Marlene Pomrenke, University of Manitoba
The following narratives describe the ways in which female graduate students see mentoring as essential to their academic success. As one woman stated, “Having a responsive and engaged advisor has been critical to completing my degree.” Another woman stated, “My mentors know my strengths and more importantly, my weaknesses. Thus they are able to provide useful feedback on how I can improve.” And finally as one other woman succinctly stated, “Mentoring is key! It is the business of who you know and how connected you are.”
These narratives and other similar accounts suggest mentoring is essential for successful navigation of the world of academia. Although those without mentors are usually able to complete their graduate studies, it can be more difficult and time-consuming. It is also easier to move into careers within academia, post-doctoral work or alternatively explore non-traditional employment opportunities with the ‘connections’ or knowledge of the ‘system’ that a mentor can provide.
Women need ongoing support to complete their graduate studies. This comes as no surprise to any of us. Women often have added burdens of caregiving, both of children and elderly parents. They may lack financial assistance and family support. Over an eighteen month period, two research studies were conducted that examined issues pertaining to caregiving, mentoring and other social support needs for female graduate students in the social sciences.
Based on numerous discussions with these students, it was found that in order to complete a graduate degree and/or move forward into employment in academia, substantial personal and institutional social support systems need to be in place. These support systems include mentors, peer support groups, families, financial assistance, and other institutional backing. Social support including both formal and informal systems is significantly related to resiliency. Mentors, family and friends, community, academic support, as well as financial and personal support systems can ameliorate the stress of academic studies. Why, then, has the idea of mentoring still not taken hold?
Although many of us think this is an excellent idea, mentoring is still an ad hoc notion, available only to some. And women who felt they had some mentoring were able to move forward more quickly and with confidence while completing their studies.
Part of the data collection in my second research study included an on-line study administered to female graduate students in Canadian universities. From over a hundred responses across Canada, the majority of women stated they needed an advisor and/or mentor to provide them with academic direction and emotional support. They both want and need a mentor to validate and refine research interests as well as be someone that can inspire them. In essence, they want access to a leader in their research field that can result in being able to market themselves for future employment opportunities.
Implications for providing mentors for female graduate students usually are tied to increased financial resources. However, with some changes in our thinking, it could happen more easily than we might imagine. First and foremost, the idea of mentoring needs to be seen as a priority for post-secondary institutions. Only then will changes happen at that level. If there is reciprocity between the mentor and mentee, if they can help each other, it can be a win-win situation for both parties. For example, if a mentor finds a good research assistant, this can help in his/her research efforts. The mentee can then gain experience through co-publishing, as well as find validation through work completed with the mentor.
Mentorship can also happen at the student level. For example, newer graduate students could be paired with more seasoned students. Alternatively, course load credit could be given to second or third year students who choose to mentor first year students. Peer mentor support groups can also provide excellent support. However, these mentoring options can only happen with some leadership from either student associations or faculty members.
The idea of mentoring has been discussed, debated, explored and researched. There is no question mentors are invaluable and provide connections and guidance as well as a path to exciting and profitable career opportunities. How do we help graduate students find a mentor that ‘fits’ for them? How do we institutionalize the idea and value of mentoring? Only when post-secondary institutions recognize the impact that mentoring can have for females undertaking graduate studies will there be changes. Initially, this may mean finding some resource dollars for a position to help find ways to provide mentorship. For example, volunteer mentors from the community could be recruited, faculty members approached, on-line support peer mentor groups set up. Once in place, some of these ways of providing mentoring could become self-sustaining. Lobbying for these changes by students and faculty members will ensure that voices are heard and changes are made!
Dr. Marlene Pomrenke is an assistant professor and a counsellor at the Student Counselling and Career Centre at the University of Manitoba. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org