grad school

DIY Mentoring for Graduate Students

by Meghan Barrett


Elements of Mentoring

“Where do I go from here?” is one of the hardest, but most frequent, questions a graduate student faces during their PhD program and many of us turn to our mentors to determine the right direction. Unfortunately, as many students know either from personal experience or online reading, mentors come in a variety of competencies (and even with the best of mentors, one person can only provide one perspective). It is critical for students to learn the art of mentoring themselves. So where do we begin with DIY mentoring?

  1. Look into the future – To know where you should go, you need to know where you could go. As early as possible in your career, start looking for job ads on listservs like ECOLOG, on Twitter and LinkedIn, and on lab/university/museum/industry websites. Familiarize yourself with the skills they require for the positions that interest you and cultivate a clear record of achievement in those areas on your CV. Keep checking back, too – what makes for the most successful candidate can change and you’ll want to track those trends in real time. Your advisor may not have been in the job market for a long time, or may not have been looking for the same type of job, so make sure you do your own research.
  2. Search for more opinions – Your advisor is one person in a sea of successful people – and each of those people had their own path to their success. Gather as much advice as you can from outside your lab and take a critical eye towards it (no one has it 100% correct, but through an accumulation of advice you might find a clear picture emerging). There are also excellent books and blogs (for example, The Professor is In by Karen Kelsky) designed to help you understand your post-grad journey. Try talking to your department’s most recent hires and postdocs – what made them successful? What set them apart? These people may know the most about what works and what doesn’t, having just gone through the job search themselves. Ask them what they wish they had known/done when they started out.
  3. Network – Be your own salesperson; no one else can sell you the way you can. This means you need to network, have cards to easily distribute your contact
  4. information, go to conferences, and have a visible online research presence (maybe even your own website – try weebly or wix for easy set up; Research Gate and Google Scholar are also good for marketing your work). Salespeople in the business world don’t walk in on clients without a pitch – so don’t walk into a conference without one either. Have an elevator pitch (one minute enthusiastic speech) about your work and your interests that you’ve practiced, practiced, practiced to elegantly explain your product (you!) to your audience.
  5. Be autonomous – To truly know who you are as a scientist, you need to act independently at some point during your graduate career. Develop a collaboration, a publication, a grant application – something outside of your advisor’s work – that represents your own scientific initiative that you can talk about as truly yours at the end of your PhD. In addition, this can help you cultivate confidence in your own scientific merit as more than your advisor’s mini-me (science needs you, not a second copy of them!).
  6. Make plans – Sitting around waiting to be asked to do something is a surefire way to stifle your career; your advisor doesn’t spend their whole day thinking about possibilities for your advancement (they have their own career and other students to worry about!). To guarantee your advancement, make it your responsibility and have a plan to avoid wandering aimlessly to the finish line. Know roughly when you’d like to publish the data you have in prep and how you’re going to achieve those deadlines. Research and apply for travel grants to attend conferences that will help you network with people in your field (#2, #3), develop independent collaborations (#4), learn about recent hiring trends (#1), and share your work with a broad audience (#3 and #4 again, whew!).

While there are tons of ways you may choose to organize this big-picture stuff, a calendar of all six years with big monthly deadlines is a good way to track all your goals (conferences, grants, teaching, pubs, etc.) in one place across several years, and see if your career is speeding up or slowing down over time. In addition, making an Individual Development Plan ( that you share with your advisor early on can be a great way to make sure you’re on the same page about what skills you want to develop.

Many students are blessed with excellent, thoughtful mentors that cultivate their strengths and help them grow out of their weaknesses. We should all strive to become these mentors in the future for our own students – but ultimately, we should always be prepared to mentor, advise, and manage ourselves too.

Author biography: Meghan Barrett is a graduate candidate earning her PhD in Biology, and her MS in STEM Education. She studies insect neuroanatomy and thermoregulation at Drexel University and enjoys a brief spot of science communication on Twitter, @Bee_Bytes, and on her website. She is a member of the editorial board for Rapid Ecology and a member of the Philadelphia chapter of Neuwrite.

Image caption and credit: A doodle of the elements of mentoring. Photo/What is mentoring? By Ryan Dy and Marlena Compton at Cascadia.JS (CC BY-SA 2.0, 2014).