This semester is, for me, a semester of mentoring.  I have mentored, and have been mentored, informally for a very long time now, but this semester I took on a number of more formal mentoring roles.

The most drastic example of this is that I have been hired by the Psychology department to serve as the Graduate Peer Mentor for all graduate students who instruct upper-level courses.  The role comes with a number of new responsibilities for me, including coordinating our monthly “brown bag” discussions of pedagogical matters, and soliciting faculty for suggestions of the most relevant course material in an effort to create more standardized curricula for our graduate-instructed courses.

By far, my favorite part of the position, though, is interacting directly with instructors to discuss with them their concerns regarding students.  When I was a first-semester instructor, I was often overwhelmed in my new role, and I knew very little of the resources available to me or the protocol to be followed in the wide variety of situations that arise naturally over the course of the semester.  Over the semesters, I’ve learned a great deal, and I’m very excited to have the opportunity to use what I’ve learned to help others.

I’ve also recently taken on a number of undergraduate research assistants to help me with dissertation data collection.  I’ve mentored plenty of lab undergraduates in the past, and have very much enjoyed doing so, but this is my first opportunity to do so with students interested in my own, personal, research.  It’s a very positive experience helping others to explore this area of research that I’m so passionate about, and I love seeing their excitement and the questions and ideas that this excitement generates.

At the same time, I’ve also become involved in the Graduate-Undergraduate Mentorship Program.  The goal of this program is to allow undergraduate students to shadow graduate students in order to better understand the day-to-day workings of graduate life.  It’s been a far more thought-provoking process than I had anticipated.  I had my first meeting with my first mentee last week.  Rather than throwing her head-first into the (sometimes overwhelming) realities of graduate school that she could potentially learn from watching a doctoral student in action, I decided to first have an introductory meeting with her in which we could get to know each other.  I also tried to brainstorm for her a list of things that I wish that I would have learned before coming into graduate school.  It consisted of, but was not limited to:

  • You’re used to “doing it all”.  In graduate school, you’re going to focus much more narrowly, and that’s going to feel strange for a while.  But it’s worth it.  You have the opportunity to become an expert on your little piece of the world.
  • The GREs aren’t nearly as scary as they seem.  Get a stack of review books from the library, hole yourself up to study for a while, and you’ll be fine.
  • Classes are no longer the focus.  You won’t be fed knowledge anymore.  You’ll be able to discover it for yourself through your reading and your research.
  • Some people may try to tell you that teaching assistantships are not as valuable or as important as research assistantships.  Don’t listen to them.  I’ve had both, and I’ve gained a tremendous amount from both experiences.
  • Graduate school is hard.  It will test you.  But you’ll be stronger for it, and you’ll make fantastic friends along the way.  You’ll work through it together, and it will all be worth it in the end.
  • Never turn down an opportunity for free food.

As it turns out, thinking through this list for myself was, in some ways, very empowering.  It’s often difficult to recognize in ourselves the progress and growth that we have made, but I’m certainly no longer that same girl who was intimidated by the GRE.  Nor am I any longer that first-semester instructor, nervous about the idea of speaking in front of a classroom.  I’ve also come a long way from that time when I was in the shoes of my undergraduate research assistants, dipping my toes in the research ocean for the first time.  Apparently, I discovered, I’ve grown.

I came into this mentoring experience expecting to use what I’ve learned to become a resource to others, just as my mentors have guided and shaped me.  What I had not anticipated is that I would also learn a great deal from the process.  What a pleasant surprise!

So I ask you, blogosphere, what have you learned from your mentoring experiences?

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