I only discovered PhDcomics.com last year. I have now made my way through much of the comic archives, which stretch all the way back to 1997 when the author–Jorge Cham–began his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. The comic strip, “Piled High and Deeper” (PhD), boasts millions of viewers every year to PhDcomics.com and has been featured in academic journals like Nature, Science Magazine, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, not to mention highlighted by USA Today, the NY Times, and the Washington Post.

Why is it so popular? I suspect because it is so true. Take, for example, this one on “How to Deal with Frustrating Faculty.”

The extended title explains, “Exasperated by a perceived lack of interest and support? A Step-By-Step Guide.” What follows is a student attempting to discuss her concerns and frustrations with her advisor, only to be met with complete disinterest and dismissal. As her professor says, “It’s not that I don’t care, I just have more important things to think about.” I suspect this comic resonated with graduate students because, so often, it mirrors how they feel during meetings with their advisors:  unheard and unsupported.

My suspicion about the accuracy of this comic strip isn’t just anecdotal. Research clearly shows that graduate students, especially in STEM fields, often receive very poor mentoring from their professors. In a survey completed in 2017 of scientists throughout the STEM field, for example, 70% of mentees described poor mentoring as affecting their mental health and their productivity. 39% of all respondents stated that poor mentoring “frequently” affected them. Yet, 70% of all mentors who took the survey reported that they “rarely” mentored badly. In other words, most mentees experience poor mentoring, but most mentors don’t realize what a bad job they are doing. As the article states, “nearly everyone appeared to recognize the consequences of ineffective mentorship, but mentors perhaps did not recognize their own role in a mentoring breakdown…this discrepancy may reflect a general lack of communication between mentors and mentees about the state of the mentoring relationship.”

Let’s take another comic strip example.

Originally titled “Advise” when it was published in March 2012, this comic shows a student presenting a research problem and asking for faculty help. The professor response is completely inadequate, as he simply tells the student to “fix it” and “do it soon.” Research from a 2014 article published in the American Educational Research Journal about STEM mentoring sheds scary light on the ineffective communication in this comic. It shows that STEM faculty mentors “rarely match” the perceptions of their mentees about the mentees ability to perform research, and “even more disconcerting, mentors’ perceptions fail to predict mentees’ performance at levels better than chance.” In other words, just as this comic suggests, STEM mentors are unfamiliar with the individual work of their students, and thus unable to accurately assess the work of their mentees as well as unable to provide useful feedback.

So why are faculty such poor mentors? I have focused on problems in STEM mentoring, but unfortunately similar problems do exist in the Humanities. Across all fields, the problem with mentoring is that most current faculty don’t know how to do it. Faculty are not taught how to mentor, many faculty experienced poor mentoring themselves, and mentoring graduate students is not emphasized as important when departments make hiring and tenure decisions.

We need to teach faculty how to be better mentors so that graduate students can have better mentoring experiences. Isn’t it about time to break the cycle of poor graduate student mentoring?

So what can we do?

  1. We need to understand the implications of poor mentoring. Faculty need to realize that their mentoring skills really matter. Research shows that mentoring is connected to the mental health of our graduate students, and we know that mental health is currently at crisis level for our graduate students.
  2. We need to provide resources for graduate student mentoring. From the university level to the department level, faculty need to work with graduate students to develop better mentoring practices. Many graduate schools, such as the University of Michigan, have already developed guides for both mentors and mentees.
  3. We need to recognize that good mentoring is rooted in establishing good communication and building trust. The University of Michigan suggests that mentors and mentees draw up a contract articulating expectations and responsibilities on both sides. If this is done at the very first meeting, it establishes a clear line of communication and helps graduate students take ownership of their education. It can also provide milestones to help graduate faculty more accurately assess the progress of their students.
  4. We need to understand that mentoring is not about duplication; it is about helping students achieve their educational goals. Recently, on twitter, I saw a thread with this quote:  “Mentoring is: Asking–where do you want to go and how can I help you get there?   Mentoring is not: Telling–here’s what I did and how you can do the same.” It received almost 1500 retweets and more than 6000 likes. Especially in the difficult PhD academic markets for many of our students, it is important to realize their their doctoral career is not going to look like your doctoral career. Graduate advisors must be flexible with both our expectations and our dealings with individual students.

There is so much more to be said about graduate student mentoring. I hope you will stay tuned as we continue to discuss this important topic. I hope you will also make an appointment with your advisees this week. Don’t just talk to them, listen to them as well. Just taking this one small step can make a world of difference.