The notion of mentoring is ancient. The original Mentor was described by Homer as the “wise and trusted counselor” whom Odysseus left in charge of his household during his travels. Athena, in the guise of Mentor, became the guardian and teacher of Odysseus’ son Telemachus.

In modern times, the concept of mentoring has found application in virtually every forum of learning. In academics, mentor is often used synonymously with faculty adviser. But mentoring is more. While academic advising is a structured relationship aimed at helping a student navigate a curriculum, mentoring is a personal and professional relationship that develops over time. A mentor is someone who takes a special interest in helping another person develop into a successful professional. According to the sociologist Morris Zelditch, mentors are:

  • advisors, people with career experience willing to share their knowledge;
  • supporters, people who give emotional and moral encouragement;
  • tutors, people who give specific feedback on one’s performance;
  • masters, in the sense of employers to whom one is apprenticed;
  • sponsors, sources of information about and aid in obtaining opportunities; and
  • models, of identity, of the kind of person one should be to be an academic (or a successful professional in any field).

An effective mentoring relationship is characterized by mutual respect, trust, understanding and empathy. Good mentors are able to share life experiences and wisdom, as well as technical expertise. They are good listeners, good observers and good problem-solvers who set aside uninterrupted time for their students. They are approachable and available, and open to a two-way dialogue. They make an effort to know, accept, respect and champion the goals and interests of the student. They stay in touch with their students, and their students stay in touch with them, building a sustained relationship over time. They help students identify the questions they need to be asking; they promote the student’s confidence, self-advocacy and independent thinking. They offer their students constructive criticism as well as praise. They help their students build networks and they look out for opportunities for them. Mentors establish an environment in which the student’s accomplishments are limited only by the extent of his or her talent.

The nature of a mentoring relationship varies with the level and activities of both student and mentor. In general, however, each relationship must be based on a common goal: to advance the educational and personal growth of the student. Effective mentoring need not always require large amounts of time. An experienced, perceptive mentor can provide great help in just a few minutes by making the right suggestion or asking the right question.

Why be a Mentor?

The primary motivation to be a mentor was well understood by Homer: the natural human desire to share knowledge and experience. Some other reasons for being a mentor:

  • Achieve satisfaction. For some mentors, having a student succeed and eventually become a friend or colleague is their greatest joy. In fact, an oft-heard quote from faculty is “I have had a terrific experience with this program and consider it one of the highlights of my teaching career to date.”
  • Attract good students. The best mentors are able to recruit – and keep – high caliber students who can produce better research, papers and grant proposals. These students can also become your own research assistants on current or future projects.
  • Enhance your own professional knowledge. Mentoring can help you keep abreast of new knowledge and techniques in your own field.
  • Develop your professional network. In making contacts for students, you strengthen your own contacts and make new ones.
  • Extend your contribution. You can gain increased professional stature by sending new scholars into the field. And the results of good mentoring live after you, as former students continue to contribute even after you retire.

Research on undergraduates shows that students who form positive and supportive relationships with faculty are more likely to persist to graduation (Tinto, 1997). Research on graduate students shows those who have mentoring relationships have higher productivity levels, a higher level of involvement with their departments, and greater satisfaction with their programs (Green & Bauer, 1995); CUNY BA believes the same can be true for undergraduates.