There is growing interest in using coaching and mentoring strategies to improve the learning and development experiences of postgraduate research students. Previous studies from England and Denmark indicate that providing doctoral students with access to a coach helped them to overcome a range of challenges, including difficulties with interpersonal relationships and managing work–life balance (Lane & De Wilde, 2018). However, there has been little research conducted around how research students could act as mentors to their peers, despite global concerns about declining mental health and isolation among doctoral students in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic (see for example Naumann et al., 2022).
‘There has been little research conducted around how research students could act as mentors to their peers, despite global concerns about declining mental health and isolation among doctoral students in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.’
In this blog, we discuss some of the potential benefits of mobilising interdisciplinary peer-to-peer mentoring between postgraduate research students. We draw from the case of a pilot mentoring initiative developed by the Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS) centre at Lancaster University. Two participants in the scheme share their experiences – Rebecca (a doctoral student in Education, and a mentee on the scheme) and Anastasios (a research student in Linguistics, and a mentor on the scheme).
Corpus linguistics is a research method which involves using specialised computer software to identify linguistic patterns in large bodies of text. For early career researchers who wish to explore using corpus methods, events such as the Lancaster Summer Schools in Corpus Linguistics can offer a helpful way in. However, such one-off introductory events ignore the important sociocultural process of learning, which recognises that effective learning takes place when students are sensitively scaffolded by a more experienced guide: as Liechty et al. (2013, p. 483) state, ‘Optimal learning is promoted when students can work alongside a more knowledgeable other such as a mentor [or] a more skilled peer.’
Sociocultural learning theories underpinned the mentoring initiative, and indeed we see the impact of this scaffolding approach in Rebecca’s reflections:
‘I first tried to study corpus linguistics 8 years ago but did not have any contacts or ways of following up on the interest. This programme provided a pathway for me to learn the method and I have built a level of understanding that is foundational and feels secure as I am confident in my mentor.’
Pairing research students together promoted a form of non-judgemental mentoring, creating enabling and supportive spaces for doctoral students to explore their developing identities as researchers, again as indicated by Rebecca:
‘I feel that I have found my method – the one that fits for my worldview and I can now build on my foundational understanding and make use of it while engaging with the corpus linguistics literature and community. The sympathetic support, conversations and presence were essential to this.’
However, the scheme was not only beneficial to mentees. Mentors seized opportunities to explore different pedagogical tools, as Anastasios explained:
‘Given the limited time allocated for such projects and the very demanding schedule of postgraduate researchers, mentors have to think strategically. An approach that seemed to fit our context was that of ‘flipped learning’[…] our contact time was used efficiently and maximised opportunities for discussion.’
Furthermore, as Anastasios recognised, explaining the specific tools and concepts of corpus linguistics to a novice engendered pedagogical reflection:
‘Drawing from my own experience in conducting corpus-based discourse analysis, I introduced my mentee to keywords, then collocations and finally concordances. However, this order meant that the mentee had to understand more complex techniques before basic ones […] In retrospect, it might have been less challenging for the mentee if I had introduced these methods in reverse.’
Initial feedback from the pilot scheme therefore supported the findings of Hollweck (2019), who identified benefits to both mentors and mentees engaged in mentoring. Findings from this pilot should be of interest to those responsible for postgraduate research communities in universities, as they indicate that peer-mentoring could provide a cost-effective way to improve the skills and confidence of postgraduate researchers. Given that mentoring is also a relational intervention, peer-mentoring programmes also have the potential to address some of the issues around isolation, which are currently prevalent in the postgraduate research community. This should be a focus of future research.
Hollweck, T. (2019). ‘I love this stuff!’: A Canadian case study of mentor-coach well-being. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 8(4), 325–344. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJMCE-02-2019-0036
Lane, L. G., & De Wilde, J. (2018). The impact of coaching doctoral students at a university in London. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 16(2), 55–68. https://doi.org/10.24384/000561
Liechty, J., Liao, M., & Schull, C. (2013). Facilitating dissertation completion and success amongst doctoral students in social work. Journal of Social Work Education, 45(3), 481–497. https://doi.org/10.5175/JSWE.2009.200800091
Naumann, S., Matyjek, M., Bögl, K., & Dziobek, I. (2022). Doctoral researchers’ mental health and PhD training satisfaction during the German COVID-19 lockdown: Results from an international research sample. Scientific Reports, 12. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-26601-4