How to Thrive in Graduate School (Whatever That Means)

By Colleen Wood of Columbia University

Photo by Charles DeLoye on Unsplash

In addition to thematic panels, the 77th Annual MPSA Conference offered a wide range of roundtables on professional development including practical discussion of fieldwork and research tools and bigger debates on pedagogical practices and public engagement. Here I want to focus on the “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series and highlight common themes and advice that came up across panels.

Research

Coming up with worthwhile research questions, conducting research, and writing up results is a major draw to the academic lifestyle. While many political science PhD programs offer coursework in research design and methods, it’s not exactly clear how to ask a good question and make sure people hear the answer. Allison Quatrini of Eckerd College assured the audience that there’s no single best way to do research, but that when choosing a dissertation topic, it’s better to pose a big question than to show off methods skills to address a narrow topic.

To figure out what the big questions are, several panelists suggested keeping either a digital or analog journal with ideas that come to mind while reading for coursework and comprehensive exams early on in the Ph.D. process. Cynthia Duncan Joseph from the University of South Carolina explained that she writes a daily “wonder list” where she jots down anything she’s wondering about – academic or otherwise. She mentioned coming back to her wonder list every so often for research ideas.

For those who have found their question and have started collecting data, panelists discussed the best ways to promote their findings. While some are concerned that political scientists aren’t doing enough to communicate their research to the public, strategies for becoming a public-facing academic were a popular topic throughout the series. Gregory Collins from Yale University said that translating academic research for the public or policymaking communities is important, especially for theorists.

But how to do that? No format is necessarily better than the rest, according to Kimberly Turner from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. Op-eds, academic blogs, and podcasts can all be excellent platforms for sharing your ideas. “You get to tinker, so play — enjoy yourself and explore different formats to see what grabs your attention,” she told the audience at the Friday morning session.

Teaching

While research is often the focus of conversations about graduate students’ work life, panelists agreed that teaching is just as important and deserves as much attention.

When it comes to deciding whether to pursue a Ph.D. at all,  Allison Quatrini suggested asking what the teaching assistant (TA) experience looks like. There is a wide range of potential teaching assignments, from only grading assignments for a professor to organizing recitation sections or building your own class entirely.

At the graduate students’ perspective session, multiple panelists emphasized the need to pursue your own professional development. Luisa Turbino Torres from the University of Delaware explained that she is proactive about sitting in on undergraduate lectures and asking professors she admires to share their syllabi. Turner agreed and suggested that graduate students attend teaching and learning conferences, whether organized specifically around questions of teaching or sessions contained within bigger conferences like MPSA or APSA. Turner said she learned a lot about writing a syllabus and learning how to control a classroom, both of which she described as “crafts no one teaches you to do.” These skills are especially crucial for political scientists, given that we are talking about “something as incendiary as politics.”

Mentorship

Panelists across the sessions agreed on the importance of triangulating mentorship. They spoke about developing vertical and horizontal ties, emphasizing the importance of diversifying the range of perspectives and opinions. When it comes to picking an official advisor and building a committee, panelists recognized the need to balance department politics with interpersonal dynamics. “You don’t have to pick the obvious person,” Hannah Alarian from Princeton assured the audience. “Choose a mentor and be willing to fire them.”

In the Friday morning roundtable highlighting graduate students’ perspectives on succeeding in a Ph.D. program, panelists mentioned building relationships with grad students at other universities. Twitter and MPSA working groups like the Midwest Women’s Caucus, the Midwest Latino/a Caucus, and the Caucus for LGBTQ Political Science provide a great space for horizontal networking and creating a feeling of home in the discipline.

Mental health

The psychological stress of balancing imposter syndrome, teaching loads, research projects, and side hustles takes a serious toll on graduate students. Collins said that there are less frequent validations of success in graduate school, compared to other professions; this adds serious psychological weight to completing graduate study, he said.

The conversation about mental health continued into the Friday morning panel. Michael Widmeier from the University of North Texas lamented the stigma surrounding mental health challenges in academia. The energy and vulnerability required to communicate with one’s advisor and department administrators about mental health make it especially difficult to accommodate. Turbino Torres agreed and said she felt a huge relief after meeting other students and professors who are open to talking about anxiety and depression.

Success

With so much advice about conducting research, teaching, and taking care of your mental health, anyone in the audience should be able to thrive in graduate school just as the series title promised, right? But success is hardly a fixed concept, and panelists stressed the importance of setting your own terms for flourishing in a Ph.D. “Success looks different for everyone,” Alarian. “But shared tenets exist.”

