Another place where you can mentor students is in the classroom. This may be a less obvious place to mentor, but approaching classroom teaching as an opportunity to mentor can help you be a better teacher, allow you to connect to the students more personally, and help the students connect with you and see you as a real and likable person.
How can you incorporate mentoring into your class when you have a lot of material to cover with a limited time? Here are a few things I use that I invented and learned from other WomenOfScience. If you have other suggestions, please comment or send a post to me.
At the beginning of classes, I always get there early to get the room set-up for class. As students come in, I just chat with them. I talk to them about my lab, how research works, and what kind of research they might be interested in doing. I encourage them to get into laboratories and approach professors. I remind them that, professors are people too, but busy people. Even if they don’t get into the first lab/research group they try, they should keep trying and asking. If they are already doing research, I ask them about it, what is most challenging, and which skills they are learning. If I have to travel, I tell the students about where I am going and why. They are often proud that their teacher is a highly sought-after speaker, as opposed to thinking that I am skipping class and do not care about them. This also is a small way of self-promoting to the students, who are an important audience as future donors to the university and department.
When I teach classes for majors in my subject, I have homework sessions in the evening instead of office hours (more on that in teaching strategy posts). During these homework sessions, I have ample opportunity to talk with students one-on-one. Between homework problems, I ask them about why they are studying science, what they want to do when they grow up, and how they plan to get there. I explain how graduate school in science works and how they can apply. Most students are not aware that graduate school is paid for, and they will get paid a stipend to teach and do research to live independently. This realization opens the world of graduate studies to many students who thought it was out of their reach financially.
At least one day of the semester is a lost cause. In the fall, it is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. In the spring, the Friday before Spring Break. I am sure there are others. These are days when students just don’t attend because of holidays. You can cancel that day, and many do, especially if they are traveling. But, if your family is far away, you might not be able to travel for short breaks. Or, if Spring Break is the only time of the semester you can get some research done, you might not want to travel that week. Whatever the case, these throw-away days are perfect opportunities to mentor. I typically take that day to give a talk called, “How to Get Into Graduate School” for undergraduate courses. I advertise the topic beforehand, so students can choose to come or not. Some students who have to travel early ask me for the slides, and I provide them. For graduate courses, I take a day to talk about my research. I can use this to encourage graduate students to join my lab, show them how the topics of class pertain to my research, and give them an example of a research talk, which many of these students have never given before.
Like many professors who teach major classes, I get asked to write letters of recommendation. I basically always agree to do this when a student requests it. But, the student must also do some things in return. I ask that the student come to my office with a CV and a 1-page write up of their current research or research aspirations. Many of the students who request letters are those I see often at the start of class and in homework sessions, so I know some of the information, but I want to see it in their own words. Further, I can give them a little feedback on their CV, which it is often not clear how to format (I have seen some poor CVs even from professors because people often don’t think about the formatting, but it is important). I can also check out their writing skills and talk to them about their research, which I can then comment on in the letter. These extra steps are a low bar that dissuade non-serious students to rethink asking me for the letter. The good students get a little extra mentoring out of it.
Many of these things are tiny modifications to they way people act already, but these small overtures can go a long way to mentoring a wide array of students you see in class. Further, they will also help you get better teaching evaluations because the students can observe that you care about their development as scientists.