Honoring Outstanding Mentors


More than 50 faculty members were there to be honored. Students, staff, administrators, and colleagues filled the room to capacity to watch these professors be recognized and thanked for their outstanding achievements as graduate student mentors. The standing-room-only crowd was there to attend the First Annual Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awards ceremony of 'the Graduate Student Senate (GSS) at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. As president of the senate, implementation of these awards had been my goal for the year. But as I stood up with my fellow committee members to take my turn at the podium, I realized that it would be hard to express in a short speech our months of work designing and publicizing the awards and the difficulty we had selecting honorees from such a distinguished pool of candidates. In the end, more than by any speech I could give, the mentors were honored most by knowing their recognition had come directly from their own students.

The Importance of Mentoring

As almost anyone who has attended graduate school knows, faculty mentors play a critical role in graduate and professional training, and there is increasing awareness that good mentoring is just as important in graduate training as is solid teaching or research training [see, for example, the report of the American Association of Universities (AAU) Committee on Graduate Education]. And although "mentor" can be defined in many ways, a mentor for graduate students is--fundamentally--someone who serves as a guide for the student throughout her or his professional training, a responsibility that often includes providing not only professional but also personal support.

Furthermore, faculty mentors can make or break their students' postgraduate success. Good mentors may help ease the adjustment to graduate school (and the job market afterward), keep graduate students on track to finishing their degree in a timely manner, introduce students to important professional opportunities, and produce a better track record of postgraduate employment for students. Importantly, good mentors also encourage a "legacy of mentoring" in their students: Well-mentored students continue the cycle by becoming good mentors themselves.

Motivation for Developing Faculty Mentor Awards

Implementation of the GSS Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awards at Washington University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was prompted in part by the AAU committee report, as well as by a growing realization from discussions with graduate students that good faculty mentoring, although undeniably critical to graduate student success, was woefully underrecognized and -promoted among the faculty. The GSS wanted to find a positive way to promote excellence in mentoring, with the goal of both honoring faculty mentors who had given much to students and highlighting the important faculty responsibility of good mentoring.

Developing a Faculty Mentor Award Program

After creating an award committee of five graduate students from a range of disciplines, the first step in creating our own award program was to simply do some data gathering about similar programs that already existed. The Internet was one of the most helpful tools in this information search, and we found universities that currently have such programs in place, including Harvard University, Oklahoma State University, and the University of Maryland. Our committee was particularly impressed by the Harvard program, and we obtained permission from the Harvard award committee of graduate students to adapt some of their materials for our own program.

We also discovered that for any program, it is important to have or address the following (other details of the GSS program and how we dealt with these issues can be found at our Web site):

  • A list of criteria describing what constitutes outstanding mentoring. Because specific qualities differ from field to field, we tended to choose broadly based criteria that should apply to most excellent mentors while leaving room for students to interpret their own experiences accordingly. Our final decisions were based on our previous research into other award programs.

  • Nomination guidelines and procedures. Who qualifies for nomination? How are mentors nominated? Who is allowed to nominate mentors? Will nominations be confidential? How are nominations submitted (e.g., e-mail, Web, or snail mail)?

  • Marketing or publicity strategy. How will the program be advertised? Who will be targeted? How much time and money will be needed to get the word out?

  • Administrative support. Although this is not absolutely necessary, it certainly helps. Our university administration was extremely supportive of the program, even lending financial support for our awards ceremony. For example, the dean of the graduate school sent letters to department chairs, and he hosted an open forum discussion with graduate students on faculty mentoring. Both activities helped to promote the awards among graduate students and faculty, and they lent important legitimacy to the GSS efforts.

  • Selection criteria. Who will read the nominations? How will the nominees be rated? How will final award winners be selected from the pool of nominations? Will the names of all nominees be released?

  • Forum for final announcement and recognition. How will the awards be announced (e.g., awards ceremony or press release)? How will the honorees be recognized (e.g., prize, certificate, or dinner in their honor)?

  • Plans for follow-up. When all is said and done, how can the program be improved for the next year? Will previous winners be allowed to win the next year?

The Response

The response we received from our program was far beyond our expectations, with over 120 letters of nomination and support from current students and alumni. There was such an outstanding pool of nominees in our first year--over 50 individuals were nominated--that we chose to recognize nine faculty members as Outstanding Faculty Mentors of the Year and also to give certificates of special recognition to the other nominees. The flood of letters, the wonderful feedback from students, staff, and faculty, as well as the hundreds of people who attended the final award ceremony (some entire departments came!) made us realize just how important excellence in mentoring is to everyone at the university. Faculty members were moved and pleased to be recognized by their students, and students appreciated the opportunity to give something back to their mentors.

Future Directions

Because of the success of our mentor awards program in its first year, the university administration has increased funding for the program this year, so we can continue to improve and expand it. Feedback from the open forum discussion on faculty mentoring has given us new ideas about promoting mentoring, including the development of peer mentoring programs within departments and new workshops to prepare junior faculty for their roles as mentors.

It is clear from the response that the program positively reinforced the importance of faculty mentoring, and it really jumpstarted our academic body--including students, administration, and faculty--to become acutely interested in defining, recognizing, promoting, and supporting mentoring on campus. But perhaps the greatest feature of this program is that it was developed, publicized, and implemented by graduate students within a single academic year. I would hope that our rewarding experience will help to motivate all graduate students to find ways to promote recognition of excellence in faculty mentoring on their campuses.

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