One of the most rewarding aspects of being a professor is guiding students as they identify and achieve their educational, research, and professional goals. This mentorship role is often buried within the faculty mission of research, teaching, and service, but it is a core component of our daily activities and responsibilities. As such, faculty mentorship is one of the strongest resources for creating successful outcomes for graduate students…the challenge is to incorporate such mentorship earlier in the graduate experience.
Socialization is defined as “…the processes through which individuals gain the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for successful entry into a professional career…” . In the traditional Ph.D. program, the faculty research advisor imparts this knowledge to the Ph.D. student, most often in the context of being an independent researcher. Typically, this mentorship occurs once the student has completed all coursework and qualifying exams, and is fully integrated into the research group. Yet, for most Ph.D. students, the foundation for completing the degree and much of their future success is rooted in the mentoring provided during the first two years.
One of the greatest dangers for any graduate student after matriculation, and especially for members of underrepresented groups, is the feeling of isolation or the concern that you do not fit into the culture of your research group, department, and/or chosen field of study. As an African-American woman and member of a group that is sorely underrepresented in science and engineering, I am acutely aware of the perils posed during this critical, initial period of graduate study. From the time of matriculation, Ph.D. students require socialization to their research group, department, and institution; yet, the relationship with the faculty advisor is new and under development, and may present its own set of challenges. Therefore, alternative forms of mentorship are an essential approach to the successful socialization of graduate students.
As I reflect on my experiences as a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, I find that in many ways, it was representative of the traditional graduate program structure. I was very fortunate to have had an excellent faculty advisor and mentor; but, this relationship did not fully blossom until well after the qualifying exam in my second year. During the first two years of study, like many other graduate students, my academic life was dominated by coursework, interactions with peers and faculty instructors, and preparation for the qualifying exam. Fortunately, my first two years of graduate study were also characterized by peer mentoring, which provided socialization and a sense of community. Peer mentorship occurred spontaneously because the Applied Physics Program at UofM consisted of a common physics curriculum for all students in the first year and required weekly seminars for the first two years.
These requirements created an atmosphere in which cohorts of Applied Physics students often took courses together and formed study groups, and encouraged first-year and second-year students to interact and share knowledge about navigating the program, selecting research advisors, and passing the qualifying exam. Another important aspect of my experience at UofM was that the student body and faculty in science and engineering included a critical mass of underrepresented minorities that provided role models and successful examples for emulation.
Of course, my graduate school experiences are not unique, and the peer mentoring that was instrumental to my success as a graduate student is not the only model for promoting better socialization through mentorship. The growing recognition of the importance of socialization and mentorship in graduate education is well documented. The 2001 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, “Socialization of Graduate and Professional Students in Higher Education: A Perilous Passage?,” identifies the following trends that necessitate reform of the traditional Ph.D. program structure :
Diversity – One aspect of graduate student socialization is that the “backgrounds and predispositions of prospective graduate students” influence their perceptions of belonging to a potential graduate program and their decisions of whether to attend a given institution or not. The impact of the program structure on the ability to recruit diverse student populations (i.e., underrepresented groups, women & minorities) should be considered.
International Graduate Students – As the graduate student population continues to comprise large percentages of international Ph.D. students, it is important to ensure these students receive professional socialization beyond the routine attention to academics and research.
Professionalism – A successful Ph.D. program should not only prepare students for completion of coursework and the research dissertation, but it should instill in students the qualities and sensibilities of professionalism that they will be expected to display after graduation.
Professionalization – A successful Ph.D. program should also provide some guidance and training on issues that have historically been learned through on-the-job training, such as grant-writing or teaching in the case of academia.
Ethics – While ethics are not always explicitly taught in the context of Ph.D. education, the expectation exists that students will be well-versed in ethics issues during their professional careers.
Technology and Distance Learning – As technology continues to enable distance learning and on-line education, it is important to determine how this will impact socialization and transfer of knowledge, especially with respect to Master’s education.
We can see examples of some of these trends being addressed in our current Ph.D. graduate program, such as the Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training required by the graduate school, the technical writing and presentation courses required for international graduate students, and the Ph.D.+ Program offered by the Pratt School of Engineering. Less obvious are the actions we can take as faculty and as a department to better support our Ph.D. students and to promote socialization early in our graduate program. Some reforms have been suggested in higher education literature.
In the same 2001 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, the following suggestions for improvement were made :
Modifying the program – “More collaborative, holistic approaches to learning necessitate systemic change that challenges most existing approaches to graduate and professional study.”
