How to Find a Mentor in Grad School

You do not need to go through your Ph.D. journey alone.

At times, the individualistic nature of grad school can often make us feel isolated, lost, and unsupported. Since we are the only ones who are working on our unique project, it is all up to us to find the potential solutions to our problems… right?

No. Without support, the pressure and demand of grad school can consume you and pull you down into a spiral of anxiety, depression, loneliness, physical illnesses, and overall unhappiness. The best way to pull yourself out or keep yourself from being pulled in, is to build a supportive community around yourself. Whether that be through peer mentorship, external mentorships, communities, and professional development programs. Do it all if you ! Whatever it is that you need, there are resources out there for you both on campus and online that would help you be the best you during graduate school.

I shared a video on IGTV about what to consider before looking for additional support and mentorship. If you have watched it, go check that out before reading the rest of this blog to really help you narrow down your needs. It's a quick little 4 minute chat, and if you really want the help, it won't be a waste of your time.

If you made it this far then you must mean business. After evaluating what mentorship style works for you, the mentorship style of your current/future PI, and evaluate your current lab environment, it's time to do some work. Allow your responses to the previous questions guide you to finding the exact resources that you need.

Below is a list of resources to consider that have helped me in building my mentorship Network and develop the skills I need to succeed. 

  1. Developing a research project

I don't know about you, but I went into grad school with unrealistic expectations of how I should be as a student, researcher, and overall scientists. That I should already know how to find papers, where to look for background information, how to develop a project, how to frame a hypothesis, and analyze and understand the data I've collected. However, not everyone's undergraduate experience thoroughly prepares them to be an independent in grad school right off the bat. Plus, not all graduate programs or PI’s that take the time to lay out the steps for you either.

This first resource has been the greatest resource I have encountered at the beginning of my second year in grad school. My PI was not hands-on and would provide me vague guidance on how to approach my research. I was completely lost and unproductive because I did not know where to begin. The lack of guidance reflected on my progress and resulted in me failing my preliminary exams. iBiology was a resource that actually took me through the scientific process on how to ask a research question, develop an experiment, how to have conversations with your PI that would help you stay accountable and on track.

  • iBiology  

    • Dedicated to bringing you courses that help you do good science and enhance your career and professional development. I recommend Planning Your Scientific Journey.

    • The courses are free and self-paced. Expect to spend about 3 hours per week on a module, spanning a total of 6 weeks.

    • Through this excellent learning platform, iBiology brings you world-class instructors, high-quality videos (unlike any online course videos you’ve seen), peer-to-peer interaction, and in-depth, reflective assessments.

    • By the end of the program, you should have the tools to develop a plan that you could go over with you PI.

      • By being prepared with direct questions and concerns about your project, the easier it will be for your PI to guide you.

  • If you find yourself in a toxic lab environment and have no luck getting the help that you need from your PI, there is always the option to switch labs or department.


2. Get help from your committee

Seems self explanatory, but sometime we fail to overlook the role of our committee. Our committee is not a group of professors you only meet with once a year or when it is time to be grilled for an exam. Hopefully, you were able to establish a committee that are somewhat related to the work that you do. Take advantage of their unique expertise and do not be intimidated to set up a meeting with them if you run into a problem; especially if that problem aligns with a techniques their lab specialize in.

  • Send an email asking for help on your research.

Your email could look something like this:

"Hi Dr. X, 

Hope your day is going well. I am currently working on finding an alternative pathway to ________, but running into problems in _______. Would you have time to meet with me at some point this week, or next, to talk more about my research?

Best,

________"

Doesn't have to be long and elaborate. Directly state what you need and how they can help you so that when you meet, there is a clear starting point and the PI will be in the mindset to help.

There’s also the option of just stopping by their office and asking to have a brief moment of their time if it's for a quick discussion or advice. Remember to consider the personalities and mentorship style of your committee.

Don’t have an idea which approach to take or if they would even be helpful? Ask a graduate student in the respective lab on how to best approach their PI, or if their lab could help in the first place.

One last tip,

  • use your committee for tips on how to succeed in grad school.

Before scheduling for my Quals/comps, I had a met with each member of my committee to ask if they had any advise on how to prepare for Quals. Plus, what they looked for during the exam. Now I can manage my expectations and prepare myself to meet their criteria. Clear communication leads to direct answers, so try not to be timid and vague.

If you do not ask, you begin to assume, and could easily fall into the trap of feeling like an imposter because you begin to make up unrealistic expectations that nobody can meet. You need to try and make the system work for you. If we do not succeed, the PI does not succeed. Try not to be afraid to speak up for yourself and get the guidance that you need.

  • NotE: If you are a student of color, underrepresented minority, or woman in stem

Are there faculty that are POC in other departments that you could reach out to? I often feel a sense of belonging and that I’m being understood when I know the other person has a similar upbringing as me. They may be more likely to be open and honest, and provide you with personal insight on how to navigate spaces as a minority.

  • Look for faculty who have outreach efforts in recruiting and retaining minorities in STEM.

  • Do you have a Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on campus?


If you have no luck with reaching either your PI or committee members,

3. Look for mentors outside of your department

Since we live in our labs, we are not always exposed to all the other professionals on campus. Do not limit yourself to the walls around you and take any opportunity that links you with all types of professionals. to establish

You can meet your potential mentors through events such as conferences and workshops. By meeting in person, you get a sense of who they are, what their values are, and their willingness to be open and honest with you. This will help you to determine if this would be a valuable person to connect and start a professional relationship with.

