Week 11, or Finding the Right Mentor for You

This past week, I had the opportunity to spend time with one of my faculty mentors from the University of Virginia, Professor Claudrena Harold. As always, I learned a lot from listening to her speak, the passion she has for working with undergraduate students, and making sure that she’s being true to her intellectual and artistic vision when pursuing a history. I am always in awe of the way that she pursues certain forms to tell certain stories and I hope that when the time comes, I can be as inventive in my own scholarship.

My time with Professor Harold got me thinking about mentorship and advising relationships, as well as how to find the right people for you. So I thought I’d offer a short post on questions to consider when finding an advisor.

  • First, ask yourself what you need from an advisor or a mentor. This might be difficult. You might not know immediately what you need, in particular if you’re negotiating a new space. I know for me, I came in with one advisor who was particularly tough and in all honesty, I wasn’t ready for her. As a student freshly graduated from undergrad, I needed someone to be a little milder with me. I needed pep talks. I needed guidance, assurance and affirmation, so I picked a different advisor. Now that I’m almost two years deep in my program, I feel I can handle the toughness that will make my work the best and sharpest that it can be, so I’m considering switching back to my first advisor.
  • Second, see who you gravitate towards organically. The person you are assigned or who you pick when you first arrive in graduate school simply may not be the best person to advise you. You pick these people often based on similar research interests, but they may not cater to you in other ways. Take your first semester, or even your first year, to see if there are any professors you find yourself drawn to, even if your research interests don’t align perfectly. See who takes a genuine interest in you. Those professors are often going to be the ones to guide you with the most compassion.
  • Third, don’t be afraid to switch it up. As I’ve mentioned previously, you may need different people in different stages of your journey. Who was great for you during coursework, may not be the person to get you through comprehensive exams, and they may not be the person to get you through your dissertation. Different stages may necessitate different types of assistance.
  • Fourth, don’t be afraid to look outside of your immediate program for mentorship. Some of the best mentors I’ve had have come from outside my actual program of study. (Professor Harold being one of them; I was a French major in undergrad and she was a professor of history and African-American studies.)
  • Bonus: If you can find someone who caters to you emotionally, but also provides you with excellent feedback in a timely fashion, signs all your forms for you, and helps you make connections HOLD ON TO THEM TIGHT. More often than not, you may not have an advisor who can do all of that; you might have different professors that provide you with different things and together create the perfect mentor.

I believe the key to all of this is knowing what you’d like in a mentor or an advisor, but this takes some time to discover. For me, I like someone that is firm on deadlines, but lenient when necessary; that gets me good feedback in a timely fashion; that, in essence is dependable, but also can be gentle with me when I’m feeling the sting of imposter syndrome and the urge to drop out of grad school. I also like to have someone who can empathize with my experiences as a Black woman in the Academy, but I don’t often have those people to choose from in my current environment.

Keep in mind that everything that I offer up as advice has been my personal experience, so take it with a grain of salt. All of these suggestions may work for you when deciding on a mentor or advisor, or they may be entirely useless. Whatever the case may be, I do hope that on your journey, you find people, in your field or elsewhere, that can provide the necessary support that you personally need in order to be successful in your journey.

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