One of those shared tenets: building a personal life and identity beyond your department. Widmeier’s comment that “Personal life is… a thing” was met with laughter, but the panelists tried to offer concrete suggestions for developing a healthy work-life balance. Pursuing hobbies, making friends outside the university, and focusing on family can all offer perspective and alternate sources of validation.

The “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series was certainly not the first time these conversations were hashed out, and it hopefully won’t be the last. Open discussions about struggles and success like this are crucial for uncovering academia’s hidden curriculum, and it is reassuring that MPSA continues to revisit these questions year after year.

About the Author: Colleen Wood is a Ph.D. student at Columbia University. Her research focuses on identity, migration, and the state in Central Asia. She writes about Central Asian society and politics for The Diplomat and is also a blogger for the 2019 MPSA conference in Chicago. Get in touch with Colleen on Twitter at @colleenewood or email at c.wood@columbia.edu.

 

Two Paths to the Palmer House: Planning for the #MPSA19 Conference

By Colleen Wood of Columbia University

Two Paths to the Palmer House: Planning for the #MPSA19 Conference

Being a first-timer at MPSA is often synonymous with attending and presenting at any political science conference for the first time. For those graduate students who will be presenting their research for the first time, the weeks leading up to MPSA are intense and exciting all at once (or at least, that’s how I’m feeling).

It would be convenient to gather all the “how-to’s” and “best practices” in one powerful post, but grouping all this advice together misses out on potentially powerful cleavages that divide the young academic community. After all, there are a million ways to divide humankind into two camps: morning people and night owls; inbox zero zealots and those who regularly run out of space on their Gmail; over-planners and the rest of us with a more “seat-of-their-pants” approach to the world. Normally any one of these differences is enough to undermine a working relationship; but since we first-time MPSA attendees have to stick together, I offer advice for preparing for the conference according to two different philosophies of time.

Three Weeks Until MPSA

In the deliberate planner’s mind, there’s no time like the present to build an MPSA schedule. She searches the All-Academic website for interesting panels (based mostly on buzzwords from her dissertation prospectus and random sub-sub-subfields she read about for comps once) and carefully records all the panels of interest in her bullet journal. There’s a color-coding schema involved, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

At this point, the extemporary grad student knows MPSA is coming up but has too much on his plate at the moment to worry about the future. He thinks about his conference paper for a while in the shower one morning and plans out the perfect intro paragraph, but loses his train of thought immediately after sitting down to write. No worries, he’ll finish the paper later (but definitely by the March 22 deadline).

Two Weeks Until MPSA

Both the go-with-the-flow and hyper-methodical attendees manage to put the finishing touches on their conference papers to upload to the MPSA website and submit to their discussants by March 22. Philosophies about planning and the order of the universe aside, everyone is in this to get feedback on their work, which even the most chronically-late student can appreciate.

Riding the high of submitting something before a deadline, the spontaneous student scribbles out a few goals for her first MPSA on post-its she’ll attach to her desktop for motivation. She’s not too nervous about her panel, though, since it’s so far away.

Submitting his paper awakened a fire in the organized student, who got to work immediately researching the venue and planning out a walking tour. Even after walking around the hotel in Google Street View and downloading an app to reserve parking spots for cheap far in advance, though, he craves more information. This grad student registers for an online orientation for first-time attendees (the one on March 18th looked good but the one on March 26 at 11am Eastern worked better for his schedule) and rests assured knowing all his questions will be answered.

One Week Before MPSA

With only a week left to prepare for his first conference, the procedure-oriented student has decided to get serious. She organizes her thoughts using DAGitty in place of her more traditional vision board. There, she carefully charts everyone she wants to ask for coffee or lunch meetings against a list of carefully curated spots with a good vibe, that aren’t too close to the hotel (the lines will be long with conference-goers who just googled “coffee” before their panel), and are also friendly to a grad student budget

After seeing a friend of a friend post on Twitter that they’ll also be in Chicago next week for the conference (all thanks to the #MPSA19 hashtag), the planning-averse student remembers to reach out to other friends and a few scholars whose work he admires to meet up.

Three Days out from MPSA

The first-time attendee who takes life as it comes realizes he is relieved to be participating in a Junior Scholar Symposium, mostly because it means he doesn’t need to play around with Beamer templates for a few hours before actually building a slide deck. He hunkers down to finish reading and jotting down comments on the other panelists’ papers.

