The key ingredients for a beneficial mentoring relationship (Jacinta Humphrey)

Photo by Timothy Barlin |

Last year, I had the opportunity to take part in the Graduate Research School Career Mentoring Program

Recently, I’ve reflected on what I took away from this experience and what advice I would give fellow graduate research students embarking on a new relationship with a mentor. 

Here are my four key ingredients to a beneficial mentoring relationship:

1. Choice

I’ve always felt that mentoring programs were a bit hit and miss. Sometimes, you land yourself an amazing mentor, who works in a relevant field and can share pearls of wisdom with you. Other times, you just don’t click and, despite the best of intentions from both parties, conversations can feel awkward and strained. I think the key ingredient in developing a beneficial mentoring relationship is to allow the mentee to choose their own mentor. 

This selection process was the most useful aspect of the Career Mentoring Program I did. The GRS encouraged all participants to brainstorm a list of potential mentors. Ideally, these would be people working in relevant fields outside academia whom we felt we could learn from, or at least have a series of interesting conversations with. 

Researching potential mentors gave me an insight into where PhD graduates could end up outside of academia and made me consider what types of roles appealed to me. After much deliberation, I created a list of eight potential mentors, all of whom had completed a PhD and were now working for not-for-profit organisations or local government. The GRS then reached out to my top preference to invite them to join the program.

2. Confidence

If you’re going to start a conversation with a complete stranger, in person or virtually, you’re going to need a healthy dose of confidence. Many graduate researchers struggle with imposter syndrome, and it can be difficult to get out of this head-space. My advice is to ignore those little doubts and back yourself! 

I was really nervous about connecting with my potential mentor but, to my surprise, she had already heard of me! We shared a few mutual contacts and she had learnt about my area of research on Twitter. This made me feel much more comfortable and helped to justify the many hours I have spent on social media! 😅

3. Preparation

Before our first meeting, the graduate researcher mentees were encouraged to do some solid preparation. 

We needed to think about what topics we might like to cover with our mentor, what we could contribute to the conversation and, ultimately, what we wanted to gain from the relationship. One reason I chose my mentor was that she had moved between different fields and had developed a varied and interesting work history. I wanted to hear more about how she’d made these career jumps, such as how she had adapted her unique skills and experiences to meet different key selection criteria. I was also keen to discuss work-life balance and any tips she had for the final months of a PhD. Other students in the program took a very different approach and wanted to discuss specific areas of research or recent ‘hot topics’ in their field. Whatever your interest, being prepared for meetings is key to keep your conversations on track and to maximise face-to-face time with your mentor.

4. Commitment

As with all new relationships, managing a mentoring relationship requires a decent amount of commitment. 

During the Career Mentoring Program, the mentees were encouraged to set up a minimum of three meetings with their mentor (conducted over Zoom due to the pandemic), over the space of three months. This required writing and sending out meeting agendas, taking minutes during meetings, and scheduling upcoming Zoom calls. Students who invested more time and energy into managing their mentoring relationship seemed to get more out of the experience.

Since the GRS program officially ended, my mentor and I have stayed in touch. We felt we had a lot of common research interests and wanted to pursue these further. We invited several additional people to join the conversation and are now aiming to collaborate on a paper looking at the success of urban ecology initiatives in cities.

Everyone will come into mentoring with unique ideas, interests, and aims. But if you keep these four key ingredients in mind, you should be well on your way to forming a successful and beneficial relationship with your new mentor!


Jacinta Humphrey is a PhD student in the Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution, School of Life Sciences. She studies the impacts of urban development on the birds that share our suburbs. Jacinta aims to determine the relative influence of housing cover and canopy tree cover on bird diversity, community composition and the occurrence of individual species in greater Melbourne. Ultimately, she hopes to develop some recommendations for local governments and residents on how to better support native birds in our cities.

Jacinta is passionate about making urban spaces more wildlife-friendly and is always looking for new and interesting ways to communicate her science. You can follow her on Twitter as @HumphreyJE_.