You are here

Recognizing Graduate Student and Postdoc Mentoring at Duke

September 13, 2017

When you think of examples of colleagues engaging in mentoring, you might think of teaching assistants in undergraduate classrooms. Mentoring, though, is more than teaching. Teaching is about facilitating the transfer of knowledge in a specific environment.  A mentor, in contrast, can provide you with anything from technical knowledge, wisdom, and support to empathy and respect. Mentoring is not limited to classroom or lab settings. If you’ve ever emotionally supported and counseled someone, then you’ve been a mentor.

Cultivating a Culture of Mentoring

During spring 2017, our team participated in the Emerging Leaders Institute (ELI) offered by The Graduate School and the Office of Postdoctoral Services. We chose a topic from a list of concerns shared by Duke graduate students and postdocs in interviews we conducted before the program began, and then worked on possible ways to address the issues. Based on our interview subjects’ suggestions, our team decided to find ways to help graduate students and postdocs become better mentors, and to receive recognition for their mentoring efforts. In other words, we worked to cultivate a culture of mentoring.

From our team’s perspective, mentoring should not merely be an action but a culture that we all integrate into. The core of a culture is its belief and practice. Therefore mentoring should be something that we believe in and practice often. The foundation of mentorship lies in kindness and mutual support.

For the ELI project, we identified one common site of graduate student and postdoc mentoring on campus: Bass Connections.  Bass Connections engages Duke faculty and students in interdisciplinary project teams that investigate interesting topics in areas such as neuroscience & society, global health, energy, education and human development. We interviewed graduate student mentors who have participated in Bass Connections and asked them to reflect on their mentoring activities. We were deeply touched by their stories, and wondered what drove their commitment to mentoring. Then we considered the question,  do people want to mentor others because they need help for themselves, or because they really like helping others? If our intentions are primarily centered on our own needs, mentoring is probably just a solitary action in disguise. Only when we possess genuine sincerity and enthusiasm for helping others will mentoring become a culture of kindness and mutual support.

Exemplary Mentoring from Bass Connection Participants

We compiled into a webpage the reflections from a number of Bass Connection participants on their own mentoring experiences. Our intention was to share what they learned from their mentoring to inspire those interested in participating in the Bass Connections or other mentoring activities.  From these quotations, it’s not difficult to see that excellence in mentoring stems from the desire to foster personal and intellectual development not just in oneself, but, more importantly, in the mentees. Good mentoring is not just about having knowledge and technical skills. A good mentor respects, supports, and cares about his or her mentees. Therefore, to develop good mentoring skills, it is essential that we know how to interact with and influence mentees in meaningful ways.

Sharpening Your Mentoring Skills and Getting Recognition for Your Mentoring

To help graduate student/postdoc mentors build their mentoring skills, we compiled a list of resources that define roles in the mentoring relationship, provide strategies for relationship building, and explain skills for mentoring a culturally diverse team. We also listed awards that recognize excellent mentoring among Duke graduate students and postdocs. It is important that exemplary   mentoring receive recognition and appreciation. In this way, we can set examples, share valuable experiences, and encourage others  to cultivate a culture of mentoring at Duke.


Our team is very grateful to all the people who have kindly helped us in this project: Hallie Knuffman, Sarah Dwyer, Hugh Crumley, and our Bass Connections interviewees Simon Brauer, Tony Fuller, Justin Lana, Anna Martin, Meghan O’Neil, Trey Sinyard, Zachary Smothers, Brittney Sullivan, and Samit Sura. We would also like express our sincere gratitude to all the facilitators in the ELI program - Melissa Bostrom, Anthony Laffoley, Rhonda Sutton, and Kristin Murphy —  as well as all our fellow participants in the 2017 ELI cohort, who provided valuable feedback as we executed the project.


Ali Daraeepour

Ali Daraeepour

Ph.D. candidate, Nicholas School of Environment

Ali Daraeepour is a Ph.D. candidate in the Nicholas School of Environment. His research focuses on the evolution of electric energy markets design, grid integration of renewable energy resources, and the economic and investment implications of energy and environmental regulations in the electric energy sector.

Karolina Woroniecka

Karolina Woroniecka

M.D.-Ph.D. candidate, pathology

Karolina Woroniecka is a fourth-year MD PhD candidate currently in her second year of PhD training in the Department of Pathology. Her research focuses on enhancing immune responses against brain cancer through overcoming “T cell exhaustion.” Upon completion of her dual degrees, Karolina aspires to pursue a career as a physician-scientist at the forefront of translational research in cancer immunotherapy. In her spare time, she enjoys collecting eggs from her backyard chickens and hiking with her husband and dog.

Xin Yu

Xin Yu

Ph.D. student, pathology

Xin Yu is a Ph.D. student in pathology. She works at the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center on projects involving engineering novel antibodies and developing immunotoxin-based combination therapy for brain tumor patients.

Professional Development Tag

  • Emerging Leaders Institute
  • Leadership
  • Mentoring