Increasing diversity – “Developing greater flexibility and more options for students so that graduates are more versatile, attracting more women and minority group members, and providing better information about careers continue to be among the major areas of improvement advocated by major national commissions.”
Offering support for students – “Graduate programs will have not only to create more supportive and collaborative environments in the face of increasing diversity but also to sustain them over time.”
Modifying faculty and administrative roles – “The relationship of faculty to students should be interactive, collaborative, open, and mutually evaluative. Relationships need not be power based but should be more interactive with faculty-student, teaching, and research relationships more cooperative.”
Austin provides student recommendations for how graduate programs can provide better socialization, especially in the context of preparing future faculty . The following two suggestions are of particular interest:
More attention to regular mentoring, advising, and feedback – “…faculty members should provide regular, ongoing advising and thorough, periodic feedback and assessment. Assessment should help students determine their progress as scholars and future faculty members. Such advising requires department chairs and graduate deans to work with faculty members to develop effective, mutually respectful, efficient advising relationships. In addition to effective advising, reducing the conflicts between faculty members and graduate students is important.”
Regular and guided reflection – “…graduate students should be encouraged to engage in ongoing, systematic self-reflection. Socialization for doctoral students is largely about making sense of graduate school and the academic career, developing one’s interests and areas of strength, determining how one’s values and commitments relate to those in the profession, and developing one’s own sense of place and competence within that profession. The time and support for reflection are important ingredients in the socialization process.”
Austin synthesizes the student recommendations to propose a modest revision of the typical PhD program :
“A revised doctoral program could begin with an opportunity for entering students to discuss with faculty members their intellectual and professional goals. Though students’ goals often change as they gain experience and learn more about the questions of their fields, the initial assessment could be used to begin focused planning and decision-making. A planning session at time of entry could be followed by annual discussions with a faculty advisor about how the student’s goals are changing and how courses, research, teaching, and other experiences are contributing to progress toward the goals.”
Austin also notes :
“Without a plan these recommendations might appear to add more time to a doctoral program or to the work of already busy faculty members. Yet many of these suggestions involve reorganizing, not adding time.”
Chesler and Chesler describe alternative, gender-informed, mentoring models for women engineering scholars :
“Model 3: Collective Mentoring – Collective mentoring is an evolution of the multiple mentor/single mentee model whereby senior colleagues and the department take responsibility for constructing and maintaining a mentoring team. The entire department or organization must establish and ensure the effective mentoring and performance of graduate students and young professionals. In this way, senior colleagues and the department itself send the message that their progress is a priority concern and may create a departmental climate that overcomes some of the obstacles not only to effective mentoring of women, but also to their effective performance, retention, and advancement.”
Davidson and Foster-Johnson suggest specific actions that departments can take to improve the mentorship of graduate researchers of color . Of particular interest is the suggestion that departments create formal mentoring programs in which faculty are rewarded for participation, which should be voluntary, and that choice should be involved in the matching process with mentors.
It is important to note that one of the positive outcomes of being sensitive to diversity is that the community and departmental culture can improve for everyone when the programmatic structure accounts for vulnerable members of underrepresented groups. As Chesler and Chesler state , “Organizational change that creates more egalitarian and caring communities will benefit men as well as women.”
I believe that a stronger sense of community, as well as a stronger faculty presence in and commitment to the development of PhD students during the early years of graduate study, are the best ways to improve departmental culture, to combat attrition, to increase diversity of our graduate student population (specifically students from underrepresented groups), to better serve diverse student populations, and to continue to attract and matriculate the very best PhD students. So, to conclude, I pose the following questions:
1) What structural changes can/should we make to our Ph.D. program to promote peer mentoring and to foster a sense of community?
2) How can we as faculty members be active participants, as mentors and advocates, in the socialization of Ph.D. students after matriculation?
With modest effort, creative thinking, and flexibility, I am certain that we can channel our existing mentorship functions into a force for improvement within our department.
 J. C. Weidman, D. J. Twale, and E. L. Stein, “Socialization of Graduate and Professional Students in Higher Education: A Perilous Passage?,” San Francisco, CA 2001.
 A. E. Austin, “Preparing the Next Generation of Faculty: Graduate School as Socialization to the Academic Career,” The Journal of Higher Education, vol. 73, pp. 94-122, 2002.
 N. C. Chesler and M. A. Chesler, “Gender-informed mentoring strategies for women engineering scholars: On establishing a caring community,” Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 91, 2002.
 M. N. Davidson and L. Foster-Johnson, “Mentoring in the Preparation of Graduate Researchers of Color,” Review of Educational Research, vol. 71, pp. 549-574, 2001.