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3 Benefits of Having a Mentor in Graduate School

The benefits of working with a mentor is invaluable, experts say.

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If you ask Stephen J. Mullin, a biology professor at Eastern Illinois University, the phrase "reluctant mentor" is an oxymoron. 

"That said, there's a lot more to selecting an appropriate mentor than simply assessing motivation levels," Mullin said. "There has to be compatibility in many areas, including research interest, personality, and a common passion for learning more." 

[Read why one grad student lauds having a mentor.] 

Once that compatibility is discovered, the benefits of the ensuing relationship with a mentor are invaluable. According to Mullin, those benefits include: 

1. Networking: For students interested in pursuing a Ph.D. after they've completed their master's degree, they'll need to present their research at scientific conferences and the like, Mullin said. 

"But their success in this regard will be improved by having me introduce them to my peers—possibly researchers looking for new Ph.D. students, or interested in hiring research assistants," Mullin said. "Making these sorts of connections gives the student an advantage over other candidates for these job openings." 

[See jobs that can lead to $100K salaries for graduate-degree holders.] 

2. Improving communication: "Scientists spend a lot of time writing," Mullin said. "Whether it's a grant proposal to fund a new project, or a peer-reviewed publication that summarizes completed research, active scientists are regularly having to convince a reading audience of the merits of their work. 

"Students working with mentors can learn by observation what constitutes effective communication, as well as understand why poor communication skills interfere with the comprehension of the message." 

3. Camaraderie: "If the student doesn't share the same passion for the research question, then the relationship was not formed with a strong foundation in the first place," Mullin said. "More likely, however, that shared sense of enthusiasm and wonder exists and forms a common bond between student and mentor." 

Mullin said several of the most enjoyable moments in his career have occurred when conducting field research with graduate students. 

He recalled one field trip to Shawnee National Forest in April 2011 when heavy rains caused several organisms to react in strange ways. Among the peculiar things they observed in the Illinois forest was a large adult Western Mudsnake along the side of a causeway road, which Mullin said presented a rare opportunity for capture and examination. 

[Learn about strategies to pay for graduate school.] 

Mullin said one could argue that his graduate students would have had just as memorable an experience in the field without his presence as a mentor. 

"But I would like to think that the breadth and depth of critical thinking that went into the discussion following that encounter was shaped, if not enhanced, by my experiencing it with them," Mullin said. 

Choosing a mentor is not something that Mullin says should be taken lightly. He cited an essay written by a colleague, Brian W. Witz of Southern Arkansas University's department of biology, in 1994 that included this advice: 

Ask someone you trust, perhaps an undergraduate professor/counselor, about the ability of your prospective advisor to establish productive relationships with graduate students. 

Travel to their institution on a fact-finding tour. Meet with them personally (a phone call is not the same) and consult as many of their graduate students as possible. Chances are if most of the graduate students are notably disgruntled with their advisor, you may be as well, should you select that program."

Though the paper is dated, Mullin said, "His words on choosing a mentor still ring true." 

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