Mentorship in Research: Advisers vs. Mentors

Over the course of the semester, PCURs will reflect on the professors, advisers, and friends who shaped their research experiences. We present these to you as a series called Mentorship in Research. Most undergraduates have met, or will meet, an individual who motivates and supports their independent work. Here, Jalisha shares her story.


While mentors and advisers may seem similar, they can actually play very different roles in helping you succeed!
While mentors and advisers may seem similar, they can actually play very different roles in helping you succeed!

For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about advisers and mentors, trying to determine whether a distinct difference exists between the two. From my personal musings, I’ve concluded that the two are very different — It seems mentors invest more time and energy into learning your strengths, weaknesses, interests, and passions so that they can help you succeed. I decided to ask around campus to see what other students had to say about the topic, and found that many others had similar opinions:

  • Sophomore Malachi Byrd said that advisers push you academically while mentors tend to meet you where you’re at.
  • Junior Kushal Dalal remarked that mentors take you under their wing and go beyond the role of an adviser.
  • Senior Dennisse Calle stated that, unlike advisers, mentors take every part of your life into account

These conversations made me question the relationships I’ve formed with Princeton professors. While I’ve had many wonderful advisers who have helped shaped me academically (and who I’m extremely grateful for), very few of these relationships felt personal enough to call them “mentors”.

“How could this be?” I thought to myself after coming to this realization. “Did I miss out on the opportunity to be mentored by some of the greatest academics in the world?”

Finding a mentor can be a lot more challenging than finding an adviser. For one, advisers are typically assigned, while mentors generally are not. As a result, finding a mentor requires a bit more energy and effort. Mentoring also requires a lot more effort from the professor: In addition to helping you with career choices, mentors provide insight about general life decisions, and make suggestions for you based on your interests, background, and future goals. All of these factors make mentorships feel more personal than regular advising. Mentors, then, should be individuals who you’d feel comfortable inviting to a graduation dinner with your parents, people who you plan to stay in contact with throughout your life.

While faculty mentors at Princeton can be harder to find than faculty advisers, I really feel like students who seek mentorship will be able to find it! Start by letting professors know about your interests, goals, or even your desire to be mentored. While I may not have been as intentional about seeking a mentor as I would have liked during my time here, I did become close with one faculty member who has been immensely helpful throughout my graduate school application and decision process.

Overall, I am extremely grateful for the relationships I formed with faculty members here, and hope to be more intentional about seeking mentorship during graduate school. I would encourage everyone to seek out at least one mentor here as well; you never know the impact one person can have on your future!

— Jalisha Braxton, Natural Sciences Correspondent