The Mentoring Relationship in Graduate Psychology Programs: Learning About the Field and Developing a Support System

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Learning From Others

Oprah Winfrey once said “a mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself…I think mentors are important and I don’t think anybody makes it in the world without some form of mentorship.” In a diverse field such as psychology, students can benefit a mentoring relationship: the mentor can help the student figure out what she wants career-wise, as well as support the student through her journey in graduate school. A mentor for a psychology graduate student can help with developing the student’s professional identity, social network and coping strategies to help with the stresses of school.

In the American Psychological Association (APA)’s graduate school magazine, gradPsych, author Carol Williams-Nickelson states that “a mentor is a person in an individual’s chosen profession who is actively working to integrate that new person into a developmentally appropriate professional role…Mentoring changes over time and includes the intentional process of nurturing, support, protection, guidance, instruction and challenge within mutually agreed upon and ethical parameters that include the integration of personal and professional aspects of an individual’s life.”

The APA defines four stages in mentoring: the initiation stage, the cultivation stage, the separation stage and the redefinition stage. In the initiation stage, the mentor and the mentee begin their relationship, and the mentee starts to learn from her mentor in the cultivation stage. When the mentee and mentor enter the separation stage, it is the end of the mentoring relationship, which may be because there is nothing else for the mentee to learn from the mentor or the mentor may think it is time for the mentee to go off on her own. This stage may become stressful if the mentee or mentor is not ready to end the relationship. With the last stage of mentoring, the mentor and mentee redefine their relationship other than a mentoring relationship — “if both parties successfully negotiate through the separation stage, the relationship can evolve into a collegial relationship or social relationship,” according to the APA.

The Different Types of Mentors

Psychology graduate students have multiple options for a mentor. For example, a professor at the student’s graduate school may be a mentor. But in gradPSYCH, M. Dittmann notes that students may have a secondary mentor, which may be a psychologist the student works with in research or at a practicum/externship. For underrepresented graduate students, such as students who are women or minorities, they may seek out a mentor who has similar experiences. But not all mentors are licensed psychologists. Some students may have an informal mentor in another student who is further along in the same program. Christopher Munsey of gradPSYCH explains that student mentors can provide guidance that other mentors do not, such as which professors are most helpful or areas to live near campus. Current psychology graduate students may also reach out to mentor younger students, including undergraduate students. For example, the Maryland Psychological Association provides an undergraduate mentoring program in which undergraduate students are paired with graduate students, which can help students determine if they are interested in graduate school or a psychology-related career.

Where to Find a Mentor

Students interested in a mentoring relationship while in a graduate psychology program can find a mentor through a variety of resources. Outside of their program, students may want to look at national and regional psychological organizations. For example, the APA provides a webpage on finding a mentor, with suggestions such as Div. 35 (Society for the Psychology of Women), Div. 2 (Society for the Teaching of Psychology) and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Mentoring Program.

Getting the Most Out of a Mentoring Relationship

For students to get the most out of the mentoring relationship in graduate psychology programs, both the mentee and the mentor need to put effort into the relationship. For the mentee, the APA recommends that she should be open to constructive feedback from her mentor, take on the responsibility for her own professional development and establish goals for her career. Mentees should not expect that their mentors solve issues for them; instead, mentors can provide advice and support to their mentees, which can help them grown both professionally and personally. The APA suggests that mentors should think back to their experiences in school to come up with information to provide to mentees. The mentor and mentee should also agree on what the expectations are for meeting and communication, especially when work and school obligations come up. The APA’s publication Introduction to Mentoring: A Guide for Mentors and Mentees provides a list for dos and don’ts for mentors and mentees when developing a mentoring relationship. This important professional relationship in psychology can help a student grow in her field and may eventually lead to a collegiate relationship.