Is there friction between you and your mentor? Have your professional aspirations changed? Is your relationship with him or her just not clicking?
These are not uncommon problems to cross graduate students' paths as they develop and navigate their relationships with mentors.
gradPSYCH asked four experts about the warning signs of a mentor relationship gone bad and what to do about it.
Patrick H. DeLeon, PhD, JD
Professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in the School of Nursing and School of Medicine and on the faculty of the University of Hawaii in nursing, law and pharmacy
"If it's not working for the grad student, it's probably not working for the professor. The longer it drags on, the longer it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, so be alert and realize if one side is not that comfortable or enthusiastic, then that's how you know the mentorship isn't working. Graduate school should be spent learning about new professions, new ideas, new friendships, so one should pay a lot of attention when mentorships don't seem to work and start off by addressing why not.
"Then, consider chatting with other senior students who know that mentor. You should not assume it will work at some point. The approach should be: get engaged, modify it and move on to someone else. It is very much instinctual. In psychology you clearly learn how personalities match and feel comfortable, so if it doesn't feel like it is working, then it very well may not be."
Lucia Albino Gilbert, PhD
Professor of psychology and counseling psychology at Santa Clara University
"When difficulties arise in the mentoring relationship, the student needs to explain to the mentor why the relationship isn't working for him or her. It is important in entering into a mentoring relationship to be clear about one's expectations of the relationship and what the other person is expected to do to make it work. You have to be receptive to feedback and need to have realistic expectations of the mentor.
"If after that conversation, the relationship still isn't working for the student, her or she should consult with someone who could provide guidance about how to handle the situation (without naming names) — like another faculty member or someone they respect on campus.
"The bottom line is that if the student says, 'This isn't the way I want to go,' I think the mentor will respect that. Although there could be a surprise factor for the mentor, if the mentee is communicating along the way, I don't think it would be a problem."
Alan Kazdin, PhD
Professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University
"The first thing the student should do is meet with the professor you have been working with and thank him or her for all the contributions they have made toward your learning. Make it so it is not vacuous — be specific and name two or three things you have learned and how they have influenced you.
"Then, convey that you want to leave and go on to new territory, mention what you hope to gain and where you would like to make a change. Be sensitive to the message or content and how you deliver it.
"Why tread so carefully? Because you may want to come back to this person for advice or dissertation help or other professional reasons. There is no reason to burn that bridge. It is not just politic, it is useful for your development careerwise."
"There are a couple of things students should keep in mind when looking for a mentor, such as you do not want to be in a situation where you are breaking up, you want to select a better partner in the first place. Look for a professor with competence in the area you want to work, but also get the scoop on the kind of person this is and does that meet your style.
"And also keep in mind that psychologists are human. This does not mean there is anything to worry about, but keep in mind they are all human endeavors.
"And do not forget about the department chairs. Seek their advice. The goal for department chairs is to make it work and help students be successful with the least amount of pain."
Shawn McClintock, PhD
Associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, adjunct professor in psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Governance and Membership Representative for APA's Committee on Early Career Psychologists
"The warning signs that a mentoring relationship is not working are in poor communication. This often happens when too much is done via email and there aren't enough face-to-face meetings. So, it's very important that you have scheduled teleconferences, video conferences or in-person meetings because there needs to be a voice. Something I do is preschedule mentoring sessions for the year, so every month we have a mentoring teleconference. That way we always have a schedule made, which provides a solid infrastructure for the mentoring relationship.
"I see mentoring as a lifelong journey, as opposed to open-ended. Like in any psychotherapeutic setting between a patient and a psychologist, there needs to be an open discussion about determining what the relationship means. Relationships naturally go through dynamic changes with time as the mentor and the mentees' needs change.
You need different types of mentors for different stages of your education and career. I encourage all of my mentees to have a team of mentors because that way you have different mentoring repertoires and perspectives and styles. A mentoring team can provide a helpful breadth of knowledge, versus just bits and pieces of expertise from a solo mentor. Further, you will benefit from multiple mentoring perspectives as you yourself become a mentor."
Colleen Wilson is a writer in College Park, Md.
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