Honestly, I had no intention of becoming anyone’s mentor. I was deep into the “make it work” stage of my academic career: my dissertation was stagnating, I was teaching a new course in a new discipline, my partner had gotten a job across the country, and I was having health problems.
Nevertheless, despite my being lost in the fog of graduate school, an undergraduate found me and turned me into a mentor. And I am thankful every day that she did.
Oddly enough, I was never even C’s teacher; she was never my student. I was an intern archivist, she was a student assistant, and we shared a basement workroom in the library. Chatting to keep our minds occupied while processing a collection and keep our bodies from freezing, we became good friends over a mutual interest in history, archival management, and Ryan Gosling memes.
In many ways C is like a better-prepared version of myself. She is pursuing a degree in history, loves digital humanities, and wants to work in a library or museum. Already in her fourth year, she has a clarity of purpose and knows what she wants from life—things I still sometimes struggle to put together.
Although she had the broad strokes of her academic career outlined, she was missing some of the finer details. She just needed some nuts-and-bolts type information about being a public historian. Answers to questions like:
What sort of topics make good research projects
How do you find a valuable internship?
What do you do in library school?
What jobs can a history major do?
What is the best way to write a grant proposal that will be funded?
All things in which I am expert!
There are a lot of ways that mentorship benefits undergraduates and even first-year graduate students. People with mentors, for example, are more likely to matriculate, have higher grades, and feel more included in their university, which are all markers for academic success. Mentorship in this case, however, isn’t superficial. It requires a long-term commitment with frequent meetings, emails, and check-ins—a truly active can professional interest in the success of your mentee.
In modern universities, especially in large research institutions, this sort of deep commitment is nearly impossible to give to an individual student, let alone an entire class. Being a mentor is not a job requirement and adds strain to an already tight schedule. Moreover, many of the benefits to the instructor are intangible, meaning they do not result in a new line on your CV.
Yet, I argue that it is important, especially for graduate students, to take on an undergraduate mentee or first-year graduate student. Even if it is just one; even if it is for a short period of time. Setting aside all of the benefits to undergrads and any altruistic rationales, being a mentor will improve your sense of well-being, your overall graduate school experience, and professional satisfaction.
In my experience, mentorship helps graduate students in four ways:
Fight impostor syndrome. While I helped C piece together her awesome future—from discussing possible careers to line editing an occasional statement-of-purpose—she was also helping me see my own value as a scholar. I might feel like an impostor when I am writing my dissertation or talking at conferences, but C never saw me that way. Instead, she saw me as an expert in my field (which I am), a resourceful research assistant (yup), and a fluent speaker of academic-ese (oh, yes). Working with a student one-on-one allows you to put your knowledge to good use and the rest of academia into perspective. You are no impostor, and a mentee will prove that to you.
Deepen your community. Even the most anti-social amongst us spends graduate school putting together a network of people, one which consists of professors, advisors, other scholars in our field, peers, classmates, friends, students, and helpful administrators. In fact, graduate school could not happen without this community. Every person we interact with enriches it, especially when that person is a mentee. Mentorship requires you to build a different type of relationship than any other in your network. It is informal and familiar while still being professional and, to a certain extent, hierarchical. No syllabi or grading, just coffee, advice, and dialogue.
Articulate yourself. One of the most unexpected benefits I gained from working with C was the ability to better articulate what I do. When she asked questions, I had to think about not only the answer to those questions, but also the best way to make that information accessible to her. This involved many discussions about framing arguments, for example, and selling research to grant committees. Mentorship is great practice for everything from writing a teaching philosophy to perfecting your elevator pitch, since the stakes are low and there is no search committee to impress. It is just a mentor and her mentee chatting about school, careers, and life.
Doing good while making friends. Being a mentor takes a lot of time and mental energy—a point that I do not want to understate—but the results far surpass anything you put into it. Motivation, however, to help a student in this way must come from within, since it will not appear on an evaluation or performance review. Like donating to a charity or contributing to the Creative Commons, helping C made me feel good. I was doing something worthwhile, something with long-term meaning. Likewise, it sets you up to be a fantastic graduate and undergraduate mentor in the future. Also, she became my friend, which was its own reward.
Over the summer C participated in a prestigious digital history internship on the east coast, and she is currently doing university-funded research into the exploitation of Guatemalan women by American scientists in the 1950s. Trust me, I brag about her all of the time! Although she has done all of the hard work, I can’t help but feel proud of her achievements.
From my position as a late-career graduate student, I recommend you find someone who needs some advice. Schedule an informal meeting, buy them a cup of coffee, or send them an email. If you take some time to get to know a student and teach them something outside of the classroom, then you might just be surprised what they have to teach you about being a graduate student in return.