Five Steps For Effective Mentoring: Part 1, Communication of the Master Plan

How to be an effective mentor.

Posted Sep 21, 2010

Recently, I participated on a panel at an academic conference where we discussed student mentoring. In the nearly 20 years that I have been a professor, I have had the opportunity to mentor many students, both undergraduate and graduate. My original comments were aimed primarily at mentoring graduate students, but there is general applicability for anyone who is interested in learning more about effective mentoring. After that presentation, I revisited my notes and put together a five-part series on effective mentoring, and this is the first of those five parts.

The first step in effective mentoring is Communication of the Master Plan. Anyone you mentor is coming to you because he has a set of short- and long-term goals. In my case, those goals are usually obtaining a Ph.D., getting a job, and having a successful career. Effective mentoring requires that you start by communicating with the mentee, and helping him articulate his goals. You need to understand what he seeks as part of the mentoring relationship.

Once you understand the goals of your mentee, you need to help her map out the steps toward achieving her goals. For a graduate student, some of these steps will be the formal requirements for obtaining a degree; for an employee, to give another example, these might be the formal requirements for gaining a promotion. It is not safe to assume that the mentee necessarily knows the formal requirements for reaching her goal, so make sure she has the formal requirements and that she understands them. 

As you work with your mentee, you also need to help him understand the informal paths needed to meet the formal requirements. For example, most advanced degree programs require that students make presentations of various sorts, ranging from research papers to thesis proposal, and prospectus to completed theses. Helping the student understand what these requirements are and how they can be met is also an important part of mentoring. 

In these situations, it is helpful to connect the student into other networks. For example, it is helpful to combine one-on-one peer mentoring with group mentoring, especially when the group has individuals at various stages in the organization. One way to achieve this in the academic setting is to have a group that includes advanced and intermediate students, and to bring new students into this group so that they can observe exactly what the advanced and intermediate students are doing. By asking the advanced and intermediate students to present their thesis materials, or dissertation prospectuses, in periodic group meetings the younger individuals can directly see what fulfillment of formal requirements entails. 

Of course, this can also be achieved in a non-academic setting. If your team contains individuals at a variety of career stages, use group meetings as an opportunity for communication about career advancement through the organization. Discuss your expectations about advancement, and have team members talk about their understandings and experiences as they have moved through the organization.  

It is also important to make expectations absolutely clear, both from the mentor’s and the organization’s perspectives.  Formal requirements for an advanced degree, or for a promotion, are usually quite vague. What exactly does a “successful oral defense of a dissertation proposal” actually mean? A mentor needs to present precisely what the expectations are for each stage in the process of goal achievement, and if possible to give the mentee examples, templates, and other resources she can use to understand the expectations for formal requirements.

But there is also more to clarifying expectations, beyond the immediate formal requirements for a degree, or a promotion.  It is also important for the mentor to discuss expectations for longer-term goals. For example, if the mentee wants to be a faculty member at a research university, then clarify what may be expected, as is talking with them about the tenure and promotion process at a research university. But if the person wishes to pursue a private or government sector position, talking about these expectations is also critical.

Finally, the mentor has to understand that Communication of the Master Plan is an ongoing process. Mentoring is not a one-time thing. The mentor needs to meet with the mentee frequently, to assess progress towards goals and expectations, and to be prepared for changes to the individual’s Master Plan. 


The conference for which I initially prepared these remarks was The 27th Annual Summer Meeting of the Society for Political Methodology, the University of Iowa, July 21-24, 2010. The remaining parts in this series will be published in the next few weeks.