How can I set up an effective mentoring program to support students in my department?

posted February 10, 2016
by Ramón S. Barthelemy

Physics Beyond the Classroom

As physicists and physics educators we know that a physics education is much more than computational problem solving and bookwork. Knowledge and skills needed to navigate a career pathway in physics that are often learned informally include:

  • the unspoken requirement to do undergraduate research
  • the necessity to study for the physics GRE well in advance of the test date
  • strong research laboratory skills
  • the ability to communicate research
  • knowing how to apply to fellowships and grants.

The typical successful physics student acquires these skills by having time to hang out in the department, getting to know other students, and building relationships with faculty. These are the students that know how to exert themselves and may have advice from experienced family and friends on how to navigate their degree. Getting access to these experiences and knowledge can be much more difficult for first-generation students and those with commitments outside of the classroom (such as work and family). They may not know to seek out these experiences or have sufficient time when not in the classroom.

These are arguably more important to one’s personal success in physics than success in the classroom. One way to ensure that all students are aware of these degree components is to formalize mentoring for all students in your department. By formalizing and requiring mentoring in your department you ensure that every student has equal access to success regardless of who they are what help they have outside of the department.

Providing equal access for all students in physics is important to promote a healthy field and individual student success. One way of engaging students with these parts of physics, and ensuring that they have an opportunity to learn them, is structured mentoring. Structured mentoring is the formalization of mentorship in your department so that all students have one on one relationships with faculty, researchers, and peers.


Effective mentoring is building relationships between masters and apprentices that lead to the development and success of the apprentice. Mentoring of students has been shown to increase the success and satisfaction of students [1, 2]. Mentors for physics students can include faculty members, post-docs, or other students in the program. Mentoring should be a departmental effort where students co-mentor one another and are mentored by those farther along in the physics career path. Whitten et al. (2003) have pointed out the importance of having mentoring across all four years of a student’s education [3]. Having multiple sources of mentoring make sustaining this effort easier and more effective. 

A system of department-wide mentoring ensures that students get advice on many things ranging from course sequence to laboratory issues. Work looking at women in physics has been clear that department wide mentoring is critical, but often not formalized [4]. In one study successful women participants in astronomy developed their own mentoring network [4]. Departments should seek to develop these networks for all students using three sources 1) peer mentoring, 2) post-doc or graduate student mentoring, and 3) faculty mentoring. Ideally, participating in this network would be a required component of the major.

Table 1: Departmental Mentoring in Review

Source How to Structure Examples
Peers Assign each new major a peer-mentor who is a junior or senior.
  • Set up a twice-annual get together where mentors meet with mentee students and discuss the degree program and other university concerns.
  • Set up communal lounge area only for physics majors and minors.
Post-Docs Assign post-docs to a few hours of month of mentoring as part of their employment and to fulfill “Broader Impacts” requirements of grants.
  • Create research colloquiums where post-docs can come and share their research, talk about their career pathway, and answer students questions.
  • Encourage post-docs to carve out small student projects that anyone can volunteer to do.
Faculty Assign all new majors to a faculty member as their mentor. This should count as service for the faculty member if possible.
  • Require one meeting a semester with faculty to discuss student progressions, career interests, and navigation of the physics community.
  • Require faculty to offer their mentees opportunities in research, conference travel, and other professional development opportunities.

Benefits of Mentoring

By formalizing mentoring structures in your department you will reinforce the success and access of your students. It can also act as an important net to catch struggling students and make sure no one is left behind With three sources of mentoring there are multiple nets to prevent students from falling through. Mentoring also helps to keep faculty and staff aware of the changing needs and career goals of students. This will help in decisions to change curriculum components and graduation requirements. 


[1] G. D. Kuh, and S. Hu, The effects of student-faculty interaction in the 1990s, The Review of Higher Education 24, 309 (2001).

[2] A. Astin, Assessment for excellence: The philosophy and practice of assessment and evaluation in higher education (The Oryx Press, Phoenix, 1993).

[3] B. L. Whitten et al., What works? Increasing the participation by women in undergraduate physics, Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering 9, (2003).

[4] M. McCormick, R. Barthelemy, and C. Henderson, Women’s persistence in undergraduate astronomy: The roles of support, interest, and capital, Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering 20, 317 (2014).