Exploring the role of the mentor in postgraduate student mentoring initiatives

Exploring the role of the mentor in postgraduate student mentoring initiatives

view of students working

18 August 2023

Dr Claudia M Bordogna, who runs the postgraduate mentoring programme in Nottingham Business School, shares her research on the experience of mentoring.

Student welfare and wellbeing is crucial to successful postgraduate study, regardless of the global location. This is a key reason for offering postgraduates access to a mentor. While I was managing the mentoring initiative in Nottingham Business School, which services 1,200 postgraduates annually, with 900 of those (or 75%) being international, I started to ask myself about their experience.

How do our postgraduate taught students experience our mentoring? Are they satisfied? Does it resonate with them and their cultural contexts? Do they get a ‘good experience’ that makes sense to their situation, and does it help them to grow and develop as individuals?

This led me to reflect on my role in supporting the students and their mentors. How am I supporting this ‘good experience’? Am I recruiting and selecting the right mentors?  Are the mentors competent and comfortable in their role? Is there more that can be done to support the mentors in terms of training or sharing of practice?

So in 2020, I embarked on a research mission to investigate academic faculty participation in the postgraduate mentoring programme. I was keen to explore what academics thought of mentoring and what approach they took when mentoring their students. I wanted to understand the effect mentors had on the student experience of mentoring, and if there was anything that needed to be done to help mentors improve their service.

Using Social Exchange Theory and Equity Theory enabled faculty participation to be understood in terms of the perceived equity, costs and rewards of mentoring. Costs can be significant, sometimes outweighing the benefits, thus endangering the viability and sustainability of the postgraduate taught students’ mentoring initiative.

Analysis suggested that there are two distinct types of mentor mindset, which influence the perception of investments, equity, costs and rewards. Although all mentors shared similar views around themes such as institutional support, reciprocity, role clarity, high workload, faculty willingness, frustration, training and boundary setting, they differed in the ways they interpreted these factors as part of their roles.

This finding is critical, because mindset affected how the participants perceived and so approached mentoring. Depending on the perspective adopted, views on investments, costs, equity and rewards differed substantially. These perspectives can be divided into two.

Type 1: The creators

These mentors were innovators who sought out new ways to manage their mentoring for the benefit of both parties. They perceived the costs of mentoring as low, in terms of time and energy expended, when compared to the high benefits generated for themselves and their mentees – for example, mutual learning and self-development.

These mentors dealt with student disengagement by not taking it personally and not viewing it as a reflection of their professional competency or personal identity. They were not consumed with being right and were comfortable engaging in conversations that had no definitive answers. These mentors worked hard to try to support all their mentees as best they could, making them feel content in the knowledge they treated everyone fairly and equally.

These individuals therefore reduced the costs of mentoring by accepting that not everyone could be helped, reached or supported, and by not worrying about it. Investment in the role was rewarded by what was learnt or observed in mentee behavioural changes.

Type 2: The absorbers

These mentors wanted to absorb as many of their mentees’ problems as they could, seeing them as children who needed constant support, reassurance and chasing. These mentors evidenced a lower tolerance for their mentees. Due to their high levels of personal investment, they seemed to expect this high-level investment to be reciprocated by their mentees.

Mentors wanted to try to reach, help and support everyone, yet had no coping mechanism for when this failed or students disengaged, other than to perceive it as a negative reflection on their academic abilities and/or personal character. Mentors felt upset and frustrated by poor student engagement, often increasing their investment in fear of missing an important issue regarding their mentees’ academic journey, or worrying about mentees complaining about their service.

Recommendations for practice

It is important to stress that these findings do not imply other types of mindsets do not exist. On the contrary, these may be evident in a study observing a wider participant population. It simply means, in this study, two mindsets were detected that seemed to influence the academics’ mentoring approaches. The creator mindset was clearly more valuable and more likely to generate wholesome and positive mentoring experiences.

This clearly resonates with the EMCC Global definition of mentoring, which emphasises ‘a learning relationship, involving the sharing of skills, knowledge, and expertise between a mentor and mentee through developmental conversations, experience sharing, and role modelling. The relationship may cover a wide variety of contexts and is an inclusive two-way partnership for mutual learning that values differences.’

Based on the creator mindset being the most optimal for mentoring success, I sought to craft some recommendations to guide the strategic thinking of senior leaders within the school, such as:

1. Examine and evaluate the rationale for mentoring and its function, and identify the resources needed to support this ambition. Mentoring always sounds good on paper, but it takes resourcing in the form of human time and financial capital. Making the plan a reality requires all stakeholders see the benefit, buy into the scheme and be willing to resource it effectively so it can reach its full potential. If not, it is likely it will fail and questions will be raised about its value.

2. Strategically recruit and select appropriate faculty, offering role training (institutional and localised), networking and continuous professional development opportunities. People need to know why this type of initiative is important (as opposed to tutoring or coaching) and what it is aiming to achieve so people can decide if they feel they can add value or not. It is not enough to simply recruit anyone who shows a willingness to mentor, because this will fade over time. People also need to be fully briefed on what is expected and supported throughout the process. As time is a critical resource, it is important to provide accurate workload representations to support faculty in mentor roles, and give them the time to build rapport and trust with students, so they can have meaningful conversations where students feel genuinely welcomed and appreciated.

As higher education institutions face increasing pressure to support student welfare, it is imperative that any form of personalised support is put under scrutiny so management practices can be established that support and encourage academic faculty participation in these support initiatives.

I am now examining how we recruit mentors and support them within the school. As students present us with more challenging needs, it is vital that mentoring is able to deal with these issues through inclusive two-way relationships that value mutual respect and learning.

Claudia Bordogna

About Dr Claudia M Bordogna

Dr Claudia M Bordogna is a senior lecturer at Nottingham Business School. Over the past six years, Claudia has been responsible for the formal postgraduate mentoring programme in Nottingham Business School. The programme is designed to support students during their year of study. It covers aspects such as academic acumen, but more importantly offers them a learning relationship which involves the sharing of skills, expertise and knowledge, through developmental conversations between themselves and their mentor.

Claudia is also ‘The Postgraduate Mentor’ who works privately mentoring postgraduates who have recently graduated from higher education. She can be contacted through The Postgraduate Mentor website.


Bordogna, CM (2023), Using social exchange and equity theory to explore postgraduate student mentoring initiatives and academic faculty participation. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1108/IJMCE-04-2022-0

EMCC Global (n.d.) EMCC Definition of Mentoring. Available at: https://www.emccglobal.org/leadership-development/leadership-development-mentoring/ (Accessed: 26 June 2023).

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