Mentoring guideposts

The engaged involvement of a faculty advisor is critical to the success of every graduate student. At its best, the advisor-advisee relationship can provide a student with tools to hone their research skills, guidance on their academic path, advice on career prospects, and a seasoned perspective on the overall graduate experience.

The faculty members honored as Committed to Caring have been raised up by graduate students as excellent mentors. From the student letters of nomination, a number of striking themes emerged around mentorship; these themes are presented here as guideposts for concrete action, followed by quotes from students who experienced these precepts first-hand.

Mentoring Guideposts

1.    Actively show empathy for students’ personal experiences.

  • “You called me right away and asked about my condition, sincerely emphasizing that my health should be prioritized over everything. It was the first moment at MIT, away from my home, that somebody had expressed care about my life.”
  • “You demonstrated your concern and thought that my worries were valid.”

2.    Advocate for students academically and personally. Reinforce advocacy with tangible actions to support student wellbeing.

  • “I will never forget your words during our first official meeting: ‘Now that you’re in my lab, I am forever your advocate. I will always be on your team, and you never have to prove yourself to me’.”
  • “He always put students first. How to improve student’s experience, not just in academics (and curriculum development) but in their well-being (financial aid, grad housing needs, etc.).”

3.    Validate students by demonstrating respect for their research and ideas.

  • “You have indulged me by listening to my weird thoughts and ideas and have always been very polite in your approach to rejecting the unreasonable thoughts.”
  • “Over time, as I’ve moved from being on the ‘six-year plan’ to being on the ‘seven-year’ plan with a still in flux dissertation, you have continually supported me, expressed interest in my work, and signaled that you believe in me as a scholar — which is really important when facing self-doubts.”

4.   Model — and support students in developing — a healthy work/life balance.

  • “You openly value your time with your family and encourage your students to invest in both their studies and their personal well-being.”
  • “Each policy in your lab is carefully crafted for us to thrive in every area of life. You strongly discourage making a habit of working evenings/weekends, and are outspoken about maintaining a healthy work/life balance.”

5.    Have courageous and vulnerable conversations about issues that might be affecting your students, such as political developments, racial inequities, personal loss, and housing needs.

  • “After the election, you invited us to help change the syllabus for the remainder of the class to better correspond with the new reality.”
  • “One day, following the call to action by Chancellor Barnhart about suicide prevention, you dedicated a complete lecture to foster a conversation with your students — to try and understand what the situation was and also to seek ways in which you could help.”

6.    Initiate contact with students; regularly check in and see if they need some extra support.

  • “During my time at MIT I started feeling pretty stressed at a point, having to finish my PhD thesis while dealing also with personal issues and with very little time to resolve it all. Without telling you, you noticed my stress and invited me for lunch together to discuss it and to offer help in any way possible.”
  • “Indeed, you often approach your students to check in (instead of the much more common other way around).  For a timid student, this can mean the world of difference in timely research and professional development.”

7.    Provide a channel for students to express their difficulties, including means to do so anonymously.

  • “You encouraged us to write to you about sensitive or personal issues that we did not wish to discuss publicly”
  • “I was most impressed with your willingness to listen. With the many insightful questions and encouragement, you instilled a sense of hope in a very stressful situation.”

8.    Foster a friendly and inclusive academic and workplace environment.

  • “Despite the interdisciplinary nature of our class, you made everyone feel welcome, which was so important during our first semester as PhD students. This is not always a given at MIT, whether we like it or not, where pride of discipline sometimes overshadows effective teaching.”
  • “During the sexual harassment meeting, you encouraged us to come up with ways to make MIT more welcoming to those who are victimized. You also defined for us sexual harassment and how to recognize it.”
  • “You are one of the few professors in my field that has brought up issues of diversity and inclusion in your lab, painfully aware of the lack of even gender representation in our discipline. I laud you for taking steps to address a lack of diversity, most importantly by reaching out to your students for advice. A professor who asks students for help is one who demonstrates humility, one of the most important traits a caring person can have.”

9.    Emphasize learning, development, and practice over achievement and goals.

  • “I want to acknowledge the barometer for faculty performance at MIT: results. You produce them just like many of your peers do, but the reason why I’m writing this nomination is because of HOW you get them. You never drove us and your postdocs like slaves or harshly criticized us or our work to drive performance. Instead, you invested in our career development even when it came at a cost to you (financially, time, etc.) to help us become better researchers. This care and respect generates loyalty and creates a positive morale in your research group.”
  • “Someone is never wrong because they are stupid. They are wrong because they haven’t yet learned how to be right. This hope for the future animates your advising and your bottomless respect for and investment in our graduate students.”

10. Advise informally – teach about the system of academia, the importance of networking, and other inside knowledge.

  • “I’ve appreciated this informal mentoring, particularly because I am a woman trying to enter a male-dominated field; understanding how to succeed professionally is important, but is not always obvious.”
  • “Your openness, in sharing stories about your own time as a graduate student and the critical decisions you have made in your career, has also shown a commitment to caring that goes beyond the normal responsibilities of an advisor.”