When 24-year-old Melissa McConaha found herself seated at a roundtable in a small conference room recently at Auburn University and being questioned by five professors in her bid to get admitted to the school's Ph.D. counseling program, she initially found the process "overwhelming."
What ultimately calmed her nerves and got her through the experience were the many lessons and experiences she gained from working with her mentor in graduate school, Dr. Heidi Larson, an award-winning mentor and associate professor of counseling and student development at Eastern Illinois University.
"I would say probably three quarters of what I said is due to Dr. Larson," says McConaha, who is set to graduate from Eastern Illinois in May—and, after learning she was accepted to Auburn, plans to start there in the fall.
From the extra feedback she got from Larson on her work with patients at the Moultrie County Counseling Center in Sullivan, Ill., to how Larson served as a "a shoulder to lean on when [graduate school] was stressful and scary," McConaha credited Larson with consistently going above and beyond the call of duty during McConaha's quest for a master's degree.
She also recalled how Larson encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D. when all McConaha wanted was a job after graduate school, and says Larson also helped her get a "clear grasp of her career goals and professional dreams"—dreams that now entail being a clinically active college instructor in counseling.
"Professionally, she is certainly what I aspire to be," McConaha said. "Being able to work closely with her on an intimate level helps me conceptualize who I want to be and how I want to get there and what I need to do."
Larson's effect on McConaha apparently impressed the committee deciding whether to admit her to Auburn as well. During the interview, McConaha says, one of the members of the committee remarked: "You clearly had an excellent mentor. She's prepared you well."
[Learn more about how to choose a mentor.]
The reality, graduate school specialists say, is that having a mentor is reportedly one of the most important factors—second in combination with student advising only to financial aid—in helping to determine whether a graduate student actually finishes a master's degree program.
Robert Sowell, director of the Ph.D. Completion Project—a Council of Graduate Schools study that is examining what contributes to graduation at the post-graduate level—says that while research has yet to establish a causal link between mentoring and graduation, on exit surveys, 65 percent of Ph.D. graduates identified mentoring or advising as one of the primary factors contributing to their successful completion of a degree.
"Clearly, students believe that, based upon their response, that mentoring and advising was a major factor in their success in completing their program," Sowell says.
Sowell says the Council of Graduate Schools is currently conducting a study of graduate school students to see if the same thing holds true at the graduate level. The final report won't be out for more than a year, but Sowell says he doesn't expect the results to be much different than they were for doctoral degree graduates.
[Read about ways to get more money from your graduate school.]
Dr. Juan Gilbert, professor and chair of the Division of Human Centered Computing at Clemson University, says that while mentoring is important in general, it is particularly important for students from groups that may be underrepresented in a particular field.
"[Mentoring] is important for every student and particularly at the graduate level," Gilbert says.
In the field of computer sciences, Gilbert says, certain ethnic groups predominate, and so they have more of a network or what Gilbert refers to as "footprints in the sand."
But for students from groups for whom there is not a "critical mass" in a given field, "you have a situation where mentoring is even more important for those students."
[Learn more about the value of a graduate degree.]
"You're not going anywhere without mentoring," says Gilbert, whose mentoring efforts were honored in December 2011 with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring, an honor given annually by the White House to individuals and organizations.
Mentoring is just as beneficial to her as it is to her students and that that certain chemistry is key to making a mentoring relationship work, Larson says. She says she wonders if graduate students who somehow don't get paired up with mentors recognize the value of what they're missing.
"I think there's personality and chemistry with mentoring," Larson says. "I think there's something about being able to connect. I think making sure there is a fit there is important—sometimes common ground or a theory or niche. The relationship is important. Not everybody has that relationship."
McConaha says one of the best ways to get paired up with a mentor is to do quality work. "People notice when you work hard, and people notice—especially instructors, the department chair and other professors—when you're dedicated and motivated and you work hard," McConaha says. "It sounds so cliché, but it's the truth."
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