New Research Describes the Critical Nature of Informal Mentoring for Black Graduate Students
Notes of Interest: This article highlights the importance of informal mentoring for graduate students, to provide psychosocial support in addition to career preparation. In particular, the experiences of Black graduate students are discussed, given recent and seemingly ongoing national race-related events. Informal mentoring can be used as a way to foster a more inclusive training environment in this context.
Jones, H. A., Perrin, P. B., Beth Heller, M., Hailu, S., & Barnett, C. (2018). Black psychology graduate students’ lives matter: Using informal mentoring to create an inclusive climate amidst national race-related events. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 49, 75-82. doi:10.1037/pro0000169
Summarized by Renée Klein Schaarsberg
Informal mentoring, or unstructured mentoring focused on both career and psychological development of trainees, has received far less attention in the literature than more formal, structured mentoring or advising focused predominantly on career development.
The aim of this article is to describe the critical nature of informal mentoring for psychology doctoral students, particularly in light of recent national race-related events (e.g., killings of unarmed Black people by police, hate crime following the 2016 U.S. presidential election).
Using our experiences as a case illustration, we detail the varied experiences of Black graduate students in our Department of Psychology, as well as the departmental response and the specific actions of Black faculty and others, to foster a climate in which difficult discussions can occur in and between groups and individuals. Also, the role of White students and mentors in such discussions is presented. Finally, we outline several recommendations for graduate programs in psychology, designed to increase informal mentoring for all students around difficult race-related topics.
There have been some lessons learned during the past year that we feel are applicable to psychology graduate programs across the country. First, it is important that all mentors strive for multicultural competence, not just to conduct research or supervise clinical cases but also to mentor racial/ethnic minority graduate students in both cross-cultural and monocultural relationships. Such competence involves being aware of one’s own implicit biases and working to reduce them. With regard to specific diversity training, outcomes are widely mixed; thus, certainly more research is needed in this area.
Second, as has been detailed elsewhere, hiring diverse faculty is essential. Although same-race mentors are not necessary to ensure student success, graduate students do report valuing and seeking out same-race mentors, and this may be particularly the case after national race-related events. Black men, in particular, note that Black faculty help them to persist in academia. It is important to note, nevertheless, that what may be more important than a racial match with a mentor may be similarities in values and attitudes.
Third, institutional and graduate programs administrators are encouraged to more systematically recognize the time faculty, especially female faculty of color, spend in informal mentorships and to attend to these activities in promotion and tenure reviews. Racial/ethnic minority faculty currently compromise 19% of faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, with only 2% as Black professors or associate professors. Racial/ethnic minority faculty spend a disproportionate amount of their time mentoring students of color, and this mentoring decreases scholarships-related productivity.
Fourth, faculty in health services doctoral programs should not be afraid to discuss difficult topics, such as race and ethnicity. Students of all races/ethnicities see these topics as salient to their development as psychologists, and in fact, so does our profession’s leadership. Over the past year, almost 25% of the cover stories of the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology have focused in some way on race (e.g., police shootings, racial disparities in special education). Thus, faculty, and, perhaps, especially psychology faculty, have an obligation not to remain silent as critical events threaten the mental health of certain subgroups of the population. We encourage faculty to discuss stressful national or local issues with all mentees, gauge how mentees are coping academically and psychosocially, and determine what, if any, support might be needed.
In this article, we strongly advocate for an increase in informal mentoring, while presenting our department’s recent experiences as a case illustration in how to foster a more inclusive climate. Although our article focused on the role of race in current events, it is important to note that we recognize the importance of intersectionality for many students and believe that mentors should discuss intersectionality as it relates to their mentees. More research is needed on the role of multiple identities for graduate students. Nevertheless, we hope that doctoral programs focused on the delivery of mental health services will begin to encourage informal mentoring as a way to foster a more inclusive training environment.
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