Feature

Many graduate students are both mentees and mentors. (credit: © Chad Shaffer/ImageZoo/Corbis)

With just a year of graduate school under his belt, Todd Avellar was helping undergraduates get a head start on plotting their own course toward a doctoral degree. He explained the difference between PhD and PsyD degrees, eased doubts about applying to graduate school, and calmed fears about dealing with faculty.

In other words, Avellar was a mentor. He signed up in 2011 for a one-year stint with the McNair Scholars Program at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), which helps undergrads explore pursuing a doctoral degree in any field they choose. Just a few years earlier, Avellar had been a mentee in the McNair program. "I had a wonderful experience," says the fourth-year doctoral student in counseling psychology at UCSB. "Mentoring is near and dear to my heart."

Avellar is just one of many graduate psychology students who find themselves in mentoring roles, says APAGS Associate Executive Director Nabil El-Ghoroury, PhD. Whether it's as a teaching assistant for undergraduate students or showing the ropes to first-year graduate students, many psychology graduate students find the experience rewarding.

Mentors say they gain the satisfaction of knowing they've helped junior students navigate critical experiences — learning the ins and outs of department politics, developing strategies to get an internship, and having a safe place to discuss uncertainties or just to vent. "You feel happy to be able to support them," says Joshua Kellison, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Arizona State University who mentors undergraduate students in his research lab.

Of course, mentoring has its minefields, too, El-Ghoroury notes. Being overly critical can jeopardize relationships but offering generic advice won't help mentees achieve their goals. Here's how to offer support without stepping on toes:

Know your mentee's style

Avellar has more in common with his graduate advisor, Tania Israel, PhD, than their shared interests in counseling psychology. Both are extroverts who appreciate the big-picture issues in mental health. But when his big ideas go beyond the scope of what he realistically can accomplish, Avellar says Israel redirects him to think in concrete terms about research methods and approaches. Conversely, he adds, Israel is adept at encouraging students with a more narrow focus to think in broader terms.

Working with her has taught Avellar a key lesson as he helps guide undergraduate and other graduate students along their academic path. "She really crafts her mentorship toward the individual student," he says. "That's a really important component of mentoring — making sure it works for your mentee."

Expand your notion of what it means to mentor

Mentorship is multifaceted. Kellison has guided undergraduate students in his lab as well as peers at the graduate level. As a teaching assistant, "I've done anything from being a third reader for a master's thesis to helping students craft their letters to apply for grad school," he says.

Kellison kept office hours for undergraduate students and dedicated one lab meeting a month to discuss student concerns, such as the kind of work they could do with a master's degree versus a doctoral degree.

Among his fellow grad students, Kellison has suggested which faculty to consider choosing for their committees and which grants to apply for. "I've applied for every grant I was even remotely qualified for, so they've come to me to ask about that," he says.

Sometimes mentoring can take a non-traditional twist — in the digital age it can be a two-way street, says El-Ghoroury. Faculty who haven't quite jumped on the social media bandwagon might turn the tables and ask a graduate student for advice. "I call it bi-directional mentoring," he notes. "It's an interesting opportunity."

As a mentor in the McNair program, Avellar has helped undergraduate students prepare for the Graduate Record Examinations and craft unique research projects so they can publish the results in the McNair program's research journal. He also helps students with more practical matters, such as writing emails with more substance than the skimpy text messages they're used to writing.

But his guidance isn't strictly academic. Avellar also shows them comfortable places to study and where to find good food that won't break the bank. He helps new graduate students find community venues where they can pursue personal interests — maybe tennis courts or a yoga studio. "It's really important in graduate school to keep that balance," he says.

Keep it in perspective

Matthew FitzGerald, a fifth-year clinical psychology graduate student at Loyola University Maryland, encouraged a fellow graduate student to attend the same site where he had done his clinical practicum. He even suggested a specific supervisor to work with. She took his advice — but didn't have a great experience, he says.

"That really helped shape my sense of mentoring," he says. Mentoring, he now realizes, is about taking perspective, FitzGerald added, so it's important to think about how a piece of advice will affect another person whose perceptions of what's appealing may be completely different than your own.

Listen intently

When an undergraduate student wanted to leave Kellison's lab, it seemed he should retract the student's recommendation letter since it was based on work the student had mapped out — but not completed — for the next semester. But it became a "delicate situation" when Kellison learned through his department chair that the response is considered coercion. "I didn't realize that once it's out there, it's out there," he says. "You can't retract it."

In hindsight, Kellison says he should have listened to the student instead of trying to talk him into staying in the lab. "This was not the work he wanted to do, but I hadn't really heard him."

Own up to your mistakes

FitzGerald often sees first-year graduate students already anxious about the internship match or planning their professional lives for the next 10 years. "That takes away from the richness of the training experience," he says.

To quell that anxiety, FitzGerald advises, "Tell them what you did wrong as well as what you did right." It's often a stress buster for early graduate students to see a fourth- or fifth-year student who has navigated the sometimes choppy waters of academia and lived to tell the tale.

"Sharing your mistakes can help them see their path," he says.