Meanwhile the hyper-organized student has had her slides ready for so long it feels like the content is tattooed on the inside of her eyeballs. She continues to practice the talk, trying to shave off an extra 37 seconds to get her presentation to fit neatly in the 15-minute allotment.

The Morning of MPSA

The more spontaneous grad student screenshots a map of the Palmer House while on the train from the airport to the hotel; she circles the room where her presentation will be and figures she’ll look through the program later that morning to choose panels to attend based on proximity to her new home base.

Before checking in to the hotel, she stops by a grocery store to pick up some snacks – cold brew concentrate, energy bars, dried fruit. As she’s standing in the checkout line, she’s proud of thinking to buy food ahead of time; none of these snacks make too much noise to eat, so she won’t embarrass herself in a panel, and it’s a way to save money since she already maxed out her department’s travel reimbursement fund for the year.

By this point, the planning-intensive student has already organized his store-bought snacks by calorie count and color in his hotel room and is heading to the conference. On the walk from his room to registration, he practices his elevator pitch introduction in anticipation of all the people he’ll meet that day.

Fortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for making the most of your first MPSA. Whether you’ve got backups to your backup plans or intend to roll in with an off-the-cuff attitude, remember that we are all descending on the Palmer House Hilton for similar reasons: to make connections, learn something new, and get productive feedback on our work.

About the Author: Colleen Wood is a PhD student at Columbia University. Her research focuses on identity, migration, and the state in Central Asia. She writes about Central Asian society and politics for The Diplomat and is also a blogger for the 2019 MPSA conference in Chicago. Get in touch with Colleen on Twitter at @colleenewood or email at c.wood@columbia.edu.

Previewing the 77th Annual MPSA Conference Program: A Selection of Professional Development Panels for Graduate Students

By Charmaine N. Willis of University of Albany, SUNY

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As panelists frantically completing their papers and presentations are acutely aware, the 77th Annual MPSA Conference is fast approaching. In addition to some excellent topical panels, this year’s conference offers a bevy of roundtables on professional development, ranging from pedagogy to research to the job market. In this post, I preview several roundtables and series that may especially be helpful for graduate students. I highlight the “Student” professional development series (with the exclusion of the “How to Thrive in Graduate School” series, to be covered by fellow MPSA blogger Colleen Wood). Additionally, I preview other professional development roundtables regarding research that may be helpful to graduate students. Please note that this list does not contain information about all of the professional development roundtables, so it may be worth perusing the professional development offerings in the online program on your own.

What to Expect at a Job Interview at a Teaching School
The student professional development panels kick off with a session of “What to Expect at a Job Interview at a Teaching School” on Friday, April 5, from 8 to 9:30 am. This session may be particularly relevant to advanced doctoral students who are getting ready to go onto or are already on the academic job market, although it could be useful for doctoral students early in their programs. As several authors note, the hiring process for “teaching schools” such as small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) is different from that of research-intensive institutions and job candidates must think about how to package themselves and their research accordingly. Therefore, this is an important panel for those interested in teaching-intensive positions. Another session is offered on Saturday afternoon from 4:45 to 6:15 pm with a different set of panelists. Note that these sessions are not sequential.

The Non-academic or Alt-ac Job Search
A single session of “The Non-academic or Alt-ac Job Search” panel is on Saturday, April 6, from 9:45 to 11:15 am. This session is particularly useful for graduate students interested in jobs outside of academia or those considering a wide range of jobs after grad school. Graduate students and other scholars are increasingly considering jobs outside of academia, often due to the well-documented perils of the academic job market or the challenges of working in academia. That said, the hunt for jobs outside of academia is different: how does one translate the skills learned in grad school to the “real world”? This panel will be invaluable to students in providing insights from those who have navigated the non-academic job market with a Ph.D.

Preparing for the Job Market – CV to Teaching Statements
For those interested in applying for academic jobs, the “Preparing for the Job Market – CV to Teaching Statements” panel is on Sunday, April 7 from 9:45 to 11:15 am. This session could be useful for graduate students at any level, though especially for students preparing to enter the academic job market. Both well-organized and well-executed CVs and teaching statements are important for success on the job market. However, they can be difficult to do well. As such, insights from the panelists on how to create solid job market documents will be invaluable to graduate students.

What to Do/Not Do at a Job Talk
The final panel in the student professional development series is “What to Do/Not Do at a Job Talk” on Sunday, April 7, from 11:30 am to 1:00 pm. Job talks are a crucial part of the academic job interview process. Potential future colleagues not only evaluate candidates’ research but also their presentation skills and ability to think on their feet. Unsurprisingly, there are several considerations in delivering a good job talk presentation. Graduate students interested in the academic job market should attend this panel and take advantage of the opportunity to learn through others’ experiences.

