Setting out on the quest to earn your online master’s degree? Just like Luke Skywalker had Yoda, Frodo leaned on Gandalf, and Harry relied on Dumbledore, your ability to find a mentor you can count on throughout your journey can make all the difference in your success.
While your graduate school experience may not involve trekking through Mordor or battling Voldemort, it will undoubtedly present its own unique challenges. Whether you’re tackling rigorous coursework, plotting a career path, or networking to build industry connections, these trials will require strength and wisdom to overcome.
After all, getting a master’s degree is your academic hero’s journey.
Just as characters from our favorite stories found guides to help them along the way, a trusted team of mentors can help illuminate your path and ensure your tale is one of epic growth and success. Read on to discover how to assemble your council of mentors for your online graduate school adventure.
How Mentors Can Unleash Your Full Potential
Like the partnership between Tony Stark and Peter Parker, the relationship you develop with your mentor can help you understand your strengths, increase your chances of academic triumph, and help you prepare for a brighter future. In fact, a recent Gallup study found that students with good mentors experienced higher levels of well-being and demonstrated nearly double the level of engagement in their professional work. Let’s delve deeper into how a mentor can transform your journey, setting you up for success in graduate school and beyond.
Avoiding Common Master’s Mistakes
The mentors you choose have likely already gone through getting a degree and building a successful career in the field or academia. With this experience comes a broader perspective on how your decisions fit into the grand scheme of things and where students commonly stumble or stall. As you face challenges, a skilled mentor can help you refocus your efforts, locate essential school resources, and take stock of your mental health.
Creating More Networking Opportunities
Networking is a rite of passage in the grad school experience, helping you form vital academic and professional connections with others in your field. However, it traditionally takes place in face-to-face meetings and in-person events. Online students often find it challenging to translate the experience to remote learning. A mentor can make networking more manageable by facilitating the flow of information and helping you locate online resources and organizations.
Providing Personal Guidance
Most students expect a master’s program to be academically challenging, but they may be surprised at the toll it takes on their personal lives, overall energy levels, and anxiety. Having another person who’s invested in you and your mental well-being provides encouragement and much-needed perspective that can boost your morale and mental health as you pursue your degree.
Sharing Knowledge and Skills
More often than not, your mentor was once a graduate school student, meaning they’ve also endured the trials and tribulations of higher education. They’re treasure troves of insight and tried-and-true strategies on everything from study techniques to selecting a path of study that aligns with your interests and aspirations. Their hands-on experience can equip you with a realistic understanding of your field and what it takes to achieve success.
Facilitating Career Readiness
A mentor who has achieved professional success in a given field can be an invaluable resource for helping you do the same by providing industry-specific guidance and practical advice drawn from their career. They can also help you understand current trends, in-demand skills on the job market, and what will make your resume stand out. Moreover, they can make introductions that lead to internships or job placements after graduation.
The Benefits of Having Multiple Mentors
Just as Buffy needed the diverse skills of Giles, Willow, Xander, and Spike to help her slay vampires and save the world, you’ll also benefit from building a multi-talented mentor team. Relying on a single mentor may not cover all your needs, even if they are exceptionally experienced and dedicated.
A well-rounded support system will help you prepare for whatever challenges come your way, dividing your needs across multiple people with diverse areas of expertise. Plus, when you engage more than one mentor, you’ll have a built-in safety net; should one mentor become unavailable on short notice, you’ll still be supported by the rest of your team. Let’s explore the advantages of multiple mentors as you navigate your online master’s degree.
Build More Focused Relationships
Finding a single mentor who can walk you through the academic, personal, and professional aspects of your graduate journey is unlikely. Even if such a mentor exists, it’s entirely possible that their outside commitments would prevent them from dedicating ample time to any one student. Shifting gears to a multiple-mentor approach is a practical and advantageous way to form focused relationships tailored to specific areas of your experience. For example, one mentor might be a skilled coach to guide you through professional networking, while another might excel in study strategies.