Finding a mentor outside of department depends entirely on what exactly do you need. Need career guidance? What does a job outside of academia look like? Need to learn how to get your sh** together? How do you prepare a cover letter, CV? How do you navigate academia as a minority?

  • NRMNet

    • Mission is to provide researchers across all career stages in the biomedical, behavioral, clinical and social sciences with the evidence-based mentorship and professional development programming that emphasizes the benefits and challenges of diversity, inclusivity and culture.

    • You create a profile and list what you need mentoring on.

    • You get matched up to 5 mentors at a time. You get access to their profile to see what type of mentoring they provide, professional network that they are in, and see which mentor would be right for you.

    • The platform facilitates direct messaging to the mentor of choice with ease and guidance on how to start dialogue with the mentor.

  • Academic coaches

  •  Graduate Life Coach

    • Goal of a graduate school life coach is to support students and postdocs through individual coaching and group programming around effective time and stress management, resilience, conflict resolution, navigating academic relationships, and juggling work/life responsibilities.

  • Academic skills coach

    • Assistance with time management and organizational skills

    • Dissertation blocking

    • Structure and accountability for long-term independent projects

    • Writing papers and reports

NOTE: The resources abouve are specifically for graduate students at Vanderbilt. Research to see of your school has a similar resource or if there is someone in your department that could connect you to the right people.

  • Professional development programs

    One of the best ways to get additional support and mentors is by attending professional development seminars, workshops, and conferences. Through these types of event, you are likely to interact with professionals in a variety of fields one-on-one or in small intimate groups. This would increase the chance of receiving direct mentorship and exchange of contact information for follow through.

  • SYNERGI Career Development Workshop

    • Workshop created through Leadership Alliance Network, attendees build on their skills by creating an elevator pitch, improving their CV/resume, and expanding their network of colleagues, mentors and role models.

    • Open to about 50 students. Small workshop allows for direct communication with mentors from academia, consulting, government and policy, higher education administration, industry, and non-profit.

    • Open to U.S. citizens and residents.

  • Yale Ciencia Academy

    • The Yale Ciencia Academy is a FREE year-long (January - December) program that provides graduate students with opportunities for mentoring, peer support, and networking

    • Help you develop skills that are important for career advancement

      • monthly meeting with peers and mentors

    • Establish methods for you to contribute to your communities through science outreach

  • Vanderbilt BRET Career Development Program

    • Career Exploration and Decision-Making

    • Trainee Professional Development

    • Employer Relations and Workforce Development

    • Alumni Relations, Outcomes, and Development

    • Campus Partnerships and Faculty Outreach

    • National Career Development Research and Best Practices

  • NOTE: BRET is specifically for graduate students at Vanderbilt. Research to see of your school has similar career development program/department.

  • Attend mentorship-based conferences

  • SACNAS

    • SACNAS is an inclusive organization dedicated to fostering the success of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans, from college students to professionals, in attaining advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in STEM.

    • Before the conference, look up #SACNAS on twitter to see what other professionals will be attending. Science twitter is a large community of faulty and professionals who are dedicated to SACNAS mission and willing to mentor students.

      • You can send a direct message or mention them in a tweet about meeting at the conference to have a conversation about whatever topic you desire!

    • There are also booths there that do on-site mentoring session for anyone willing and able!

  • ABRCMS

    • The Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), you join one of the largest communities of underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

    • Students attend this conference to present their research, enhance professional development skills, explore graduate schools, and network.

    • Research faculty and program directors play an essential role in mentoring students and learning strategies for facilitating student success. 

      • This takes place during the conference through workshops and panels

  • make sure you follow through with the connections you make!

Do not just take their card, store it, and forget about it. To make lasting relationships/mentorship takes effort. Whether you follow through on LinkedIn, Twitter, or email— make sure you to thank them for their insight and guidance, and then schedule a meeting for the near future to keep the path of communication open between the two of you.


4. Peer-to-peer mentoring

  • Plug into a community of graduate students or postdocs that provide you with support and allyship.

You don’t need to be friends with everyone in your department, lab, or cohort. Don’t compare yourself to your peers, as that leads to unhealthy competition and self-doubt. Instead, find value in your friends.

Find peers that

  • you can talk about life with

  • can talk about science and exchange ideas on how to go about projects & exams

  • can talk about how to side hustle— how to make moves and connections outside of academia

  • provide you with emotional support

  • share their resources for achieving academic success

  • will look over your personal statements or exam document

  • get drinks with and vent, or have fun with

To make valuable connections, both parties have to be receptive and vulnerable with one another. Just like your PI, you should not depend on ONE person to meet all your needs. It is a relationship. You need to give when you take.

  • plug into an online community

With #SciComm continue to grow both on Twitter and Instagram, so are supportive graduate communities!

  • Check out some awesome communities here.


I can’t believe you made it this far. I hope that there was at least one thing on here that you did not know already that would help you find the support and mentorship that you need. If you run into some problems with my list, please let me know. I you would like to connect with me, I am always open and willing to help. Just fill out the form in the footer, below.

We are here to support each other!