Raising Support for Graduate Student Mentors

Fiona Goodchild
, 2002 PAESMEM Awardee
Tagged: Alumni Article, Alumni Article

Graduate students play a major role in supervising undergraduate researchers. I came to appreciate this reality after I started to organize internships at the University California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). When I was recognized with a Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM), I was determined to improve recognition and support for graduate student mentors.  

I suggested to the UCSB Chancellor that we create a new award for graduate student mentors as a complement to existing annual campus awards. At the time, UCSB recognized an outstanding undergraduate researcher as well as a faculty member who played a notable role in this enterprise, but no graduate student mentors. When he agreed to match my $10,000 PAESMEM award, we set up a fund and a selection process to recognize two graduate students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) each year.  

To our surprise, we received many nominations in the very first year. Faculty agreed that it raised the profile of graduate researchers and created positive role models. Students have made comments like, “Working with excited students did wonders for my motivation,” and, “Mentoring is an avenue to both engage with students and as well as to learn how to manage a research group.” Clearly, students see mentoring experience as an asset for their futures as postdocs or junior faculty members.

We decided to extend this impact by inviting the awardees to lead workshops for other graduate students who supervise undergraduates in their laboratories. We had recently created the Center for Science and Engineering Partnerships (CSEP) to coordinate STEM outreach across the UCSB campus, so CSEP professionals coordinated events and publicity to bring graduate students together to discuss ideas and best practices. This exchange eventually led to an orientation handbook for present and future graduate students.

We also made a key alliance between CSEP and UCSB Graduate Division to explore how philanthropy might raise new funds to extend support for mentoring on a more permanent basis. Their Director of Development identified an interested donor whose endowment increased support for graduate mentoring and ensures three annual stipends of $1,000.  

As the Orientation Workshops grew in popularity, it was clear that lead mentors played an important role and that it would be valuable to recruit a ‘supermentor’ to serve as a consultant and resource. Initially, CSEP was able to fund a stipend to hire a graduate student in this role. Once that was evaluated as a positive step, we looked for external funding to support a ‘supermentor’ each summer. We were successful and have now established an annual Scholarship for a Lead Mentor who collaborates with CSEP staff to organize resources to enhance STEM graduate mentoring skills.  

I recently visited the UCSB campus to meet this year’s CSEP Lead Mentor, Annette Hilton. (See photograph: Dr, Fiona Goodchild (left) and Annette Hilton (right), on UCSB campus, April 2024) She explained how she plans to engage her peers in a range of activities that include both established and new ideas. She is enthusiastic about mentoring skills as an important aspect of her professional development and wants to extend this concept to as many graduate student mentors as possible.