There are several other panels on professional development topics that may be useful for graduate students; I discuss one of them here.

The Research Professional Development Series
There are several panels in the research professional development series that will be useful for graduate students, especially doctoral students before and during their dissertation research. This series offers several useful sessions on data collection methods including: “How to do Fieldwork” (April 4, 9:45-11:15 am), “How to Use Text as Data” (April 5, 1:15-2:45 pm), and “How to Conduct Surveys” (April 6, 9:45-11:15 am). While many graduate students read about these data collection methods, they can be very different in practice as my recent fieldwork experience has taught me. Therefore, getting insights from researchers who have used these methods will be invaluable to students in conducting their own research. Additionally, there are a few panels about one of the most important parts of research: procuring funding. Unfortunately, both “Small Grants and Private Foundations” and “Grant Opportunities & Strategies” are offered at the same time on Saturday, April 6 (1:15 to 2:45 pm).

About the Author: Charmaine N. Willis is a PhD Student in the Department of Political Science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her research focuses on civil society and contentious politics. Her current project examines the role of framing in anti-US military contention in East Asia. You can also find Charmaine on Twitter and her website.

Juggling Academic Time and Technology: Advice from a Millennial

By Garrett Pierman of Florida International University

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The digital age is in full swing, especially in academia. In class, our students, if they are allowed, are browsing, tweeting, liking, and sharing across the web. They are also, one can hope, occasionally taking notes. Maybe you’re doing much the same – a like here, a comment there to break up the research sessions or avoid awkward small talk in the elevator. At home, our phones are our constant companions as we compulsively check for email replies, student concerns, and notifications from the academic and public political worlds. Technology has enabled us to do more. More work with more information, citing more literature, and reflective of more data, more of the time. This looks, from a distance, wonderfully efficient: we’re reachable at a moment’s notice, our inboxes are tidy, and our instantaneous information spigots are always open. But is more, in terms of the use of technology, always better?

Demirbilek and Talan, in their 2017 study of student multitasking, empirically confirm the suspicions of most instructors (Demirbilek and Talan 2018, 117–29). Students who have the ability to text and use social media in class do so, and their grades suffer as a result of their distraction. This situation is a familiar one – it increasingly seems that our glassy-eyed students can only see the world through an Instagram filter.

We would be naïve to think that this same distractedness that is affecting our students passes us by. On the professorial side of the desk, every distracted moment must be paid back, often from the already spartan reserves of personal time. At family gatherings, in quiet moments of rare leisure, even at the dinner table, we find ourselves as acquaintances in our present moments as we pass from one byte of work to another on our phones. This distracted and alienated state, which increases stress, strains personal relationships, and tempts academics to devote even more time to the already demanding ivory tower, has gotten so out of hand that the French have passed a “right to disconnect law”, forbidding employers from expecting employees to reply to work emails outside of paid hours (“For French Law On Right To ‘Disconnect,’ Much Support — And A Few Doubts.” NPR. February 3, 2017). This attempt to demarcate the spaces of work and leisure is unlikely to pass here in the United States, especially in academia, but has some lessons to teach us.

Here are some of the practices my colleagues and I have developed over the years to more intentionally use technology to work better, have more free time, and increase our qualities of life:

  1. Consider a device ban in your classroom.
    Setting a device ban forces each student to be present in the classroom. While some of them will be skeptical until their grades improve, selling it as a deliberate break from life outside of the present moment, such as many of us do at dinners with friends, has convinced many of my students.
  2. Set email office hours and expectations.
    Set a time (or a few) during the day to check and respond to emails. Make these times known to students and colleagues so they know when to expect replies. At the extreme end, you can sign out of your academic email totally outside of these hours, forcing you to become more deliberate about checking and, as a bonus, less tempted to check during moments of downtime.
  3. Uni-task purposely.
    Teach when you teach, email when you email, and sleep when you sleep. Our brains do better when we focus on one thing at a time, even though we prefer variety over monotony. Thus, spend shorter periods doing a sequence of different things instead of all-day doing a less productive mix of emailing, engaging in the present moment, etc.
  4. Demarcate spaces.
    In addition to the signing off and uni-tasking, consider leaving your devices out of certain spaces entirely. For instance, if you find yourself staying up late checking your phone in bed rather than sleeping, consider putting the phone on the other side of the room. Not only will you be forced to actually sleep in your bed, but you will also have to physically get up to turn off any morning alarms, which makes snoozing less likely.
  5. Embrace your free time.
    Now that you’ve signed off and put your phone away, go do something else outside of work. Sleep. Read. Cook. Spend the energy you would have wasted multi-tasking on pondering instead of a distraction. Taking the time to be rested, engaged, and mentally well, as a mentor of mine likes to put it, is the part of your job you do before you get to school.

