Mentoring and Advising Remotely in Times of Disruption

COVID-19 has created an environment where faculty and staff need to mentor and advise students remotely, under disruptive circumstances. Consider what this means for you personally. Depending on individual circumstances, some mentors will be in the position to provide more support than others. Allow yourself to be available within the boundaries that meet your needs. If you are unable to fully meet the needs of your students and postdocs, consider what colleagues may be best positioned to help.

Below are some suggestions from the Professional Development & Postdoctoral Affairs and Graduate Affairs teams on how to approach mentoring and advising remotely, adapted from The Graduate School at Cornell University:

  • Acknowledge the uncertain times and psychological distress your mentees/advisees are experiencing. Reassure students and postdocs that you will be as available, supportive, understanding, and as flexible as possible.
  • The health and safety of our students and postdocs is our first priority. Provide reassurance and check-in when possible.
    • Do this at a regular interval that students and postdocs can look forward to, even if there are not explicit things to update.
    • Bear in mind that everyone’s home environments look different – students and postdocs may have different levels of access to technology and internet connections, and caregivers may be juggling those responsibilities in real-time with their professional work.
    • Remind your mentees to get outside, and where possible, include exercise or other strategies for well-being in their schedules.
    • Encourage students and postdocs who feel overwhelmed to step away from social media and the news.
  • Be responsive to your mentees’ concerns about health, feelings of isolation, housing, family and loved ones both local and afar, travel, food access and insecurity, etc. The list of concerns can be long for many of our students and postdocs, and many offices across campus are working to help students address and manage these concerns.
  • Review the goals and expectations you established with your mentees/advisees under normal conditions (e.g. face-to-face interactions, regular check-ins, group meetings, etc.).
    • Identify which of these goals and expectations are important to maintain and which may need to be reprioritized and redefined.
    • Consider how new constraints (available time, remote work, new stressors) may factor into how mutually understood expectations can be met, how individual and shared goals can be achieved, and within what time frame. Many students and postdocs whose work depends heavily on being in the field, lab, clinic or other external environments are concerned about how this time working remotely will impact their continued progress.
    • Students closer to degree completion or postdocs nearing the end of their appointments are also concerned about a rapidly changing job market both within and beyond academia. Do what you can to ease their concerns, but also work with them on realistic action plans, including pointing them toward the resources and support offered by Professional Development & Postdoctoral Affairs, BU’s BEST, the Center for Career Development, and your local School/College career center (if applicable).
  • Communicate clear ways of working with your students and postdocs (as clear as you can under rapidly changing circumstances).
    • How do you plan to communicate, individually and in groups? (Email? Zoom? Slack? Phone? Facetime? Skype?)
    • How often can your mentees/advisees expect to hear from you? Schedule regular check-in times for one-on-one meetings.
    • How often do you want to hear from your mentees/advisees for check-ins and progress updates?
    • If you mentor a team, maintain regular, virtual, team meetings, as well as social times such as virtual coffee hours, and virtual lunches.
    • What do you want your mentees/advisees to do regarding research and writing? Any modifications? What degree of flexibility?
    • On what schedule do you expect progress to be made? Again, with what modifications and flexibility? Consider asking for written progress reports. Keep track of progress with structure e.g., pre-meeting summary of key tasks; pre-meeting report on accomplishments, obstacles, questions for discussion.
  • It’s okay to tell your students and postdocs that you and other faculty are also trying to figure out how to continue your teaching, research, writing and publishing under these challenging circumstances. It is okay that you may not have a fully developed strategy for how all aspects of your collaborative work will continue remotely or come online when normal operations resume.
  • Help students stay connected with peer writing groups, professional networks, journal clubs, seminar series, etc.
  • The University, Colleges and Schools, and the Offices of the President and Provost are all posting regular updates

These are unprecedented times, which are impacting everyone in significant ways. Ask for help when needed, either for yourself or for your students and postdocs. Questions related to mentoring and advising in a remote environment can be directed to