Grad students and postdocs need a mentorship constellation (opinion)

July 8, 2024
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Mentoring is well-known to be helpful if not essential for everyone, and it is especially important for people’s careers and professional development. Mentoring relationships in academia have long been a focus of research studies, which have been investigating and shedding light on the ways mentoring impacts graduate students’ and postdocs’ trajectories.

In many academic contexts, the dyadic model, or that of an individual faculty mentoring of a student or postdoc mentee, persists. Strong one-on-one mentoring relationships of this kind can help students and postdocs become more competent and confident in the areas in which they are being mentored. Yet grad students and postdocs require support in many different areas, and their individual needs can vary.

The dyadic model is also limiting for individuals—in particular, minoritized and marginalized scholars— whose personal and professional paths differ from their mentors’. In addition, in the dyadic model, mentors may feel pressured to meet all the mentoring expectations of their mentee—an often overwhelming, if not impossible, task.

Thus, supplemental forms of mentoring that take shape outside of the dyadic mentoring relationship can be crucial in providing what’s needed for successful career and professional development. Indeed, if you are a graduate student or postdoc, what we call mentoring constellations can help you get the support you need as you move through academic work and beyond.

In considering your mentoring relationships, it is important to recognize that not all of them will be identical in either structure or intensity. According to the Science of Effective Mentoring in STEMM by the National Academic of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the structure of the mentoring relationship can be informal or formal, virtual or face-to-face. The power dynamics of each mentoring relationship can also vary significantly. Mentoring can be between peers, near peers or those in positions at very different levels. The number of individuals involved in a mentoring relationship can differ; the relationship can be between a single mentor and a mentee or it can involve multiple mentors and/or mentees.

The duration of mentoring relationships also ranges—it can be short-term, long-term or predominantly “just in time” micro-mentoring that provides the right amount of vital support right when it’s needed. Moreover, culturally aware mentoring is a holistic approach to mentoring that accounts for the diverse needs of an increasingly diverse population of individuals in the academy, especially those who are from marginalized or minoritized groups.

This is where mentoring constellations come in. To start considering your mentoring constellation, consider the areas in which you need or are already receiving mentoring support. One such model is found in the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development mentoring map. While this map focuses on faculty members, it is also helpful for students and postdoctoral fellows to identify who in their mentoring relationships can offer help and guidance in these areas. This mentoring map outlines nine types of mentorship relationships that might make up your specific mentoring constellation.

  • Access to opportunities. Who are the individuals or groups that can provide opportunities for professional growth? This might be a mentor who is strongly connected to your disciplinary association or a peer who can keep you abreast of career or professional opportunities that fit your interests and skills.
  • Accountability. When lots of things are demanding our time, we need accountability mentors—and for not only research or publishing accountability, but also career and well-being accountability. One way to obtain such mentors is through creating or joining writing accountability or other similar groups that more informally check on your progress as you move through your postdoc or graduate program.
  • Emotional support. Being a student or postdoc can be stressful at times. Find other people who can support you in your journey and help you through times of stress. They can be professional colleagues, but you should also consider friends and family in your mentoring network.
  • Intellectual community. Who are the leading and accessible scholars with whom you can discuss the cutting-edge research in your area? They could be lab mates or other people you meet either in your department or at conferences who know your discipline.
  • Professional development. Who can support you in your professional development? They could be people who work in your graduate and/or postdoc career and professional development office, faculty members or other students and postdocs interested in similar career paths. Additionally, consider those outside the institution, such as members of the alumni network or other people you have connected with who work in your career interest areas.
  • Role models. Whom do you look up to? Seek out people you admire for their professional accomplishments, work-life balance, leadership style and other qualities.
  • Safe space. Identifying the individuals or groups of people you can be candid with is incredibly important in your environment. There are also professionals who can provide you with the space to be vulnerable, such as mental health professionals, support groups or religious leaders.
  • Sponsorship. Who can promote you outside of your current sphere of influence? They might be someone who lets others know about the great work you are doing, either in person or on social media platforms like LinkedIn.
  • Substantive feedback. Who in your mentoring constellation is available to give helpful and constructive (not just positive!) feedback? These can be your research peers and faculty members in your field. You also get such feedback during lab, poster and conference presentations. An additional resource is the Equity-Minded Mentoring Toolkit, developed by the Inclusive Graduate Education Network, an NSF INCLUDES Alliance, which cites two other areas for mentorship.
  • Academic milestones. Who in your department or discipline can help you achieve your milestones? It could be a committee member for your dissertation or a person who can help you think through your individual development plan or prepare for your comprehensive exams, job talk and interviews, and the like.
  • Your academic identity. Who or what organizations can provide you with advice or resources relevant to your personal and professional identity? This may be a cultural student or faculty group that reflects identities that are salient to you such as your nationality, racial or ethnic group, or gender identity. Or it may be joining a group or subcommittee within your academic society.

As your needs and mentoring relationships evolve over time, it is a good practice to revisit your mentoring constellations periodically. Mapping out and reviewing your mentoring constellations along these lines can remind you of the mentors you already have and highlight areas where you may need further support. It will also allow you to strategically think about how to grow your mentoring network. And finally, it will be beneficial to think about what mentoring roles you are playing when it comes to supporting others.

Blessing Enekwe is executive director of the National Science Foundation’s Eddie Bernice Johnson INCLUDES Initiative: Re-Imagining STEM Equity Utilizing Postdoctoral Pathways (RISE UPP) and program director for the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of Maryland, College Park. Jennifer Aumiller is the director of career and professional development for graduate and postdoctoral scholars and also the director of the Office of Postdoctoral Scholars at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. They are both members of the Graduate Career Consortium.



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