Gain Different Perspectives
Building relationships with multiple mentors exposes you to various perspectives and areas of expertise. Thanks to their unique backgrounds, each mentor will view and approach challenges through a different lens, offering a diverse selection of potential ideas. For online master’s students faced with developing their skills in a virtual environment, input from multiple mentors can also provide perspective, encourage critical thinking, and broaden understanding.
Open the Door for More Opportunities Post Master’s Degree
Diversifying your mentorship team not only provides you with a multitude of resources throughout your master’s program, but it also can pave the way for more post-graduation opportunities. Each mentor has a unique background and professional circle, naturally broadening your networking pool. While a professor can provide academic connections in research and journal publishing, a mentor from the professional world can introduce you to industry contacts. Aligning with mentors from several different backgrounds expands your network and potential opportunities after you’ve earned your degree.
Mentor Matchmaker: Finding the Perfect Guides for Your Online Master’s Journey
With the benefits of mentorship in mind, now it’s time to take a lesson from Stranger Things: In the show, we see Detective Hopper challenge Eleven to hone her talent and develop as a person, in the same way mentors should push you to succeed and foster your growth. Unlike Hopper and Eleven — whose paths crossed by fate — you’ll have to seek out mentors proactively. These mentors can substantially influence your academic success and professional connections, so choose wisely. While signing up with the first potential mentors who come your way might be tempting, don’t settle for less than what you need. What seems like the right fit might not yield the most fruitful relationships in the long term, and choosing mentorships with care and purpose can significantly enrich your experience in a master’s program.
Step One: Clarify Your Mentorship Goals
Assessing your goals and identifying anticipated educational and career challenges can reveal essential details about what you’ll need in a mentor. Here are some questions that can help you gain clarity in your mentor search:
- What am I hoping to achieve in my academic and professional life, and how can a mentor aid in the process?
- What specific skills or knowledge do I want to develop in my master’s program, and who could help me with that?
- What are some of the challenges I anticipate, and what kind of support will I need to face them?
- Do I prefer a mentor who will be a guide, a coach, or a sounding board?
- What values and communication style would I prefer in a mentor?
Step Two: Outline the Qualities of Your Ideal Mentors
Finding the right mentor is about more than searching for someone with impressive credentials. After all, Luke Skywalker was one of the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy, but he clearly wasn’t the best mentor for Kylo Ren. When outlining the attributes of a reliable mentor, consider the following:
- Are they knowledgeable about your school, major, or intended career path? Choose a mentor who can help you navigate at least one of these areas.
- Are they flexible? Each mentee is unique, and your needs may change over time.
- How are their communication skills? A mentor’s help is only as good as their ability to communicate their thoughts and advice with you.
- Are they excited to be your mentor? Choose someone who will be invested in you and your goals.
- Can they push you to succeed? Knowing when a student needs encouragement or extra motivation can facilitate meaningful growth.
Step Three: Identify Suitable Mentors
Choosing mentors who resonate with you and align with your goals is paramount for getting the support and direction you need. This may include people who bolster your academic ambitions, aid in professional growth, help you dig into research, or offer emotional encouragement. Consider the kind of guide you require and how you’d like your mentorship to unfold. To cultivate relationships, go out of your way to acquaint yourself with faculty, fellow students, and members of professional associations. Not sure where to start? Use the following list as a springboard to brainstorm possible mentors:
- Guidance Counselor
- Academic Advisor
- Teacher’s Aid (TA)
- Older students/Alumni
- Professionals in your desired field
- Life coach
Step Four: Determine Which Mentors Align with Your Graduate Goals
Identifying a range of possible mentors is an essential part of the equation, but choosing the best resources to help you achieve your goals is equally important. Before proceeding with an official mentor-mentee relationship, set up a time to ask questions and better understand how this relationship will be mutually beneficial. Here are some potential questions you can ask to gain critical insights:
- Have you ever mentored students with similar goals before?
- How did your previous mentorship experiences turn out?
- How do you approach challenges and obstacles within a mentorship?
