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Ph.D. student Miguel Martinez discusses his mentoring experience while Maria Wisdom, director of the peer mentoring program, listens.
Political science Ph.D. student Miguel Martinez discusses his experience as a peer mentor while Maria Wisdom, director of the peer mentoring program, listens.

First-year Ph.D. student César Villalobos was stressed. He had an important deadline, he had been working for 25 hours straight, and he had a meeting with his advisor coming up. But then, he went to his peer mentoring session and found the relief he needed.

“I was stuck,” said Villalobos, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. “I was working on my final presentation during our peer mentoring session. My group was talking about managing stress. Everyone was sharing stories about taking breaks and I was working on the fourth revision for this project.

“I just closed my laptop. It helped me break out of the headspace of work, work, work. It was a lovely break to my day.” 

The first year as a Ph.D. student is a challenge for many. To help Duke doctoral students navigate this critical time of transition and adjustment, the Office of Interdisciplinary Studies introduced its Peer Mentoring Program for First-Year Ph.D. Students last fall. The program will continue next academic year, with mentor recruitment starting in fall 2023 and the mentoring sessions resuming in spring 2024.

Maria Wisdom, the program's director, said it was created out of an interest to enhance the mentoring climate for doctoral students. 

“Doctoral training is difficult. There have been increasing concerns about doctoral students feeling isolated, especially during the pandemic,” said Wisdom, the director of faculty mentoring and coaching programs at Duke. “This program is meant to provide doctoral students a broader net.” 

The program supported first-year Ph.D. students through small peer mentoring groups. Trained peer mentoring fellows—Ph.D. students in their second year or beyond—facilitated the groups, which provided a safe, nonjudgmental, and confidential space. 

“The program is an opportunity to lead a group of students from completely diverse backgrounds toward gaining the confidence to successfully get through their first year in their programs,” said Miguel Martinez, a peer mentor and political science Ph.D. candidate. 

Peer mentors helped first-year Ph.D. students navigate challenges such as relationships with professors, work-life balance, and imposter syndrome.  

“Imposter syndrome is huge,” peer mentor and philosophy Ph.D. student Caleb Hazelwood said. “Early Ph.D. students come in with a deeply entrenched belief that they don't belong here. They feel inadequate. There are a lot of interpersonal comparisons and it reinforces the belief that they don’t belong.” 

Guided by Wisdom, the mentors were all trained to help the new students flourish. Each group was different, with the mentors and mentees bringing something distinct to the table. All of the mentors, however, were trained to deal with the different experiences of each mentee. 

“My biggest hope is that spaces like these where Ph.D. students can have these honest and open discussions become a norm, that my generation of academics, because of programs like these, are part of the movement of a more compassionate academia,” Martinez said.  

Mentee Debbie Badillo, a Ph.D. student in molecular genetics and microbiology, participated in similar programs as a post-baccalaureate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  

“I really enjoy being part of groups, having a dedicated place to talk about things,” Badillo said. “I’m a really firm believer that if you don’t make time to get away and not just constantly be working, it won't happen. It was an organized reason to step away from the lab.” 

The program is open to students in all disciplines, allowing them to have a shared experience.  

“You can be stuck in your own bubble,” Badillo said. “It’s hard to know people—people outside of your bubble—to see how others are struggling through similar things, opening up to everyone.  

“It opened my eyes to other people’s careers and being more of a conscientious person. It helps you reevaluate. I feel like it helped us come together.” 

Hazelwood said he and his mentees pivoted toward positivity in their sessions. “It’s crucial to have them remember why they love their work,” he said. “I insisted that my mentees should celebrate themselves, not only when accepted to journals but just hitting send.” 

Martinez said getting to know his mentees and observing them grow and flourish together was a rewarding experience.  

“I am very proud of each one of them, and see them as mentors themselves, so I just want to applaud and thank them for taking the time to be part of this program.” 

Top photo: Ph.D. students (from left) Hansel Alex Hobbie, Danielle Vander Horst, Jesscia LaLonde, and Miguel Martinez meet with program director Maria Wisdom to discuss their experience as peer mentors in fall 2022.

Ph.D. student peer mentors and program director Maria Wisdom (center)
Program director Maria Wisdom (fifth from left) and peer mentors (from left) Danielle Vander Horst, Jessica LaLonde, Hansel Alex Hobbie, Miguel Martinez, Carly Sciandra, Danting Jiang, and Dillon King. Other Ph.D. students who served as peer mentors in fall 2022 (not pictured) included Armen Bagdasarov, Joseph Diehl, Ze-Yi Han, Caleb Hazelwood, Dana Hogan, Arvind Krishnamurthy, Jessica Levasseur, and Leann McLaren.