Navigating the transition from college to graduate school

academic advice career advice mentorship
By Jesi

When I started graduate school, I knew that building relationships with my professors would be important for my success in the program (and, eventually, in my chosen profession). As a graduate student, your supervisors teach you, help you revise article drafts, nominate you for awards or fellowships, and, most importantly, write letters of reference for future jobs. Yet I often felt overawed by my professors and unsure about how to approach them. I focused on excelling in class discussions or in my seminar papers, hoping that exceptional performance would somehow “earn” me mentorship from my professors.  

It wasn’t until I began teaching and mentoring students myself that I realized how flawed this conception was. Mentorship is crucially important at any level of education—a good mentor can provide invaluable guidance, professional advice, and even emotional support. But for most people, mentorship isn’t something you simply fall into. Building these key professional relationships takes time, energy, and a specific set of skills and attitudes.

Below, I’ll share the advice I give to my advisees as I help them navigate the transition from college to graduate or professional school. Much of this guidance is useful to students at all levels, as well as to people entering the workforce.  

Be vocal.

I used to think that performing well in class would naturally signal to professors that I was interested in their subject and eager to receive additional guidance from them. This approach earned me good grades and approving comments on my seminar papers, but rarely, if ever, led to the kind of deeper relationship I was seeking. I realized the error of my ways when one of my faculty advisors remarked offhandedly that I needed less guidance from her on my dissertation proposal, since I was making good progress and seemed to “have things figured out.” Her comment made me realize that by putting my head down and working hard—without ever really requesting additional support—I was inadvertently signaling to my professors that I was fine on my own. I realized that if I wanted someone to be my mentor, I needed to be more vocal about my desire for guidance and clearer about where I still needed professional support.  

Remember, your professors can’t read your mind. Students who are seeking mentorship need to be upfront about what they are seeking from the faculty member and why. In my case, I started attending office hours more regularly and asking for monthly check-in meetings with my advisors. In these meetings, I didn’t wait for them to take the lead on offering professional advice—instead, I came prepared with my own questions, often about topics that extended beyond the material. I also spent more time asking faculty about their professional journeys, which naturally sparked new questions and new conversations about my own path. As I became more confident in these settings, I also became more comfortable openly sharing with my professors that I needed and wanted additional support from them.   

Be visible.

In the early years of my PhD, I was so focused on doing well in my classes that I would often skip departmental events in favor of completing homework. Surely it was better to spend my free time completing the next day’s reading instead of attending a faculty article workshop or a visiting scholar’s talk. Over time, though, I came to realize that my peers who attended events knew faculty better and were better connected to people across our department and the university. They had a better understanding of the social landscape of the department and were also more comfortable engaging in casual conversation with faculty, including people they hadn’t taken classes with. Attending these events had another major benefit: it helped graduate students learn the cultural and intellectual norms of our profession. As I began attending more events myself, I learned more about how journal articles were conceived of, drafted, workshopped, and finally published. I watched how other scholars talked about their work and engaged with faculty questions in job talks. I also gained a better understanding of the personalities and the range of expertise and experience within my own department, which in turn helped me figure out which faculty would make good prospective mentors and which were not a good match. 

Build a mentoring network.

No mentor—no matter how brilliant, generous, or kind they might be—can be all things to you. When you expect one person to provide all of the intellectual, professional, and emotional support you need to thrive in graduate school, you are setting yourself up for disappointment and potential friction. You’re also depriving yourself of the opportunity to benefit from multiple perspectives on what success in graduate school looks like. I advise my own students to pay close attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the people they work with. Some faculty are exceptionally good readers of your academic work. They seem to intuitively grasp what you’re trying to do with your project, and they know how to pose the right questions or deliver incisive feedback that helps you realize your vision. Other faculty are empathetic and emotionally available, with a gift for helping students name and defuse the emotional stressors of graduate school. Still others might share a key aspect of your cultural or social identity, and thus may be able to offer you guidance and support as you navigate an institution that is not always hospitable to difference. Be intentional about identifying and cultivating relationships with people who bring different experiences and strengths. The more “nodes” you have within your mentorship network, the more prepared you’ll be to tackle challenges that arise in graduate school or as you launch your career.  

Be appreciative.

For many faculty, advising graduate students is part of their jobs. Yet mentors who take their roles seriously will often go above and beyond minimum expectations to help their mentees succeed. You don’t need to feel guilty about this—most mentors find it deeply meaningful to prepare and support the next generation of professionals. But whenever possible, I encourage students to recognize and vocally appreciate the effort people invest in you. You may want to make a practice of regularly writing a holiday or end-of-year card to your mentor, thanking them for their support and sharing with them what you value most about their guidance. Once you have completed your degree, I recommend writing a letter of gratitude and giving them a small gift (such as an inscribed book or a plant) as a thank you. As a mentor, I’m also deeply touched when former students email me every now and then with exciting life updates or ask to drop by my office to say hello when they’re in town. Although the active phase of our mentor/mentee relationship has ended, this bond may still be professionally useful to the student down the road, should they decide to return to school, apply for a new job, or make a career change. Small gestures of gratitude or periodic friendly contact can keep these connections “warm,” helping you maintain relationships that can serve as lifelong resources.  

Jesi received her BA in Humanities from Yale University, and her MA and PhD in English from the University of Texas at Austin. She currently serves as the Director of Undergraduate Research at the University of Washington Bothell.


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