An Effective Doctoral Student Mentor Wears Many Hats and Asks Many Questions
Doctoral student completion rates are notoriously low; although statistics differ depending on which study one consults, a typical completion rate is about 50%. However, studies show mentors can use strategies to improve students’ graduation rates. Our purpose was to learn from effective mentors about the processes they believe are most important in guiding doctoral students to the successful completion of a dissertation and, specifically, the strategies they implement to help students with writing and research methods. The study was confirmatory and exploratory; we posed several hypotheses and we were attentive to emergent themes in the data.
This paper addresses the problem by providing practical strategies mentors can use to help students succeed.
We conducted semi-structured interviews of 21 effective mentors of doctoral students representing highly ranked educational programs at universities across the United States. We conducted conventional and summative content analysis of the qualitative data.
This research showed that effective mentors provide students with technical support (e.g., scholarly writing and research methods), managerial support (e.g., goal-setting and time management), and emotional support in the form of encouragement. This research goes beyond prior studies by providing specific strategies mentors can apply to improve their practice, particularly regarding support with research methods.
The data showed that encouragement, help with time management, and timely communication were key strategies mentors used to support students. Mentors also provided resources and directed students to use skills learned in previous coursework. Many mentors spoke about the importance of writing a strong research question and allowing the question to guide the choice of methods rather than the other way around. Mentors also said they pushed students to conform to APA style and they used Socratic methods to help students develop the logical organization of the manuscript. Many mentors referred students to methodologists and statisticians for help in those areas.
Individual mentors should conduct a self-assessment to learn if they need to improve on any of the technical, managerial, and interpersonal mentoring skills we identified. Moreover, doctoral programs in educational leadership and related areas are advised to conduct careful assessments of their faculty. If they find their faculty are lacking in these mentoring skills, we recommend that they engage in professional development to increase their capacity to provide effective mentoring.
We recommend that future researchers continue to explore strategies of effective mentors. In particular, researchers should interview mentors who specialize in quantitative methods to learn if they can offer clever and innovative approaches to guide doctoral students.
We conclude this paper with practical strategies to help mentors become more effective. We also make some policy recommendations that we believe can improve the mentoring process for doctoral programs in education. We believe better scholarship at the doctoral level will provide new knowledge that will benefit society at large.
This research was a springboard for some new research questions as follows. We recommend future researchers to study how often effective mentors meet with students, how quickly they provide feedback on written drafts, and their strategies for delivering tough feedback in a caring way (i.e., feedback that the student’s work did not meet expectations).