Student Representative, Atina Manvelian, on Ways to Improve Mentor-Mentee Relationships

Improving Mentor-Mentee Relationships

by Atina Manvelian, The Academy of Psychological Clinical Science Student Engagement Committee
Beginning a 5- to 6-year doctoral program in clinical psychology is a massive endeavor that undoubtedly calls into question one’s professional capabilities and identity in the field.

Can I continuously analyze data and publish in top-tier scientific journals? Will I make a good therapist? How can I imagine myself in a role that is rarely occupied by someone from my background? Am I good enough?

During this vulnerable period of time, we turn to our doctoral advisors for guidance, but the quality of mentorship that we receive varies dramatically from lab to lab and there exists a tremendous lack of clarity about lab expectations. Graduate students are usually left to figure out what these lab expectations are on their own. For first-generation or underrepresented students, the challenge of navigating the mentorship relationship may be even greater.

How many hours am I expected to work in the lab? How quickly can I expect you to give me feedback? How do we resolve communication issues? The answers to these questions are often unclear.
Improving the Mentoring Relationship by Introducing Mentor-Mentee Agreements
Much like a job contract, Mentor-Mentee Agreements are informal contracts that are written by the PhD advisor. They may serve two primary purposes. First, these agreements should outline the lab culture and guidelines. For example, they might discuss the responsibilities of the mentor (i.e., process of feedback and responsivity, typical availability, resources available, and mentorship style), the responsibilities of the graduate student (i.e., vacation time, time commitment to the lab, important professional development opportunities such as conferences the lab attends), the publication process and expectations about how authorship order is determined, a description of how mentor-mentee disagreements are handled, and who the student can turn to for additional support. These general guidelines are meant to create more transparency in lab expectations, prevent miscommunication issues, and clarify how conflicts can be resolved when they arise. These agreements can also be signed off by a secondary advisor or staff member to provide both parties with support as needed.
Second, the next part of these agreements can be created to be more time specific, outlining the unique goals and milestones for each semester. For instance, mentors and mentees can meet to review how the last semester went and what goals were accomplished. During this time, they can gently provide one another with constructive feedback, further delineate their roles, and establish better practices for the future. Mentors and mentees can then turn to create the goals that are to be accomplished by the end of the upcoming semester and the roles/responsibilities of each party in ensuring that these goals are met. This latter half of the agreement can help everyone set goals and provide one another with feedback at a specific time each semester to ensure that both parties stay on track. All in all, Mentor-Mentee Agreements establish the guidelines of the lab, provide a space and time to give bidirectional feedback, and aim for transparency.
As the inaugural student representative for the Academy of Psychological Clinical Science (APCS), mentorship concerns are of the greatest importance to me and to many of the APCS members. I see mentorship as a very special relationship that either promotes or hinders our progress as budding clinical scientists. For these reasons, APCS’ Student Engagement Committee is currently working on putting together a package of how doctoral advisors might create a Mentor-Mentee agreement for their own labs—making what was once implicit more explicit for everyone involved. We hope that this endeavor will allow for greater transparency and communication between mentors and mentees, improving student wellness, decreasing conflict, and increasing the lab’s productivity.
*Announcements will be sent out when these agreement packages are ready to be disseminated!

Reprinted from the PCSAS Newsletter. 

PCSAS is an independent, non-profit body incorporated in December 2007 to provide rigorous, objective, and empirically based accreditation of Ph.D. programs in psychological clinical science (the terms psychological clinical science and scientific clinical psychology are used interchangeably).
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