FOCUS Research Mentoring Network
This project creates a live mentoring programme for current PhD students, in which recent PhD graduates in English offer support for students still working on their studies. It creates and trains a team of volunteer mentors who offer regular informal contact to PhD students, helping with all aspects of research and the PhD process. Importantly, the mentors function outside of the supervisory and Graduate Research Committee framework to provide a regular sounding board to PhD students.
An introductory meeting for all participants established each participant’s needs and matched students with suitable mentors. Regular mentor sharing sessions will be held throughout the year and a final invitation lunch will be held to pool the experiences of all participants and build for the following year. As well as encouraging community feeling and career development for both mentors and postgraduate students, this programme will have a significant impact on postgraduate student co-operation, confidence and connectivity. It is important to recognise that this project formalizes and makes visible activity that at an informal level is already being conducted today. It facilitates however an additional sharing of information, ideas, and support networks across the graduate community. The mentors benefit by receiving recognition and formal ALIVE accreditation for their invaluable volunteering efforts; each PhD student benefits enormously by having regular contact with a mentor who has faced similar challenges, enhancing their university experience and encouraging increased well-being and productivity.
Since initially proposing the idea for a PhD research mentoring network, we have given the programme the new title of FOCUS. We have also begun recruiting mentors and making all of the English PhD student cohort aware of the existence of this new programme.
We have met with Lorraine Tansey of the ALIVE student volunteering programme in order to exchange ideas and to iron out what is required in order to allow mentors to receive certification at the end of the year for their work. We have also had very fruitful meetings with John Hannon of the Career Development Centre, Cindy Dring of the Health Promotion Service, and Una McDermott and Matt Doran of Student Services (and founders of the Student Connect undergraduate mentoring programme). All involved have volunteered their time to help us get the programme up and running, and at least two of the above are participating in our initial mentor training day.
We have distributed an online anonymous questionnaire in order to gather feedback from fellow PhD students about the challenges they faced in the early stages of their research, and how they addressed those challenges. Using the information gathered in this way, we are shaping our mentor training day in order to best meet the needs and requirements of a PhD mentoring programme.
Our initial mentor training day has been organised for Wednesday 5th December, and it will involve a number of those people mentioned above delivering short talks and workshops on: the role of a mentor; the boundaries which must be observed; the bodies and institutions within the university and elsewhere toward which mentors can direct students; the theory behind the concept of mentoring; and the benefits of participation in mentoring from a career perspective.
Before the Christmas break, we will have paired up our recruited mentors with mentees in the early stages of their PhD research, and shortly afterwards we will host a lunch in which all mentors, mentees, and project leaders can be introduced to one another. This will mark the end of the initial organisation phase of the project and the full commencement of the mentoring process.
Our first mentor training day took place on the 5th December 2012. It was a very fruitful session, involving talks and workshops from Una McDermott and Cindy Dring of Student Services, and Lorraine Tansey of the ALIVE office. The role and responsibilities of the mentors was the primary focus of the day, and those volunteer mentors in attendance were unanimously positive in their feedback.
We are now working on pairing up mentors with mentees and are organising a second training day during which we can introduce a few new volunteers to the concept and provide all mentors with some further training which we were unable to provide in December due to the conflicting schedules of some of our trainers. We will not allow the mentors to begin working with mentees until after they have been sufficiently briefed and trained, so it is imperative that all mentors undergo the training process.
Once this has been achieved, we will host a lunch at which all mentors, mentees, and coordinators can be introduced to one another, thus helping to break the ice and marking the start of the mentor/mentee relationships.
Having recruited sufficient volunteer mentors, we recently held the second of our two training sessions. After that training session, and with all of our mentors having been instructed in the role of a mentor and the boundaries involved in that role, we invited the mentees (all first-year English PhDs) to join us for lunch. At the end of this lunch session, during which we discussed the initiative with the mentees and invited them to share with us what they hoped the programme would achieve, each mentor was paired up with a mentee. The establishment of the one-to-one mentoring relationships thus brought to a close the initial preparatory phase of this programme and marked the commencement of its active operation as a mentoring scheme.
The initial feedback we have received from the mentees has been overwhelmingly positive, and we will continue to regularly check in with both mentors and mentees at future planned group meetings and social gatherings to ensure we remain on track to deliver on the great potential of this programme.