How to: Break the ice for newcomers

January 19, 2001

WHAT
A graduate school at the University of Manchester has found that student peer mentoring is a huge success

WHY
Mentors gain valuable skills and mentees are shown the ropes, say Carole Keeling and Emma Coe

HOW
Peer mentoring is on a roll at Manchester University's biggest graduate school - science, engineering and medicine (GSSEM), which has 2,500 students. But it is students mentoring students, rather than staff mentoring students, that has proved attractive and useful, particularly in helping research postgraduates who join midway through the academic year or who are from overseas.

Student mentors act as social ice-breakers by helping newcomers to learn the ropes, often when the university's induction events have been and gone. Research students often work in isolation from the main student body. Mentoring can encapsulate the role of student representative, bringing matters such as opportunities for teaching demonstration, access to IT, problems with the working environment, access to the building out-of-hours, and so on, to departmental boards. Upper-year PhD students conduct most of the mentoring for a small group of new PhD students. Some MRes students have also had mentors, generally PhD students who had completed the same masters degree by research (Mres) course.

Postgraduate peer mentoring was piloted at Manchester in 1997-98. It has since been refined and extended with the assistance of part-time project officers, whose brief was to help departments launch their own service. The first stage was to recruit staff coordinators. One of the first questions that hard-pressed academics and administrators, fearful of additional paperwork, asked was: "Is peer mentoring going to help me save time?" Peer mentoring will fizzle out if it generates more bureaucracy and little else. The coordinator's role is minimal in comparison with that of the mentors. Once the departmental coordinator has done the groundwork of publicising and recruiting, the only additional paperwork generated is a progress report.

Mentoring is about developing key transferable skills. At Manchester, training was provided in-house by the staff training and development unit, and it was held to coincide with the start of the new academic year. The event was aimed at postgraduate mentors, and the bonuses attached to this - to receive high-standard training in mentoring techniques for free - was one of the main selling points used to promote the scheme to prospective mentors.

The Manchester experience formed the basis for our publication Setting Up Peer-mentoring with Postgraduate Research Students , which gives advice on setting up peer mentoring - ranging from schemes run informally by individual supervisors to formal department-wide schemes. The book includes an implementation schedule that lists key events during the peer mentoring cycle. Although the schedule has been written with the GSSEM in mind, it could be easily adapted. The report serves two purposes: to keep colleagues informed of progress and to identify problem areas or examples of good practice. The schedule lists the events that need to take place during each semester to keep the scheme working efficiently.

Skills that will boost students' CVs are covered, such as effective communication, teamworking, time-management and motivation techniques. Mentors often increase noticeably in confidence as a result of taking part in the scheme. The expectation is that mentors will apply what they learn to their own lives, resulting in more productive final-year students as well as happier mentees.

So, does peer mentoring help research supervisors save time? Initial investment in time and planning will get the scheme off to a good start. Other spin-offs will then roll in, such as more productive mentors and improved feedback on issues facing postgraduate students. At the GSSEM, mentoring is proving good for supervisors and students alike.

Carole Keeling is education officer, department of postgraduate medicine and dentistry, at the University of Manchester. Emma Coe pioneered an undergraduate mentoring scheme in the chemistry department at Manchester. Setting Up Peer-mentoring with Postgraduate Research Students is published by SRHE/THES and available from srheoffice@srhe.ac.uk

Setting up a mentoring scheme - ten tips
1. Get approval to run the scheme
2. Advertise for and recruit mentors
3. Establish a list of mentors with their email addresses
4. Establish a network of professional support for the mentors
5. Train mentors
6. Assign mentors to mentees
7. Maintain a watching brief over the scheme
8. Assign mentors to new postgraduates who have missed induction
9. Conduct any formal evaluation
10. Celebrate: arrange for mentors to be presented with certificates

Quick tips
* Start your mentoring scheme with a small-scale pilot
* Mentoring is not supervising, teaching or counselling - ensure your training emphasises the difference
* Mid-term dip in commitment by your mentors? Take them out for a drink and a chat
* Identify champions among administrative or academic staff. Be flexible, let the scheme develop to suit the department
* Involve your co-ordinators. Keep them informed of feedback
* Set up a mentoring website and up-date it regularly
* Keep mentoring visible on your department's agenda

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