In reading this, you might get the idea that I’m a Luddite. If anything, I am the opposite: as a millennial and a scholar, I see the amazing productivity and progress that we can do with technology. But these accomplishments are less likely when we are screen-addicted zombies. To combat that tendency, I simply suggest here that we take a good, hard look at our daily practices with technologies and ask what we can do better. In order to stay productive, sometimes we need to turn off the phones, tune out the email, and drop out of the digital world, at least until tomorrow.


Note from the Author: As educators, we have to consider the environments we create in our classrooms. Our use of technology has to be beneficial and inclusive to make learning possible. Thus, we have a responsibility to take into account that none of these are one-size fits all solutions. While suggesting to some students to unplug during class may well help them, that is not always the case: many students use laptops and other devices to be able to fully participate in our classes. We should encourage them to do so. Any device policies we include should make room for good-faith use of these devices without the student having to disclose anything sensitive, such as disability status, to anyone including us. Instead, any advice I give here is meant to start a conversation about how we want to use technology: inclusive course design must also be part of that conversation (https://www.chronicle.com/article/Should-You-Allow-Laptops-in/245625/).

About the Author: Garrett Pierman is a PhD Student in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University. His research focuses on the ways in which technology affects democratic discourse. His work has appeared in the Journal of Strategic Security, the journal Class, Race, and Corporate power, as well as the Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.  

 

The views and opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Midwest Political Science Association, MPSA staff, and/or other site contributors.

MPSA Roundtable: The Path to Full

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This MPSA roundtable session on “MPSA Roundtable: The Path to Full”, hosted by the Midwest Women’s Caucus and chaired by Tiffany Barnes of the University of Kentucky, features James Adams of University of California, Davis, Leslie Schwindt-Bayer of Rice University, and Miki Kittilson of Arizona State University, Tempe.

This panel examines the path to full professorship by facilitating a discussion of the participants’ journeys to become full professors.

Highlights from the discussion include important points in the transition between the associate and full professor levels, including the importance of career mentoring during this time, and advice on moving from the associate to full professor level. Questions discussed during the roundtable address what it means to be a full professor, what this looks like at different institutions, and what being a full professor means to each of the panelists.

Topics of discussion include:

  • New opportunities for longer term or higher risk projects.
  • Advocating for junior faculty members.
  • Responsibilities toward departmental infrastructure development.
  • Additional administrative and service responsibilities that come with becoming a full professor.

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Listen to the panel on Soundcloud.

MPSA Members can log in to access a variety of recordings from highlighted MPSA conference presentations. Additional podcasts from select MPSA conference roundtables are also available.

Mentors play Critical Role in Quality of College Experience, New Poll Suggests

By Leo M. Lambert, Elon University; Jason Husser, Elon University, and Peter Felten, Elon University This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

In order to have a rewarding college experience, students should build a constellation of mentors.

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Strong relationships with professors are key to a rewarding college experience, a new poll finds. VGstockstudio/www.shutterstock.com

This constellation should be a diverse set of faculty, staff and peers who will get students out of their comfort zones and challenge them to learn more – and more deeply – than they thought they could. Students should begin to build this network during their first year of college.

Those are some of the key takeaways from a new Elon University Poll of a nationally representative sample of more than 4,000 U.S. college graduates with bachelor’s degrees. These are points two of us plan to explore more deeply as co-authors of a forthcoming book on mentoring in college.

We bring different perspectives to this project. One of us is a former college president. Another is a scholar of undergraduate education. The third author of this article is a political scientist who directs the Elon Poll.

The Elon University Poll and the Center for Engaged Learning examined the nature and qualities of relationships that matter most for college students. The poll found that graduates who had seven to 10 significant relationships with faculty and staff were more than three times as likely to report their college experience as “very rewarding” than those with no such relationships. Similar effects were found for peer relationships in college.

The first year of college is crucial in establishing the foundation for these relationships, which will not only influence students’ time in college but a large part of the rest of their lives. In the Elon Poll, 79 percent of graduates reported meeting the peers who had the biggest impact on them during their first year of college. And 60 percent reported meeting their most influential faculty or staff mentors during that first year.

