Finding Your Graduate Advisor and Building a Network of Mentors

One of the key pieces of advice I received when I was applying to graduate school was the importance of finding a strong mentor that was going to support me, my goals and my work. Professors and fellow graduate students recommended I start searching for programs based on the mentor I aspired to receive mentorship and training from. Indeed, your main guidance and support in all things grad school will largely be your advisor – also known as your “thesis or dissertation chair.” However, you should keep in mind that in addition to your advisor, there will be a committee of about three to four professors who will oversee your progress and an extended group of community members who will support your graduate journey.

If you are thinking about graduate school, or have started a program but are looking to grow your network of mentors or change advisors, this blog post is for you. I’ll provide some guiding questions and examples to help you in your search for a graduate advisor, committee members, and network of other supportive professors and peers on and off campus. I’ll also provide some suggestions to take into consideration as you navigate building your network of support as an undocumented student.

How do you start the search for graduate school based on mentorship?

One good place to start is to consider the following: What kind of work have you read on the topic that most interests you and inspires you to pursue graduate school? What kind of research do you admire and who is writing it?

Other places to begin your search for mentors:

  • Your interest in a general topic
  • A discipline you are interested in
  • A method or theory you are excited about
  • A talk or conference you attended
  • Your degree objective, masters or doctorate
  • Location you may be interested in

Once you narrow down these options you can begin searching for professors’ information. If they are professors, and their department has a graduate program, this scholar could be a potential advisor(s).

Your Star Mentor, the Chair of Your Project

Now that you have a list of potential advisors, you’ll also want to do some research to find out if they are the right fit for you. This search can be based on learning more about factors that matter most to you (i.e., their research, campus service work, community work, mentorship style, etc.). This may be a search you do online via their campus website, CVs, public events and/or you may want to set-up a one-on-one meeting with them.

Below are some questions to consider researching before you contact a potential advisor or if you feel comfortable these are questions you can ask during your meeting:

  • Do they have experience working with students with similar backgrounds as you?

(for example: first generation students, undocumented students, women of color, working-class students, parenting students, transfer students, etc.)

  • What is their mentorship style?
    • For example, how do they approach training, communicating, providing feedback, collaborating, and measuring progress with their students?
  • What are their expectations of their mentees?
  • How many students do they work with?
  • Are they taking students during the year you will be applying?

Meeting your advisor one-on-one is also a great way to determine if you are a good fit. It may also help you gauge your own comfort level in how much you disclose about yourself. Some professors, depending on their work, may be familiar with undocumented students and may even do some advocacy work or research on undocumented communities. It is entirely up to you if and how you decide to disclose this aspect of your experience.

Hopefully in your search you’ll find the best fit for you and you can begin fostering a quality and healthy relationship with your main advisor. They will become the person training you and mentoring you through the various stages of graduate school. Ideally, this mentor will guide you through your research, oversee your progress, help you secure funding, apply to jobs and connect you with other folks. Keep in mind that good mentorship relationships require open communication and can change over time. Life is also complicated and advisors may not always have the capacity or you may need support in other areas better suited for another mentor’s training or experience.

Photo source: APA

Building a Network of Mentors: Faculty Members, Colleagues and Community Members

Finding good mentorship is also about building a strong network of mentors.  These folks will give you advice about your goals, provide feedback on your research, and write you letters of recommendation for fellowships, scholarships, grants, and jobs applications. They will also connect you with folks who may be able to help you. You can find these potential mentors similarly to how you searched for your advisor. You will also have to ask them to take you on as a mentee and discuss expectations together.

Ideally, these mentors are part of your thesis or dissertation committee, however,  you may want to consider casting a wider net, depending on your needs. Below are a few ideas for finding mentors that may help you along your journey.

  • Other professors, maybe you took their class, served as their teaching assistant or research assistant
  • Previous professors in your undergraduate years who are willing to continue mentoring you
  • Colleagues who graduated or are ahead of you in your graduate program
  • Colleagues who you share research interests/discipline
  • Colleagues you meet at conferences or events
  • Community members who work on issues you are interested in supporting or participating with

Peer mentorship from Undocumented Grad Students

You may also consider seeking peer mentorship from fellow undocumented graduate students.

If you are comfortable asking your mentors, you can request they connect you with students they know who are currently or formerly undocumented. Alternatively, you can ask trusted sources, like undocumented resource centers, or other folks you know have a good track-record of working with undocumented students, if they can connect you or point you in the direction of events, talks, or published work that may lead you to meet fellow undocumented students.

There are also some efforts by undocumented and formerly undocumented graduate students on social media that you may be able to reach out to.

You may also consider seeking peer mentorship based on other important parts of your experience. The goal is to build a network of folks who can relate to some aspects of your experience and support each other.

Graduate school can be a difficult road to travel and one that can feel very isolating. This is particularly true for underrepresented groups in academia, like the few (but growing) number of undocumented graduate students. I hope building a strong network of support with your advisor, mentors, and peer groups can help make this journey an easier path for you and future generations of undocumented graduate students.