Tips for Faculty Who Mentor Students Who are Working Professionals

Categories: Focus Series, Instruction, MentorSpace, Other, Research, Research Roles, Research Skills, Supervising and Teaching Research Skills and Roles

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In December we explored research and practice, and in January we are looking at the various roles researchers play– and the skills and mindsets needed to play them successfully. In June and July we are focusing on careers. This post bridges these topic areas, with tips about how to mentor other adults for academic and career success, whether they are students or novices on a project team. Also see this video interview with Dr. Gary Burkholder.

For those of us who mentor students who have significant professional experience, we recognize that mentoring them is a different kind of experience from mentoring younger students who don’t yet have similar experience. While most traditional students go directly from their bachelor’s degree programs to graduate school, the majority of non-traditional students have a gap in time during which they tend to establish careers and raise families. Therefore, many of these students have a significant gap between the time they graduate and when they return to school to pursue advanced degrees. This gap can yield mentoring challenges and opportunities because, at a minimum, such students might need to re-acclimate to academic study. Below we share some of our collective experiences with mentoring working adult professionals and late-returning students.

  • There may be much more anxiety with respect to graduate study. Students who have been out of school for some time will likely be anxious about their ability to be successful in graduate school. When we work with such students, we take this into account and spend the time necessary to help calm their fears. This approach includes more use of video conferencing and other modes of real-time communication to establish rapport and develop a close working relationship. Having direct access to mentors can be calming to many students. We also try to find ways to connect current social science controversies and research experiences to life experiences.

    For example, there has been varying discussions around how much homework to assign in K-12 settings, with plenty of passionate debate. There are however empirical studies on the matter that have been informed by meta-analyses that can guide decision making. If returning students happen to be parents, this presents an opportunity to simultaneously help them appreciate meta-analyses, the design of component studies, and how evidence might inform policy and teaching.
  • Their writing skills may need to be re-developed. Students who have been away from academic writing for a long time are going to have a bit of a learning curve to develop or re-develop their skills. Understanding the writing resources of your institution and what is available publicly, such as the OWL site at Purdue University ( or the Walden University Academic Skills Center ( can really help students to focus on getting tutoring in the skills they need to be successful writers.
  • Most students will have some level of “statistics anxiety.” This anxiety is to be expected, even among traditional students, and it is made more complicated in that some students know that they will not be pursuing a career as an academic researcher. Be ready to guide students on what they need to know to complete the thesis or dissertation, but do not assume that, because you had extensive research design and statistics courses in your program, that your students should have the same. Further, be prepared to describe the practicality of good statistical practice (consider points raised above). We wrote the book, Research Design and Methods: An Applied Guide for Scholar-Practitioners primarily for this audience, and such a book can really help faculty mentors to understand where to focus the learning and skills of their master’s and doctoral mentees.
  • Many students are at an age when significant life events are starting to happen or have already occurred. As we get older, many life events start to occur that can delay progress. Graduation of children, illness of family members, and other life events can be deterrents to completing studies. It is important that mentors be aware of potential obstacles and that students are not usually “making excuses” for not getting work done. Appropriately advising students when to take leaves of absence, for example, can help them to focus on family and friends when needed that will allow them to focus later on their academic studies.
  • There may be unrealistic expectations among students about the expectations for a doctoral dissertation or master’s thesis. It will be helpful for mentors to be honest with mentees about the expected rigor and time commitment for the dissertation or thesis from the beginning of their program of study. This honest dialogue is particularly critical when the coursework ends, as writing the dissertation and thesis is a more unstructured experience. Be honest about what is required of the dissertation or thesis, and be ready to find ways, such as through regular, synchronous communication, to provide structure in a less structured experience.
  • Students may benefit from writing intensive experiences. Most non-traditional students will be working full time and managing families; thus, they may benefit from dedicated time to think and write. Many institutions offer intensive experiences that allow students to focus on their research. If your institution offers this, encourage students to take advantage of this opportunity.
  • Set high expectations. Students appreciate honest feedback and high expectations. They want to get their degrees and do not want to be spending a lot of extra time going down paths that lead to nowhere. Be honest in your feedback to them and be diligent in keeping them on track. Develop learning plans with them; encourage your mentees to create a timeline, and then work with them to stay close to that timeline. This plan will help them in the long run to complete their degrees at the lowest possible educational cost. The plan is especially important for adult learners, as they are trying to balance professional careers, families, and obtaining their advanced degrees; for many, this can be three full time jobs! Be understanding of this complexity.
  • Recognize that your experience is not your student’s experience. Finally, recognize that you had your own experience with expectations from your own mentors that might not have relevance to the students you are mentoring. Many of us were traditional students, and just because we had certain experiences doesn’t mean that our mentees should have those same experiences.

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