A new Elon University Poll shows students with larger peer networks find college more rewarding. – Chubarov Mikhail/www.shutterstock.com

The classroom is the most common place that students say they encountered both influential faculty members and peers.

This Elon Poll builds on a rich body of research on the power of relationships with peers, faculty, advisers and other mentors, and how those relationships influence student learning, a sense of belonging and achievement.

For instance, in the landmark 1977 work “Four Critical Years,” Alexander Astin of UCLA noted that “student-faculty interaction has a stronger relationship to student satisfaction with the college experience than any other student involvement variable.” Another pioneering researcher, Vincent Tinto of Syracuse University, documented how the most effective undergraduate experiences “enable the faculty and staff to make continuing, personal contact with students.” Sociologists Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs offered this sage message after their 10-year examination of students at Hamilton College: “Spend your time with good people. That’s the most important thing.”

Relationships make a big difference

Following up on a 2014 Gallup-Purdue national survey, the Elon Poll found that more than 80 percent of respondents reported their most important faculty or staff relationship formed in college was with someone who made them excited about learning, cared about them as a person and encouraged them to pursue their dreams.

Having even a very small number of meaningful relationships made a big difference. Forty-six percent of respondents with just one or two significant faculty or staff relationships rated college as “very rewarding,” as compared to just 22 percent of those with no such relationships. Similarly, 48 percent of respondents with one or two significant peer relationships rated college as “very rewarding,” as compared to 25 percent who lacked those types of connections. When it comes to relationships in college, quality matters more than quantity.

These findings make plain that the best undergraduate education – for all students at all types of institutions — is one in which students form sustained relationships with peers, faculty, staff and other mentors.

What colleges and universities do matters

Unfortunately, not all students form the kind of relationships that are key to a rewarding college experience. Indeed, the Elon Poll suggests that some who are the first in their family to attend college often don’t have as strong of a mentoring constellation as those with at least one parent who attended college.

Significantly, 15 percent of first-generation graduates reported zero influential relationships with faculty or staff while in college, as compared to only 6 percent of those with a college-educated parent. And 29 percent of graduates with a college-educated parent reported more than seven significant relationships with faculty or staff, compared to 17 percent for first-generation students.

Students have an important role in building these constellations, but so do colleges and universities.

Initiatives like Elon University’s Odyssey Scholars program for first-generation students put faculty, staff and peer mentors in place from the start of college. Odyseey Scholar director Jean Rattigan-Rohr reports an 89 percent four-year graduation rate for the two most recent groups of scholars. This rate exceeds the rate for the student body as a whole. Similarly, but at a much bigger institution, the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan (TIP) at the University of Texas at Austin provides peer mentoring and expert advising to at-risk incoming students. Thanks in part to these relationships, more TIP students have GPAs above 3.0 than their non-TIP peers.

Since contact with faculty early on is critical for all students, the Elon Poll reinforces existing scholarship that urges colleges to place their best teaching faculty in first-year classes. A study of some two dozen colleges and universities demonstrates that frequent and meaningful student-faculty interactions significantly improves student motivation and achievement.

You can find mentors in many places

The poll also found that not all of the most influential mentors are professors. Notably, one-third of our respondents identified a staff member – that is, an administrator, student life worker or support staff – rather than a professor as their most influential mentor.

Every staff person on a college campus – from gardeners and janitors to secretaries and office assistants – shapes the learning environment and many have significant contact with students. In an effort to recognize and celebrate the contributions these personnel make to students’ lives, Georgetown alumnus Febin Bellamy founded Unsung Heroes in 2016. The program should remind students to look in unexpected places for people who can make a difference in their lives.

Find your people

Establishing a network of mentors takes a sense of purpose and initiative. Granted, forming relationships with mentors and peers may come more easily to some students than others. But a constellation of mentors does not need to have dozens of people in it. Instead, a few positive relationships with peers, faculty and staff will make a powerful difference for the college experience and beyond.

To make this happen, students should make simple gestures to connect with potential mentors. Talk with a faculty member after class. Invite a professor to have coffee. Ask an advanced student in your major for advice. Small steps like these can uncover mutual interests and shared passions and, ultimately, lead to the kinds of relationships that make a big difference in college – and for a lifetime.

About the Authors: Leo M. Lambert, President Emeritus and Professor, Elon University; Jason Husser, Director of the Elon University Poll, Elon University, and Peter Felten, Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning and Executive Director, Center for Engaged Learning, Elon University