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Graduate School Advisor vs. Mentor: What's the Difference?

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Elyse Jones / Flickr

Professors will play an enormous role in your graduate education. While it is easy to see how professors' work in the classroom influences your education, but you can learn much more from them through your interaction outside of class. Professors spend time conducting research, publishing, and grant- writing. Observe and learn from them and you'll make strides towards earning your graduate degree. In a nutshell, a good relationship with your professors, particularly your mentor, is essential to successfully completing your graduate program and your dissertation.

As they read and speak with other students, most graduate students notice the use of two terms to describe faculty who are particularly influential to a student's progress: advisor and mentor. Many students use these terms interchangeably. In practice, advisors and mentors are quite different.

An advisor is often assigned to you by the graduate program. Your advisor helps you select courses and might directs your thesis or dissertation. Your advisor may or may not become your mentor.

A mentor does not simply provide advice on curriculum issues, or what courses to take. A mentor is much more than an advisor. A mentor facilitates your growth and development - he or she becomes a trusted ally and guides you through the graduate and postdoctoral years. Students usually choose their mentors. In science, mentoring often takes the form of an apprenticeship relationship, sometimes within the context of an assistantship. The mentor aids the student in scientific instruction, but perhaps more importantly, socializes the student to the norms of the scientific community. The same is true in the humanities; however, the guidance is not as observable as teaching a laboratory technique. Instead, it is largely intangible, such as modeling patterns of thought. Make no mistake, science mentors also model thinking and problem solving.

Some may say that the difference between advisor and mentor is just semantic. These are usually the folks who have been lucky enough to have had advisors who take an interest in them, guide them, and teach them how to be professionals. That is, without realizing it, they have had advisor-mentors. Expect your relationship with your mentor to be professional but also personal. Many students maintain contact with their mentors after graduate school and mentors often are a source of information and support as new graduates enter the world of work.

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