Cover Story

Two people sitting at a desk and one is writing

Mentors are often students' best allies as they navigate graduate school and hammer out their long-term goals. But sometimes these all-important relationships are strained by personality clashes, different working styles or expectations, lack of encouragement, excessive criticism, miscommunication or a troubled mentor or mentee. In fact, 67 percent of clinical psychology students surveyed in a 2000 study of mentoring relationships reported problems in their mentorships.

Such problems can seem insurmountable, say students. For example, mentees may feel locked into the relationship, think switching mentors is frowned upon or want to avoid hurt feelings. But in fact, in many cases students can improve the relationship by clearly communicating their needs, and they often have the option of aligning with another mentor, say students and faculty with experience in mentor troubles.

Here are some options for repairing a mentorship.


 IDENTIFY THE PROBLEM

 Mentorship friction often stems from incompatible expectations, says Donna Davenport, PhD, a counseling psychology professor at Texas A&M University who counsels students on mentor problems. For instance, students may want their mentor to walk them through the internship application process through weekly meetings, while the mentor envisions a once-a-month appointment to discuss future research and career goals.

Other times, miscommunication is the crux. Davenport recalls an academically struggling student who told his mentor he wanted to leave the program. "His adviser told him to fill out the paperwork on getting a leave of absence," she says. The student didn't ask for the help getting back on track that he really wanted, says Davenport, and the adviser didn't pick up that there was more to the request.

Such problems are often worked out through a face-to-face meeting where the student respectfully-not aggressively-communicates his or her expectations and needs on such topics as deadlines, meeting frequency, authorship credit and work hours, says Davenport. For example, if students crave more praise or regular feedback than their mentor dishes out, they can confront the problem directly, such as by saying "I am getting discouraged: Tell me three things I am doing right here," suggests Davenport.


SEEK HELP

Sometimes the problem is more serious than a miscommunication, such as when students encounter a mentor who is more interested in unloading about a divorce than offering advice, expresses an inappropriate attraction to the mentee or takes credit for a mentee's research.

In milder cases-such as an emotionally needy mentor-a meeting between the protégé and the mentor to address the dysfunction may mend the problem, says Davenport, who advises students to alert the mentor to the meeting topic in advance and to check their frustration at the door. If the problem persists or is more serious, like harassment or an authorship dispute, consult a faculty member you trust, the department chair or the university ombudsman-whose job is helping students with academic-related problems or conflicts-on what to do next, says Stephen Behnke, PhD, JD, who has fielded mentoring problems as director of APA's Ethics Office.

"Never worry alone," says Behnke. "If the situation doesn't feel right, find someone to talk to about it."

Document your concerns and any events that relate to the problem, says Davenport. The information will be helpful if an administrator steps in to handle the problem. Along those lines, consider and map out your ideal outcome, says Behnke.

"If you could write a good ending to the story, what would it be?" he says. Some may want to repair the relationship; for others, switching mentors altogether may be the answer.


MAKE THE SWITCH

If an aloof mentor remains a source of misery or communication hurdles can't be cleared, switching mentors or advisers may be a wise next step, say faculty.

To make that decision, consider whether breaking off the relationship is best for your career in the long run, say faculty. As Tom Gilovich, PhD, of Cornell University, points out, students may not want to sacrifice the intellectual growth a challenging mentor can foster just to be more comfortable.

"But there's no doubt that graduate school is more enjoyable, and typically more productive, when you share some chemistry with your adviser," he says. "One test you might use: When you are in the office discussing ideas, do you both wish it was over, or do you not want it to end?"

If you're committed to switching, consult with your department chair, who can likely offer a rundown of relevant department guidelines and insight on the best way to break ties with your mentor. You may find through the conversation that swapping mentors in your department is more common and acceptable than you think, says June Tangney, PhD, of George Mason University, whose own program assigns mentors with the expectation that students might switch-and about one-third each year do.

Line up a new mentor before you cut ties with your original one if you decide a switch is in order, advises Tangney. To do that, meet with faculty who might offer a better fit (see "Building mentorships for success"), check out other faculty research and ask upperclassmen about other faculty members' mentoring styles-all the while taking care to not condemn your current mentor. Then inform the mentor, says Tangney.

"Give notice as you would do in a job," she says. "Thank them and explain that your interests have changed, and keep it as impersonal as possible," to avoid hurt feelings.

That's what fourth-year clinical doctoral student Sapana Donde of George Washington University, did when she switched mentors before her second year of graduate school. She realized her research interests were shifting so that they no longer matched her adviser's. Donde informed her mentor that she planned to set up meetings with other faculty members to see if their interests offered a better match.

"As long as you are framing [the break] in terms of your research or career goals or something else objective, then it removes the situation from being about anything personal," Donde says.

And it's likely that if it wasn't working for the student, it wasn't working for the mentor either, adds Tangney.

"As long as you are framing [the break] in terms of your research or career goals or something else objective, then it removes the situation from being about anything personal."

Sapana Donde
George Washington University