- What is your communication style and availability?
- How does your experience line up with my academic and career objectives?
Mapping Out Your Mentorship Journey
Now that you have some possible mentors in mind, it’s time to take the proactive step of planning critical pieces of your collaboration. Here we turn to the Hunger Games for inspiration, reflecting on the idea that Haymitch was invaluable in helping Katniss gain the wisdom and cunning she needed to accomplish her goals. However, before they could truly be successful in defeating the Capitol, they had to learn to communicate, understand one another, and align their common goals.
Intentionally focusing on clear communication from the start is crucial to victory, helping you establish a mutual understanding of the purpose of your relationship, desired outcomes, preferred methods of communication, and frequency of interaction. Take ownership of your mentorship journey to set yourself up for success in the challenging yet rewarding arena of graduate studies.
Mentorship Resources for Online Master’s Students
Ready to assemble your mentorship team? Gathering a trustworthy team of advisors can feel overwhelming at times, but you have access to abundant online tools to help aid in your search for mentors. The following resources offer opportunities to support students earning their online master’s degree, facilitate networking, and find mentorship opportunities.
Ask a Master Mentor: How to Find the Right Match
Clay Shirky is vice provost for AI and technology in education at New York University, an associate professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and associate arts professor in the Tisch School of the Arts’ Interactive Telecommunications Program. Mr. Shirky has authored numerous books and penned regular columns for several publications, including Business 2.0 and FEED, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Wired, Computerworld, and Foreign Affairs. Throughout his career, Mr. Shirky has served as a mentor; below, he shares his insights on finding the right mentors
Can you share how your academic and career experiences have shaped your approach to mentorship?
Mentorship is one of the last parts of the institution that is not institutionalized. Most students benefit from mentorship of some sort, but there is no formal process for either assigning mentors or assessing mentorship. It retains some of the medieval origins of the university, functioning more like an apprenticeship than regular enrollment. Because it is so particular to the people involved, mentorship is a two-sided match — the student and the mentor each have to think the connection is a good idea for it to work.
Back when I was a student in the 1980s, the process was so opaque that we didn’t even talk about it, and when I first heard mentorship discussed formally, I thought “Well, I guess I didn’t really have a mentor when I was in school.” Then I remembered that my first job out of college was working for one of my professors, and I was like, “Ooh.” And of course, when something is implicit like that, some students will understand how to take advantage of it, and others won’t — it’s part of what Tony Jack at BU writes about in trying to describe the ways disadvantaged students can lack the necessary but tacit understanding of the hidden curriculum, the deep but unspoken norms of the systems they are operating in.
I wish departments were more transparent about the opportunities for those sorts of relationships, without trying to play matchmaker between students and faculty. This is something still best negotiated individually rather than departmentally.
How has the mentor-mentee relationship evolved with the shift to digital learning?
A mentor needs to care about a mentee as a student, as a future creator of good work, and as a person. There is rarely a moment where a student formally becomes a mentee. Instead, there’s a spectrum of engagement that scales from “you’re enrolled in my class, so I care about your work” to “you’re one of my people, and I care about your future.” The digital shift has the biggest effect on faculty’s sense of students as people. We know from social media that people can and do forge important relationships online every day. We also know that it takes a bit more deliberate effort, and that there is more room for missed signals or misunderstandings. In the context of digital learning, it’s worth being a bit more engaged.
Faculty can and should provide more opportunities for students to engage with each other and with the professor outside the class, even if that just means opening up Zoom 10 minutes before class and chatting with whomever shows up, or asking students to come to office hours. And students can be more direct about asking for advice. When you turn in an assignment, instead of just hoping for a good grade, you can ask for specific feedback — “I’m especially interested in this particular idea in my paper; can you suggest other things I should read?” or, “I enjoyed writing this, and I wonder if I could come talk with you about it after I get your comments back?”
How important is it for a mentor to have a robust network in their industry or academia?
