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Mentoring across cultures

Your feedback may have different meanings.

by Nanda Dimitrov

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Effective graduate mentorship ultimately comes down to setting clear expectations, giving good feedback and having a student who is willing to learn from your feedback. I will explore a few strategies that help build bridges and foster effective mentoring relationships between faculty members and graduate students from different cultures.

Show interest in their experience

One of the first steps to being a good mentor is to ask questions about students’ experiences. Participants in focus groups made up of international graduate students at the University of Western Ontario agreed that excellent mentors take the time to find out how their students learn best, what they hope to achieve in their careers and how they approached research in their home culture before coming to Canada.

Conversations about students’ prior experiences help map the areas in which mentorship is needed (such as awareness of research-ethics issues or grant writing) and give faculty members the opportunity to refer students to programs on campus that can help them adapt to Canadian academic culture. Many universities offer extensive programming to round out student preparation and take a load off the shoulders of primary mentors. Encouraging students to take initiative and look for opportunities to get mentored by multiple scholars also facilitates the work of the primary supervisor.

Give appropriate feedback

Good feedback is objective, constructive and focused on changeable actions in any culture – but how the feedback is delivered and perceived varies greatly. During a presentation at Western last year, Lionel Laroche, author of Managing Cultural Diversity in Technical Professions, argued that feedback may be represented on a continuum from unacceptable to slightly negative, through neutral, to positive and excellent. One of the challenges of giving feedback across cultures is that the width of these feedback zones varies both from person to person and from culture to culture.

For example, feedback that is intended as slightly negative by a Canadian graduate supervisor may still be in the neutral zone for a student from France who is used to a very direct approach. The mentor may say: “The proposal is pretty good, but you might want to look at hypothesis four – it is a bit unclear.” Clearly, she expects the student to make changes to hypothesis four. But the student will not change anything, because in his mind, the message is neutral and doesn’t require action. In order to take action, the student may need to hear what a French supervisor would say: “Hypothesis four won’t work – change it!”

However, the same mentor’s message may be too harsh for a Chinese student when she says: “The design of your experiment is innovative, but your writing really needs some work. At the moment, this paper would not be acceptable in an academic journal. I think that you should take a course on scientific writing.” Here, the feedback is clearly negative, but the mentor believes the student can improve. The student, for whom this feedback falls in the “unacceptable” zone, may only hear: “My writing is unacceptable and can’t be published. She is telling me that I don’t belong in the program. Maybe she is telling me that I should quit my PhD.”

In this example, the supervisor would need to explain that learning to write is a key part of graduate education and to communicate that she is looking forward to reading improved drafts of the paper. Dr. Laroche advises supervisors to metaphorically turn up or turn down the volume for each student as needed, and to check in with them to make sure that they understood the message.

We often learn most from teaching others. Graduate students will become better mentees if they have the opportunity to serve as mentors to junior graduate students. Mentors can encourage research collaboration across cultures and ask their students to work on projects with peers from a variety of cultures, as a way of preparing them for life in the international world of academia after graduation.

Resources for mentors

The University of Western Ontario has developed several online resources to help mentors and their mentees from different cultures get off to a good start:

The Western Guide to Mentoring Graduate Students Across Cultures is a 40-page overview of culture and communication for faculty, with case studies and mentoring strategies in every chapter. It is available online at: http://www.uwo.ca/tsc/purpleguides.html

Communication Strategies for International Graduate Students: Surviving and Thriving in Canadian Academia, is an e-book designed for international graduate students, with video examples of effective communication, available online at: http://www.uwo.ca/tsc/csigs.html

Other helpful programs for students:  

Nanda Dimitrov is associate director of the Teaching Support Centre at University of Western Ontario, and author of the Western Guide to Mentoring Graduate Students Across Cultures (PDF).

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