The University of Iowa Graduate CollegeFaculty & Staff

Principles and Good Practices Concerning Research Mentoring

Original research, scholarship and artistic production are the common currency of all doctoral programs. The doctoral dissertation is intended to report the results of such required research and to make it available to the scholarly community for their use and criticism. Original research is also required in many master's programs, and many more require the ability to work with research results, to summarize research literature, or to utilize the results of research in a new or novel manner. The master's thesis is required in such cases as a means of documenting such skills and of making the results available to others.

Graduate education is almost universally conducted through an apprentice-like relationship between a graduate student, as apprentice, and a faculty member, serving as mentor, to accomplish the research requirement of the degree. In most cases, a committee is established consisting of departmental faculty members and, at the doctoral level, one or more members from outside the home department. Committee members are intended to be resource persons for the student in pursuing the research requirement and also to serve as examiners of the work to assure that the research is reliable, original, of high quality, and that the student has acquired the research skills necessary for awarding the degree. In practice, the mentor, or research adviser, is the primary resource to the student and is principally responsible for providing appropriate assistance and support of the student during the research process and for assuring that the research agenda meets accepted standards of scholarship established for the degree.

Inherent in such an apprentice-mentor system is the requirement that each person know his/her appropriate role and understand their attendant rights and responsibilities. Within this system, the student has the primary responsibility for selecting an area of research for the degree, for initiating discussions with faculty who might serve as research mentors, and for making an informed selection of a faculty research mentor. The faculty of a department have a collective responsibility for establishing procedures for students to become acquainted with research areas represented among the faculty and for students to initiate discussions with potential mentors. Individual faculty have a responsibility to clearly state expectations for serving as research mentors, and for discussing issues such as support, duties, time commitments, authorship, ownership of intellectual property, and other relevant issues to aid the student in making an informed choice of a research mentor. Several institutions have instituted a "check list" of topics which must be discussed and signed by both the student and selected mentor, and which becomes a part of the student's record.

In most cases, the system works well: students make informed choices of mentors; faculty serve as effective advisors and foster the professional development of graduate students. During the graduate experience, students are then guided toward becoming independent creators of knowledge or users of research, colleagues in name and in stature with their mentor by the time they complete their degree. Good practices should be advocated and adopted by departments to attempt to make the system work as well as possible and to prevent serious problems associated with this aspect of the graduate program.

There are, however, instances in which the personal relationship between mentor and advisee does not work out as well as anticipated or evolves into one which prevents accomplishment of the student's educational goals or of the research required for the degree. There is no fixed policy governing resolution of such situations, and experience indicates that there is such a wide range of issues which may be involved in individual cases that formal policies are not likely to prevent all problems. There are, however, some principles and good practices which have been found useful in the selection of a mentor and dealing with instances of difficulties between mentor and advisee. We commend those on the reverse side in developing or revising your own departmental procedures for establishing or for changing research mentors.

Principles of Good Practice Relating to Mentoring of Graduate Students

  1. Departments should have procedures which facilitate the process of students becoming acquainted with faculty and research areas and the process for selecting a mentor. Students should receive information and be involved in these processes as soon as possible and practical after entering the graduate program.
  2. Departments should have admissions processes which carefully assess the potential of students to conduct research in the areas represented in the department as well as the likely match between students' expressed interests and the expertise of the faculty. Students accepted on these bases should be made aware early in their program that they have the primary responsibility for making an informed selection of a research mentor and that they must obtain the agreement of the faculty member to serve in this capacity. Provided the student has a satisfactory record of work in the department and is willing to work in areas represented by the faculty, there should not be a problem in reaching an agreement on selection of a mentor. There also may be instances in which it is possible to establish arrangements acceptable to the department for the student to work in areas outside the primary areas of expertise of department faculty through a co-chair arrangement with a qualified faculty member in another unit. In cases in which the student's performance in the program does not meet expected standards, or in which the student insists upon working in an area not represented among the faculty's expertise, the department is not obligated to appoint an unwilling mentor.
  3. Faculty have the right and obligation to clearly inform potential advisees of their expectations before the student makes a choice of research mentor. They should also be informed of departmental policies regarding authorship, ownership of intellectual property, work commitments, etc., to which all members of the department must adhere.
  4. Once the selection of a research mentor has been agreed to, both parties have an obligation to work in good faith to accomplish the student's educational goals and the research required for the degree.
  5. There must be provision for a student to change a mentor and/or research area for valid reasons or for incompatibility. Neither the department nor administrative officials can coerce professional relations between persons who are incompatible. In establishing departmental policies for changing mentors, careful consideration should be given to what constitute valid bases for either students or mentors to request approval for a change, and to include documentation of agreements to make such changes. It is always easier to establish the terms of any agreement to sever a previously agreed-to mentor/advisee relationship if there is an initial agreement covering various areas of research. Several institutions have developed checklists, commonly including topics such as ownership of data, use of equipment, authorship of conference presentations and publications (including the order of authorship), ownership of intellectual property, etc. The checklist is used to guide the initial discussions between student and prospective faculty mentor, and documents that the discussion of these topics occurred or, in some cases, that the parties agree (sometimes by signing the form) to stated terms involving these issues. Samples of checklists can be obtained from the Graduate College. Having such discussions and/or agreements becomes even more important if the research has external sponsorship, where an external agent may have rights or requirements relating to the research results. However, lack of an initial agreement cannot be used to deny the right to sever a mentor/advisee relationship, although the terms of severance then become something that may require mediation or formal grievance procedures to address.
  6. When a change of mentor and terms of severance of the relationship are agreed to, both parties must abide by the agreement. Retaliation by either party would almost certainly constitute a violation of University Policy on Professional Ethics and Academic Responsibility (Operations Manual, 20.290) or other applicable policies, and could constitute the basis for a grievance.

The Graduate College hopes this statement is useful to departments in considering policies and procedures relating to establishing and changing mentor relationships for graduate students.