Graduate School Adviser vs. Mentor: What's the Difference?

Professor with student
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The terms mentor and adviser are often used interchangeably in graduate school. Duke Graduate School notes, however, that while the two overlap, mentors and advisers serve very different roles. They both help graduate students move forward in their studies. But, a mentor encompasses a far wider role than an adviser.

Adviser vs. Mentor

An adviser may be assigned to you by the graduate program, or you may be able to pick your own adviser. Your adviser helps you select courses and might direct your thesis or dissertation. Your adviser may or may not become your mentor.

A mentor, however, does not simply provide advice on curriculum issues, or what courses to take. The late Morris Zelditch, an American sociologist and emeritus professor of sociology at Stanford University, defined the six roles of mentors in a 1990 speech at the Western Association of Graduate Schools. Mentors, said Zelditch, act as:

  • Advisers, people with career experience willing to share their knowledge
  • Supporters, people who give emotional and moral encouragement
  • Tutors, people who give specific feedback on your performance
  • Masters, in the sense of employers to whom you might be apprenticed
  • Sponsors, sources of information about, and aid in, obtaining opportunities
  • Models of the kind of person you should be as an academic scholar

Note that adviser is only one of the roles that a mentor might play during your years at graduate school and beyond.

A Mentor's Many Hats

A mentor facilitates your growth and development: She becomes a trusted ally and guides you through the graduate and postdoctoral years. In science, for example, mentoring often takes the form of an apprenticeship relationship, sometimes within the context of an assistantship. The mentor aids the student in scientific instruction, but perhaps more importantly, socializes the student to the norms of the scientific community.

The same is true in the humanities; however, the guidance is not as observable as teaching a laboratory technique. Instead, it is largely intangible, such as modeling patterns of thought. Science mentors also model thinking and problem-solving.

The Adviser's Important Role

This in no way minimizes the importance of an adviser, who, after all, may eventually become a mentor. College Xpress, an educational publisher focusing on college and graduate school, notes that an adviser can guide you through whatever graduate school difficulties you might encounter. If you are allowed to chose your adviser, College Xpress says that you should choose wisely:

"Start looking around in your department for someone who has similar interests and has achieved professional success or recognition within their field. Consider their standing in the university, their own career achievements, their network of associates, and even their current group of advisees."

Make sure that your adviser will have the time to help you plan your academic career in graduate school. After all, the right adviser might eventually become a mentor.

Tips and Hints

Some may say that the difference between adviser and mentor is just semantic. These are usually students who have been lucky enough to have had advisers who take an interest in them, guide them, and teach them how to be professionals. That is, without realizing it, they have had adviser-mentors. Expect your relationship with your mentor to be professional but also personal. Many students maintain contact with their mentors after graduate school, and mentors often are a source of information and support as new graduates enter the world of work.

1 Zelditch, M. (1990). Mentor Roles, Proceedings of the 32nd Annual Meeting of the Western Association of Graduate Schools. Cited in Powell, R.C.. & Pivo, G. (2001), Mentoring: The Faculty-Graduate Student Relationship. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona