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My questions for guiding an initial mentoring meeting

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

By Pamela E. Harris

In my new position as a professor at a research institution, I am beginning to build mentor-mentee relationships with graduate students, which (as is expected) are relationships that can last a lifetime. Mentoring graduate students is impactful work that requires great care and nothing to take lightly. As I began to think about how to build such relationships, I began to craft a list of questions to guide initial conversations with students who approach me to potentially work with me. I share these questions in the hopes that they can help identify ways in which one can begin conversations with potential mentees. After the question I provide a short description of what my intent was in asking each particular question.

1. Why did you decide to go graduate school?

I wanted to know more about the students' journey and what led them to graduate school.

2. What current mathematics topics are you most interested in and why? How do those topics intersect with my work?

As these meetings were about potentially serving as a PhD supervisor I wanted to know what mathematics I do is what they were interested in. Note that I attached a recent research statement to the email.

3. What experiences/comfort level do you have with programming? If little, are you willing to dedicate substantial time to learning to implement and develop algorithms?

This was important to me as I do a lot of computational work and knowing whether a student was interested and willing to learn to program would be indicative as to how fast a student might make progress on their work.

4. What do you do when you get stuck on math?

I asked this so that I knew how to best support the student when we reach a point where the mathematics gets difficult. I wanted to determine if a student would prefer to think alone, or work with me more closely. Helping me identify how to best hep in these situations.

5. What do you do when you face an academic challenge? A personal challenge?

My hope with this question was to identify if the student has a robust psychosocial support system. It was not a requirement but it helped me identify what further resources they might need and who I might be able to connect them to.

6. Can you tell me what you know about how you best learn mathematics?

I want students to think about what they need to be able to do the best mathematics they can do. This question led us to talk about the location and time of when and where they study and what needs they might have in this regard.

7. What kind of support (academic, socio emotional, financial etc) do you need to be able to do your best mathematical work?

Often these challenges go unspoken and I wanted to open the door to have conversations about their needs beyond academics. I admit that I might not be able to solve those problems, but I can be aware of them and share resources and connections to help support them in regard to these areas.

8. What are your greatest strengths both academic and professional/personal?

I wanted potential mentees to share their strengths and what they are proud of in the work they have already accomplished. Through this question I had the opportunity to learn about their talents and hobbies outside of mathematics. It gave us a chance to connect over common hobbies outside of mathematics.

9. What skills are you looking to further develop through mathematical research?

This question allowed me to determine needs and areas they want to develop. One example that came up through conversation was a desire of a student to learn to grow as a public speaker. This then allowed me to be on the lookout for such opportunities to share with them as those came my way.

10. Tell me about your communication style. Do you answer emails once a day/week, prefer texts, face to face meetings, virtual etc. Give as many details as possible and as you feel comfortable.

Having mentored numerous students in the past, I learned that detailing how we can best communicate and what our expectations around communication are can help clear up many misunderstandings. It also helps us set appropriate boundaries and be proactive in determining potential mismatches in communication styles.

11. What are your working hours? Namely, detailed times of the day that you spend thinking and doing research/studying.

I am an early bird, my mentee might not be. This is not at all a deal breaker, but it is helpful to not assume they have the same working hours as I do. This also helped us have a conversation about finding the best times to meet so that we try to accommodate, as best as possible, both of our working schedules.

12. Detail your expectations for an adviser. What would you expect of someone who serves in that role? Detail qualities and provide examples as possible of how an adviser would meet those qualities.

This question helps me determine whether I can provide the right type of support for a potential mentee. It also helps me identify if there are some mentoring needs I might not be able to meet given my own mentoring limitations, and for which I might be able to provide another source of mentoring support and additional resources.

13. Detail your qualities as an advisee. Namely, what are your expectations for yourself as a PhD advisee? Detail qualities you possess (or aim to possess) that will help you be successful as a PhD student. Give examples of how you have built or began to develop those qualities/skills.

The purpose of this question was to have the student think about their own expectations for themselves and what work is needed to meet those expectations. It also naturally led to the next question guiding our conversations about how they define success and what they want to achieve in the future.

14. What are your goals post PhD and why?

This question usually led to the most discussion. Often sharing what motivated them to start graduate school again and how they want to give back to communities they belong to. It also helped me scaffold experiences for them to help reach some of the milestones needed to help them network and reach their goals.

15. Where do you imagine yourself to be in 5 years and 10 years?

This question was a nice follow up to their post-PhD goals, and gave us a way to envision what their career might look like in the future.

16. Anything else you may think is relevant for me to understand and know about you prior to our meeting.

Not much came up through this question but it gave them an opportunity to provide me information which my questions above might not have addressed.

17. If possible do send me written questions you’d like me to address in advance of our meeting.

Again this question was not utilized as much as I would have liked, and in a future iteration I would change the wording to be more specific by providing a sample of questions which they might consider asking me. For example, I might provide the following sample questions:

  • How many hours do you expect us to meet per week?

  • Do you have funding to support my attendance at conferences?

  • Would I be expected to work on multiple projects at once?

  • Do you expect me to also do collaborative projects outside of my own PhD work?

  • Can you help me find new opportunities for jobs in and outside of academia?

I provided these questions about a week in advance of our meeting and they were helpful to guide that initial meeting. I believe that these questions also provided potential mentees the opportunity to learn more about me and to determine whether or not I might be a good mentor for them. As Lucy Martinez mentioned in her talk “Mentoring Experiences through the Lens of a Mentee” at the SL Math CIME Conference on Mentoring for Equity: being a mentor is a privilege, and mentees have a choice in who their mentors are. My hope is that having some guiding questions to help facilitate initial mentoring conversations will help serve these purposes.

Please share with me if you implement these questions and whether you found them helpful!

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