Even if your supervisor is not the stereotypical ageing white male, he or she may not always be your best 'learning assistant.' Mentoring may traditionally be one of the roles of your research supervisor, but, whether you're having problems with your research or facing worries about your future direction, there is an alternative. Peer mentoring has been popular in the United States since the 1970s, and now it's starting to provide U.K. students with a friendly face to turn to.
What is peer mentoring and what's in it for you? The system involves coupling older students with their younger peers in a "Big Brother/Big Sister programme that gives the younger students more insight into their courses and how to get the most out of their time," according to Joseph Branch, who was a peer mentor in the United States during his college days. Peer mentoring works well for undergraduates: Fellow students are, after all, uniquely qualified to empathise and inspire. A faculty member will usually pair up a mentor and younger student based on common ground--in research, career interests, regional or ethnic background, and sometimes gender.
And the system can be effective for postgrads too. Emma Coe helped set up the peer-mentoring project in science at Manchester University: "Most of our postgraduate peer mentoring is conducted by Ph.D. students for Ph.D. students," she explains. "The basic idea of peer mentoring for postgraduates is straightforward--experienced postgraduates are assigned small groups of less experienced postgrads." The mentees can turn to them for information, help, advice, and general support, although mentors must not act as teachers or supervisors, she adds. "I would never knock the personal tutoring system, which I think is also vital, but which plays a different role--that of loco parentis--whereas the fellow student is a role model," emphasises Maureen Donelan of University College London, which runs peer mentoring in departments including math, physics, and biochemistry.
It's not just mentees who benefit; mentors gain a lot too. "Mentors experience leading a group and learn facilitation techniques, teamwork, empathy, and communication skills," explains Donelan. "Employers," she adds, "are very interested in this scheme, because students provide evidence of skills obtained in an innovative way."
SRHE/THES Guides on Postgraduate Issues No. 6 , Emma Coe and Carole Keeling, Setting Up Peer Mentoring With Postgraduate Research Students
Manchester University  is using the undergraduate peer-mentoring model with postgraduates.
Peer mentoring resource materials from London Guildhall University 
The University College London  approach to peer mentoring
Find out how Chester College  handles peer mentoring.
Educational psychologist Keith Topping  of the University of Dundee runs a Web site that provides information on how nonprofessionals (peers and even parents) can assist in the learning process in fundamental skills, science, math, information technology, and other areas.
International Mentoring Association , hosted by Western Michigan University
The University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee  demonstrates an American approach.
Structured peer mentoring at the postgraduate level is relatively new, but comments from postgrads underscore how valuable it can be. "I met people I wouldn't normally come into contact with and also had someone to turn to for advice," says one Manchester postgrad scientist. Others mention "encouragement," "reassurance that it is common not to get many results in the first year," "advice on seminar presentations," and "introductions to people in the department" as important to their experiences of peer mentoring.
Such schemes are likely to become more prominent as traditional supervisors are placed under increasing administrative pressures because of bigger class sizes and moves to increase accountability. Peers and near-peers can provide an alternative support structure. Some mentoring relationships can even be at a distance--using telephone and e-mail or "e-mentoring"--points out André Smit, a recruitment and development manager.
Interested? If your department does not already run a peer-mentoring scheme, then what's to stop you from approaching the head of your department to propose that one get started? "It might be possible for the student union to set up such a scheme," suggests Donelan. Rather than merely being the junior partner in a long-term 'tutor-student' relationship, you could soon be mentored by a friend.
Neal Whitman Ashe, Peer Teaching: To Teach Is to Learn Twice, ERIC Higher Education Reports, April 1989, ISBN: 0913317489.
Laurent A. Daloz, Mentor: Guiding the Journey of Adult Learners, 2nd ed., Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series, October 1999, ISBN: 0787940720.
Barbara Gottesman, Peer Coaching for Educators, Scarecrow Press, July 2000, ISBN: 0810837455.
National Academy of Science and National Academy of Engineering, Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering, National Academy Press, July 1997, ISBN: 0309063639.
Lois J. Zachary and Laurent A. Daloz, The Mentor's Guide: Facilitating Effective Learning Relationships, Jossey-Bass, January 2000, ISBN: 0787947423.