer students to colleagues who have bridged academic and community goals.
  • Realize that the student’s career goals will likely change, especially as he or she learns about the labor market within a particular discipline. A student may seek to become a faculty member in a research institution, to have an academic career in other educational institutions or to pursue a career outside academia.
  • Become aware of how students’ identities shape the graduate experience and how the graduate experience shapes students’ identities. Well-formed identities are springboards to greater self-confidence and connectedness to wider communities of experience.
Strengths and weaknesses
  • Ask the student to describe broadly the skills he or she brings to graduate study (e.g., creative, analytical, statistical, and organizational).
  • Share your impressions about strengths and areas for improvement if you know the student well.
  • Suggest courses or experiences the student needs to improve skill sets or gain broader exposure.
Work style
  • Discuss what type of guidance the student needs to learn most effectively (e.g., independent vs. one-on-one work).
  • Discuss your own work style and how you interact with graduate students (e.g., do you prefer to meet only during office hours? Do you hold informal meetings? Do you invite students to collaborate on teaching and research projects, and papers and presentations?).
  • Ask the student to describe previous mentors and what they did to help him or her achieve his or her goals.
Clarify expectations

One of the strongest themes that graduate students express, on this campus and in national studies, is the desire for greater clarity on expectations, roles and responsibilities. Not all mentors and mentees establish a formal contract. Some find it useful; while others prefer to work from informal agreements (see Worksheet 5, Sample agreement). To prevent misunderstandings, discuss frequently the expectations you and your mentee have of each other and how they may change over time.

Have realistic expectations

Be realistic about what you can do for your mentees and help them understand what they can expect from you. Assist your students in their search for multiple mentors. Analyze what your mentees need and help them develop a balance between seeking your help and taking on more responsibility as they develop professionally. Your mentees will differ in their needs and willingness to seek your help, and some may not have a firm grasp of their goals or needs. While you should establish standards of excellence and professionalism for all your mentees, adjust your approach depending on the developmental stage of each mentee.

Clarify roles and responsibilities

No matter how formal or informal your mentoring agreements may be, you can revise your understandings together as your mentees progress. Some responsibilities to address early, especially if you are also the student’s adviser or thesis/dissertation committee chair, include:

Goals and work plans

Ask your students to develop and share with you a work plan, including short- and long-term goals and timelines. Make sure these plans are feasible and meet the academic program’s requirements. Ask students to update you at least once a quarter via a meeting, memo or e-mail on their progress and obstacles they have encountered. Discuss additional training and experiences students need. If adjusting timelines becomes necessary, create new plans together.


Talk with your students about how often you can meet. Be explicit if you have a heavy travel schedule, are about to take a sabbatical or are assuming an administrative position. If you are unable to meet often enough to satisfy students’ needs, discuss alternative means of communication such as e-mail and live chats and help students think of others to consult. Discuss what issues require a face-to-face meeting and those that can be dealt with in other ways. Let students know if they may contact you at home, and under what circumstances calls are appropriate. Also, ask them whether you can contact them at home.

Some professors prefer students to take responsibility for arranging and leading meetings while others prefer to share the responsibility. Communicate your preference to your mentees.


Discuss how often you will give feedback and what type of feedback they can expect. Explain to mentees how you intend your feedback to help their intellectual and professional growth.


Explain what first drafts should look like in order for you to review them. If you do not want to review rough drafts, suggest students share their work with a peer or writing group first. When your students submit successive drafts, ask them to highlight revised sections to save you from unnecessarily re-reading the full document.

Publishing and presenting

Discuss with mentees your co-authorship philosophy and expectations, as well as your willingness to help them prepare submissions to journals and conferences. Ask students about their writing/speaking goals.

Intellectual property

If you have invited a mentee to work closely with you on a research project, clarify who owns the data that is being collected and whether others will have access. Discuss the ownership of any copyright and patent agreements that may result from a collaborative project. For more information, contact the UW Office of Research, or the UW Office of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer at

Research and human subjects

The UW Human Subjects Division must review all research involving human subjects that is performed or supervised by UW faculty, staff or students. A faculty mentor must advise students to seek Human Subjects review and approval before starting research activities. Research with human subjects cannot be retroactively reviewed and approved. Performing a human subjects study without prior review and approval is considered “serious” non-compliance according to federal regulations and must be brought to a full Human Subjects Committee for inquiry and action. More information:


Mentors and students sometimes discuss confidential issues. Be clear about the level of confidentiality you expect from your mentee, and offer strict confidentiality to your mentee.

Recommendation letters

Let students know how much time you need to write letters on their behalf. Ask them to give you their curriculum vitae and information about the fellowship, grant or program to which they are applying, along with details about their experience they would like emphasized. In your letters, address multiple facets of students’ work. Some faculty visit classes or labs taught by their graduate students so they can address teaching abilities in recommendation letters.