Tips for Grads: Intentionally building mentorship into your assistantship

By Olivia Gacka, PhD student

There are many areas of higher education where you can find a mentor to work closely with – through the courses you take, your department, and even other institutions that house people in your field – but your graduate assistantship is a particularly ideal place. Your assistantship is how you earn money and gain experience, but it also keeps you in consistent contact with a supervisor who can do more than give you assignments every week. They can help you grow as an employee, a student, and as a person.

I have been very lucky for the mentors I’ve had over the course of my academic career. But the funny thing is, no two of them have looked the same, or had even remotely close resumes. One is an archivist, another is an associate dean, one a business manager, and finally a retired FedEx employee-turned-theatre director. Despite their varying backgrounds (or perhaps because of them) they each passed along lessons, skills, and connections that I wouldn’t have necessarily gone looking for, but that have fundamentally impacted the person I am today.

My guiding principle is this: everyone has something of value they can teach you. Try to keep these things in mind as you consider what you’re looking for in a mentor:

  • Mentorship doesn’t have to mean finding the carbon copy of the person you want to be after graduate school. Mentorship means finding a person you connect with who is interested and invested in helping you grow.
  • Of course, the right fit is crucial. If the person you’re working under happens to be involved in the specialty you’re interested in, great! That connection is a no-brainer. But even if they’re not, or if the assistantship isn’t in an area you ultimately want to be in, you can find something of value to take away from the experience.
  • You may find that your supervisor’s research, while different, lends itself to yours, or that their perspective or even their management style as a boss pushes you to be a better employee, or teaches you about the kind of boss you want to be someday. They might even open your mind, and help shape your resume, to new job opportunities and new perspectives.
  • There is value and possibility in even the seemingly most unlikely of places if you open yourself up to it.

Tips for Grads is a professional and academic advice column written by graduate students for graduate students at UW­–Madison. It is published in the student newsletter, GradConnections Weekly.