By Katie Murphy and Laura Klasek

Graduate school is often a tumultuous journey, and navigating coursework, research, and service can be intimidating. Like most difficult journeys, the phrase “it takes a village” applies - a team of mentors to help guide a student along the way. Here is how the UC Davis Plant Biology Graduate Group approaches structured mentorship. As individuals and programs, we hope you can use this information to your advantage, creating your own village, and making your way through graduate school. 

UC Davis Plant Biology Graduate Group
The 2018-29 UC Davis Plant Biology Graduate Group on our annual camping trip.

Individual Development Plans (IDPs)

Mentoring is useless without communication. An IDP provides structure for a student to compose their thoughts, evaluate their progress, and set goals. We have found most graduate students, including ourselves, struggle to have difficult conversations about progress and career goals because with evaluation comes a fear of failure. We specifically developed this IDP document to organize our thoughts, reflect on the previous academic year, and plan for the future. As a student or mentor, we highly recommend a yearly IDP to help plan and meet goals. If you want to make your own IDP, learn how we did it in this article: "Hope is Not a Strategy: Designing an IDP for a Graduate Program." Keep an eye out for a future Plantae Webinar on how to use this document effectively! 

Student mentors

First-year graduate students are paired with an older graduate student mentor to ask questions and get support in their first year of graduate school. Mentors and mentees are paired based on research interests, hobbies, and home country. You can see a sample of the survey used for pairing here. To help build mentoring relationships and a graduate group that is supportive, we host a student camping trip at the start of each school year, as well as a mentorship potluck in the second month of the school year. 

Peer mentorship allows for individual guidance from people who have just been through the same experience. While administrators and professors can give excellent guidance, student advice is critical. A supportive environment where students can go to each other as collaborators and peers has been invaluable to our students. 

Academic advisor

The academic advisor is a professor associated with the graduate group who serves as a first welcome to the University and helps a student plan lab rotations and coursework. These pairings are chosen based on student research interests. Because students in our program do not choose a lab to join until the end of winter quarter their first year, the academic advisor serves as an immediate mentor upon joining the university. 

Major professor

It wouldn’t be a PhD without a major professor. Serving as mentor, trainer, and boss, this mentor-mentee relationship is often difficult to navigate. For mentees, we recommend using an IDP each year with your major professor to track your progress, address issues, and stay on track to graduate. For major professors, we hope that you can find some mentorship training at your university or on Plantae. 

Check out this article by Laura Klasek: "View From the Trenches: Advice if your PhD Advisor Unexpectedly Dies."

Mentorship committee

In order to facilitate better student well-being and mentorship relationships, we have a graduate group mentorship committee composed of two students and three faculty members. The student arm of this committee organizes the peer mentorship program, and together with the faculty members plans educational events such as lunch-and-learn round tables on topics such as funding, failure, and careers outside of academia. This serves as a way for students to pass on concerns and ideas to the faculty, too. 

Other support mechanisms

Some mentorship relationships fail, and when this happens with an academic advisor or major professor, can impede a student’s success and progress towards graduation. Other mechanisms of support include a Master Advisor, who oversees the academic advisor program and can assist students with advisor issues. The Graduate Group Chair oversees the entire graduate group, and in extreme cases, can step in to assist students and advisors on issues and disagreements. 

Using the Plant Science Research Network recommendations

In 2018 the Plant Science Research Network - a body overseeing plant science societies - published recommendations in Reinventing Postgraduate Training in the Plant Sciences. This document details how to prepare plant science trainees for the future, and suggests a model with modularity, customization, and distributed mentorship. The methods described here, composed of distributed mentorship across student mentors, an academic advisor, and a major professor, all aligned with the use of an Individual Development Plan, coincide with these PSRN recommendations for improving future plant science training. All these components, or just some parts, may be useful and suitable for your graduate trainee program, and can be implemented as modules. 

About the UC Davis Plant Biology Graduate Group: 


UC Davis' Plant Biology Graduate Group is an interdepartmental, intercollegiate graduate group comprised of over eighty faculty members and over fifty students and awards both masters and PhDs. A "graduate group" is an independent, self-governing organization of faculty members from across the campus that sponsor a graduate degree program. The Graduate Group’s cross-disciplinary structure allows students to tap the vast resources of UC Davis and to join the lab of virtually any plant biologist on campus, regardless of college or department. PBI members hail from nine different departments spanning three of UC Davis' four colleges, offering opportunities for collaborative learning and research. The graduate group has a first year rotation program, in which Ph.D. students may rotate through four labs and spend five weeks in each before joining a lab permanently for their research. More information can be found here.  

About the authors:  


Katie is a fourth year PhD Candidate in the Plant Biology Graduate Group at UC Davis. Her research interests include terpene biosynthesis in maize and its relation to the plant stress response. Katie holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University where she studied maize anther development. Katie is the Early Career Representative to the ASPB Women in Plant Biology Committee and is an ASPB Ambassador. 

Laura is a fifth year PhD Candidate, where she is the student president Plant Biology Graduate Group student. Her research interests include the targeting of proteins to chloroplasts and photosynthesis. Laura holds a bachelor’s degree from Hendrix College where she studied English with a creative writing focus and biology, including research on seed dispersal by extinct North American megafauna. She is a 2018-2019 ASPB Conviron Scholar.