Cynthia Prescott, Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of North Dakota
One of the most important – and most oft-ignored – aspects of graduate-level teaching is the role of mentor. Graduate students need and deserve many forms of mentoring. These include, but certainly are not limited to:
- course selection
- writing skills
- critiquing the work of others
- selecting research topics
- time management
- staying on track toward degree completion
- identifying their professional and personal goals
- teaching skills
- practical professional skills (e. g. developing a CV, interviewing for jobs)
As faculty we need to be more proactive in modeling professional skills and behaviors for our students and helping them to initiate mentoring relationships. (I see UND’s Alice T. Clark Mentoring Program for new faculty as an excellent model to follow – check it out at http://www.und.edu/dept/oid/atcinfo.htm.) Because students will not necessarily recognize their need for mentoring, or will be hesitant to seek out mentoring relationships with notoriously busy faculty, as professors we need to take more initiative to form such relationships, or encourage students to seek out appropriate mentors elsewhere. Individual faculty members might excel at one form of mentoring, while remaining less skilled or even uncomfortable providing another form. Graduate students therefore benefit from mentoring relationships with different faculty with differing strengths. Yet the loose structure of graduate education rarely guides students to recognize their needs for mentoring, and fails to encourage them to pursue guidance from appropriate faculty members.
One area where I see a particular need for transparency and mentoring for history graduate students is in career development. Many of our students seem to assume that the path to career advancement in the historical profession is straightforward: simply complete your M.A. or Ph.D., and you’ll be well on your way to a rewarding, lucrative career in a recession-proof position as a college professor. Yet perusing the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education or the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, or speaking with a recent history Ph.D., would doubtless paint a far grimmer portrait of the status of the historical profession and academic hiring in general. My graduate students were surprised to hear that we would typically interview three candidates (on-campus) for a single position in our department – and were far more distressed to learn how many individuals had applied for that single position. They also had little understanding of the mobility – both geographic and in institutional ranking – often required to land a tenure-track position. I believe it is irresponsible for us to encourage our students to devote years of their lives and accrue substantial loan debt without explaining the risks and costs associated with the academic profession.
Mentoring graduate students can be time-consuming and challenging. Yet in many areas we can achieve economies of time, without sacrificing quality, by developing more systematic forms of mentoring and professional modeling. To take my above example of the state of the historical profession, I devoted approximately one hour out of a graduate seminar to holding a frank conversation about these issues. I suspect that this information then radiated outward to other students in our program who are not enrolled in that particular seminar. UND’s history department has also been experimenting with a variety of lunchtime workshops this year, in which faculty and senior graduate students have introduced new research methods, provided guidance on practical skills (such as an upcoming CV workshop), and modeled writing skills and peer review through discussion of works in progress. Some graduate programs require their students to attend colloquia or workshops. So far, we’ve relied on the carrot of free food (still a remarkably effective motivator for graduate students). Perhaps we also need to create a clear system of expectations and rewards for graduate faculty to develop more effective mentoring roles and relationships.