It’s important if it’s important to the student. I’ve worked with students who have wanted to go into parts of the academy or industry I know well, and I’ve had students who mostly needed advice about their working methods or goals in fields I didn’t know as well. And different people can provide different things — there’s no guarantee that there is someone out there who will both tell you what you need to hear about project scope and approaches and have contacts the student should talk to.
For faculty, it’s important that we be clear about this with the students — to any given issue that requires interaction with someone more senior, the faculty member can say, “I can help,” “I know who can help,” or “I don’t know who can help.” Many of the negative stories around these kinds of relationships come from faculty suggesting that they can play a certain role and then failing at it, either because they were a bad fit, or because they weren’t actually engaged with the student. This is one of the situations around mentorship where clarity is the best policy.
When it comes to finding a mentor, what are some red flags that might signal to a student that a potential mentor might not be the best fit?
I mean, same red flags as in-person. There are some behaviors that shade into abuse, but even outside those obvious “get out” behaviors, faculty who rely on students for work or support outside of academic effort (picking up dry cleaning is a famous red flag offline; I suppose the online version would be being asked to do things like booking travel).
There are subtler issues in the context of academic work. There is some apprenticeship value in helping a faculty member prepare for a talk (summarizing papers, producing slides), but if it is always about the faculty’s work but unrelated to what the student is working on, or if it is consulting work for which the faculty member is being paid but the student is not, that can be worrying.
And the one thing that is different about online is that there is much less casual contact, much less running into one another in the halls. Some stories of failed mentorship involve a student thinking the faculty member is going to support them — sometimes because the faculty member said so, sometimes because the student wrongly inferred it, often in between — and then gets let down. Because online has much less casual interaction, it’s harder to tell if a delay in responding to a request for help is because the putative mentor is interested but swamped, or if it’s because they are not really interested.
When COVID hit, I was working with a grad student on her thesis without her being in a class of mine, and we just scheduled regular check-ins, which kept both the work and the conversation between us on track. Online, you have to be a little bit more structured like that to make up for the decline in serendipity.
What strategies would you suggest for maintaining a positive and mutually beneficial relationship with an online (or any) mentor throughout a master's program?
Be interested, and be interesting. If you are talking to a faculty member whose work or insights interest you, say so, and if you are working on something you think they would have a good perspective on, say that as well. This goes back to mentorship being a more organic relationship than enrollment — it’s not like you have conversations with all of your professors, but just one of them will hand you a special badge that says “Mentee.”
If you engage with your professors, maybe one of them will become disproportionately important to your career. Maybe several of them will offer different things you need. Maybe you will get more out of your coursework. Any of those things could happen if you treat classes as an invitation to learn more than what’s on the syllabus. Most of them won’t if you don’t.
How do you incorporate the principles of good mentorship into your role as vice provost, particularly in designing and developing online education offerings?
Where online learning is weak, it is often because it gets stripped of the more exploratory, playful, or random aspects of human encounters. NYU is a research university with deep habits of deferring to faculty in how they run their classes, but when we provide technological tools, we also try to provide guides and workshops with multiple modes of delivery — like Zoom rooms with shared Google docs so people can see each other’s work as it is developing; use of online brainstorming, whiteboarding, or note-posting tools; using video to bring in guests from around the world; and so on.
When you look at TikTok, YouTube, or even Instagram, there are people creating instructional content for all kinds of things. When faculty are more open to teaching in engaging ways, it can make it easier for the students to engage in other ways as well.
With your extensive study of the internet and its impact, combined with your role in shaping the academic aspects of technology-based teaching and learning at a university level, how do you envision the future of mentorship in online education?
Learning can be a solo act, but education is necessarily social. It involves not just knowledge transfer but identity formation, and it happens in an institutional context. Now that nearly every college and university in the U.S. can deliver at least some online courses, I’d love to see greater concern for interactions that are not just about utilitarian delivery of lectures, assignments, assessments, and so on. If we allow more of the student-to-student and student-to-faculty conversation to flourish online, improvements in mentorship will follow.