PhD Mentor: Your Supervisor Lite

I’m involved with a PhD Mentoring programme called the Focus Research Mentoring Network. It’s another EXPLORE project (I’m involved with so many Explore projects my friend Paul recently called me ‘Dora the Explorer’). Yesterday we had a training session for budding mentors and it got me thinking a lot about my own PhD journey, and the mentors I’ve had.

Focus pairs final year and recently graduated PhD students in the English Department with fresh-faced first years, so that our wealth of hard-earned experience may not be entirely in vain. It has the dual benefit in that the mentor can participate for altruistic reasons (the idea of saving someone from the same mistakes you made) or resume reasons (Supervising you ask? Well I’ve mentored…”) and the mentee has a friendly, casual outlet for the questions they are simply too embarrassed to ask their supervisors. 

However it’s coordinated by Dr Adrian Paterson in the English Department along with student partner Ciaran Dowd and graduate partner Dr. Anne Karhio (a recent graduate) so while the individual experience is casual, supportive and non-judgmental it’s all very well organised indeed. The mentors receive training, are well versed in establishing boundaries and knowing when to refer someone in need of more qualified support, and of course there is the prospect of coffee which is always a great motivator.

One of the questions we were asked a lot during training was ‘What made you want to become a Mentor?’ I learned that I mainly fit in to the altruistic category. Don’t get me wrong, I can see the resume benefits and shall not be turning my nose up at them, but I had so many more experienced people help get me where I am today in addition to my wonderful supervisor, that I’d like to pass that information on to someone else. My supervisor is a brilliant, brilliant person, but sometimes I have questions that are just so mind-numbingly dumb I worry he might think less of me. He won’t, he’s incredibly patient. But I’d think less of me for asking them.


From: FirstYearMe
Subject: Conference Procedure

Importance: Low

Dear Professor Supervisor,

I’m very sorry to bother you with such a frivolous request. However I am travelling tomorrow to *some fancy University* for *some fancy conference* and am a little perplexed about certain aspects of the itinerary.

As this is my first conference I was hoping you would have some advice on the general procedure for *fancy academic organisation* events, and in particular the dress-code for the Conference Dinner?

Thank you for your time,

Best wishes,

Young and Foolish Me


My mentors have helped me negotiate such mine-fields as “what to wear” (think interview, but not Finance Sector interview), “is it ok to as for an extension on a journal submission” (on the initial call for papers: yes. On the print deadline: absolutely not), and “is the hilarious pun title I came up with for my conference paper good or dorky” (it’s dorky). I wouldn’t be where I am without them. Now I get to pay that forward.

Did you have an official or unofficial PhD Mentor? What did you gain from the experience? What have you asked your mentor, that you’d never ask your supervisor? Join the conversation on Twitter #thesistalk

One thought on “PhD Mentor: Your Supervisor Lite

  1. Great idea. It’s all about helping each other out, giving that leg up or pep talk when motivation is running low…or just lending an ear and allowing each other at good moan. I find that our tea room is a great facility for such informal chats. I have had plenty of invaluable tips passed on over a cup of tea…particularly in first year when I was trying to find my feet and figure out what the entire process is about other PhDers were more than generous with their time and patience..for which I am eternally grateful. I hope I am now in a position to somehow pay that experience and help forward. One thing we did earlier in the year which worked quiet well was organised an evening where PhDers, mainly first years but some second years also, got together and explain to each other what it is we’re trying to do, what our research is all about. The idea was that it was an informal setting where each person got ten minutes to explain their project and then the rest of the group asked questions, gave feedback and just listened. The feedback from the session was very positive. Definitely worth doing…

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