Vol. 5, No. 1: Spring/Summer 2009

Sharing What “People Don’t Think to Tell You”

by Keith Roach

Experienced graduate students in the Department of Sociology ease the transition to doctoral study for their first-year peers.

What will graduate courses be like? What will my professors expect of me? What are my responsibilities as a graduate assistant? These were among the typical first-year questions on the mind of Kelli Schneider when she entered IU Bloomington’s graduate program in sociology in fall 2008.

Getting answers to these questions was a lot easier and less stressful than it could have been, thanks to the Department of Sociology’s Graduate Student Association mentoring program. The program pairs each of the department’s 12 to 15 incoming graduate students—plus three visiting students from the University of Mannheim in Germany—with a more experienced student who can offer informal information and advice about the department and student life.

Before coming to IU, Schneider got an e-mail from the students who run the mentoring program asking about her goals, research interests, and nonacademic interests. Her responses led the program to pair her with Jill Waity, a third-year doctoral student who had volunteered to be a mentor. Schneider says she and Waity are a good fit: they have similar research interests, they both like to travel, and they both want to work at small, teaching-oriented universities.

Schneider is the second graduate student Waity has mentored, and Waity believes that learning how to be a good mentor will help her become a good professor. She also remembers what it’s like to be a first-year student. “I wanted Kelli to know everything that I wish I had known coming in, and that people don’t think to tell you unless you specifically ask,” Waity says.

Among the topics they’ve discussed are what courses are like, which courses Schneider should take, how to balance coursework with being a graduate assistant, how to grade assignments, which faculty members to talk to about specific sociology topics, and what to expect from the research practicum Schneider will complete the summer after her first year.

Schneider can also consult her faculty mentor about academics, but for personal matters, she feels more comfortable talking to Waity. Their conversations have ranged from where to eat in town to the importance of having downtime, one of the topics Waity has emphasized.

“She told me to get involved in something outside of academia,” Schneider says. “It’s very easy to get wrapped up in your classes, and she said, ‘You can always do more work on something, so try to find a release.’” Now Schneider tries to go to the gym a couple of times a week.

Waity has also helped Schneider join the departmental community by introducing her to faculty members and other graduate students at events such as the departmental social hour, and the dinner party for first-year graduate students and their mentors.

Schneider is grateful that she hasn’t had any “crises” yet, but if she ever does, she knows she can turn to Waity for assistance and insight. “I feel like if I was panicked about something, academic or nonacademic, I could go to her and she’d be more than willing to help,” Schneider says.

Although the program is designed to ease the transition for first-year students, “I think I will always sort of look out for Kelli and make sure everything is going well,” Waity says.

And in a few years, when Schneider is an experienced graduate student, would she mentor a first-year student? “I would definitely do it, because I know how beneficial it has been to me,” she says. Being a mentor “would be a nice way of contributing back and making sure someone else feels as comfortable as Jill has made me.”

Keith Roach is a writer-editor with the IU Office of Creative Services.

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