PhD Mentoring Handbook Application Cycle: 2024-2025 

Dear mentors,

Project SHORT is made for students, by students with our aim to shrink the socio-economic gap in higher education. We, as an organization, are committed to diminish the leaky pipeline in STEM by providing a plethora of mentoring opportunities to our mentees. As an international student myself, I acknowledge the numerous challenges one faces at different stages of their career - may it be applying to graduate school or going through the ups and downs of graduate school itself. My journey would have been impossible without my wonderful mentors and I am  so grateful to have crossed paths with them. 

I hope at Project SHORT, you, as a mentor can have the same life-changing impact on a mentee’s journey. Hence, I provide you with this handbook as a set of guidelines developed by past mentors and rewritten for the 2024-2025 cycle. I hope it serves as a starting place for conversations with your mentees; however, it is not an exhaustive list of everything you should do. I hope that you can create a safe space for your mentee(s) to express themselves. At the same time, I want you to protect your time as a mentor and orient you toward this mentorship experience.

I understand that there will be variation among different graduate school applications and every individual has their own mentoring styles. So, please use this handbook as your guide for mentoring. You can also learn from our mentor community on slack channel (have you joined it yet?) and from your own experiences with mentees. 

Thank you for being a mentor at Project SHORT. If you have suggestions or questions for us, please reach out to our mentorship co-directors of mentorship at or me at

Ananya Dash

Where do you begin?

When you are matched with a mentee, one of the first things you should do is to contact your mentee to have an initial call with them. Providing your available times with a scheduling tool such as when2meet or meetingbrew can be a great way to find common timings that work for you, especially if you are in different time zones. Through the first conversation, you can find the familiarity of the mentee with the application cycle. It is important to learn whether they are at a beginner’s stage or have specific concerns regarding the application cycle.  

During your first meeting, learn about their goals and what they hope to accomplish through this mentorship experience.
  • Some mentees will be very early in the application process. For example, they may not have solidified their decision to go to graduate school and may need your help with that decision. You can explore their motivations to go to graduate school and the potential options that are available to them. It can also be helpful to ask about their knowledge of the application process and dive into specific parts of it.
  • Other mentees will have already started the application process, including having a nearly finalized list of graduate schools they plan to apply to and a draft of their personal statement. Discuss with your mentee what other support they have received in the application process and how you can supplement that.
Consider recommending to your mentee that they make a spreadsheet with a list of prospective graduate schools, if they haven’t already. Then ask your mentee to slowly populate the spreadsheet with information such as:
  • Graduate programs, University, Location, Email of Administrators, Directors of Recruitment
  • Different components of the application
    • Personal Statements or Statement of Purpose
    • Diversity Statements
    • Letters of Recommendation (Maximum number)
    • Language Proficiency Tests such as IELTS or TOEFL
    • GRE/GPA average or courses recommended
    • Cost of Application
    • Deadline
  • Prospective faculties and their contact information if they wish to reach out to them

Personal Statement or Research Statement

Every mentor has a different approach on how they evaluate and edit their mentee’s statements. We want you to choose your own level of comfort. Whether you want to share your statements with your mentee in the beginning or later and/or not share them, it is completely up to you. But, make sure to provide some guiding principles on what worked and what did not when you started writing your own statements. 

Be mindful of your mentee’s writing style and suggestions/edits that you are providing them. You want to make sure that the voice of the applicant shines! The simplest way to do so is to prioritize feedback and comments regarding structure and language rather than direct corrections. 

When reviewing the personal statement, please discuss with your mentee the goals of the statement:
  • Why do they wish to pursue graduate school?
  • Ask them to think about their personal motivations, research experiences and coursework that have led to their decision to pursue higher education.
  • What about their research experiences taught them about science and helped them solidify their decision to pursue a career in science?
  • What challenges did they face to get to where they are and what do they wish to overcome in their journey?
  • What makes their application different from everyone else?
When reviewing the research statement, discuss the different research experiences of your mentee. You can help your mentee to structure their statement to find a progression from their past research projects to current areas of interest. You can work with your mentee to identify their key experiments and outcomes, which can range from attaining a diverse skill set to  publications and new project ideas in the laboratories they worked in. 

Overall, working with your mentee to come up with a concrete structure to their statements will be key for them to work on sections instead of trying to come up with a complete statement at once. You can discuss if the program they are applying to has requirements for the statement in terms of the length of the statement and specific questions they expect answers to from the applicant. If the program has separate personal and research statements, then the applicant should try to stay true to their story but also not be repetitive across them.

Diversity Statement

Many schools are interested in mentees submitting a brief diversity statement to articulate their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the graduate programs. The statement should establish the mentee’s understanding of the importance of diversity in STEM. At the same time, they should be able to showcase past efforts or future willingness to enhance diversity and inclusion at their graduate school. Usually, the diversity statement will be concise. 

As a mentor, you can work with your mentee to brainstorm different ways that they can connect their personal ups and downs to build an inclusive and respectful community in the future. This will help them develop a unique perspective of what diversity means to them as an individual and craft a meaningful statement.

School and Faculty Selection

When looking through a potential list of schools or programs, mentors can start a conversation around mentees preferences. Selecting schools to apply for varies based on applicant’s preferences of stipend and or funding, geographical location, climate, cost of living, etc. Mentors can discuss their personal experiences of what worked and what did not when it came to selecting schools. 

They can start with the list of requirements at their school of interests as well, such as the GRE and/or english proficiency test (TOEFL and IELTS). Further, the application cost can be a major barrier for mentees. In that case, it is essential to find schools that do not charge application fees or provide fee waivers to applicants. Ask you mentees to email program administrators to ask for fee waivers to the schools they are applying to. You can also ask them to reach out to Project SHORT to see if they can get a fee waiver from our existing partnerships

One of the other major recommendations for choosing schools of interest is to identify faculty whose research a mentee echoes with. Finding programs where there are faculty that the applicant is willing to work with is important, especially if the programs allows them for laboratory rotations. Emphasize the importance of fit - a good match in domains other than research is crucial for a better graduate school experience.

Fit is not only important to emphasize in the personal statement, as it shows they have done their research about the program and faculty mentor, but also helps ensure that if they are accepted, their interests will match with their faculty mentor’s interests. A strong statement not only includes the PIs your mentee is interested in working with, but also discusses how their research aligns with your mentee’s interests and career aspirations. All of this may not be completely true if a mentee has to identify a single lab beforehand to join without laboratory rotations. In that case the mentee should definitely reach out to the faculty of interest and even lab members to get a sense of the research and environment. 

While not all programs encourage reaching out to faculty in advance of their application, mentees can still reach out to faculty if deemed appropriate in their field of application. If the faculty respond and are willing to meet, the mentees can ask the faculties the following questions:

  • Whether they are taking students in the upcoming cycle
  • Funding Mechanisms
  • Research Philosophy
  • Lab environment
It can be a wonderful opportunity for mentees to even ask faculty about the program, coursework, and city, in general if they find that the faculty are willing to chat about it after discussing research interests.

Note: if a professor is not available or doesn't respond, mentees should be able to still list them as your primary interest, and list other labs they are potentially interested in.

Interview Preparation

Share your interview experience with your mentee! Remind your mentees that, at the interview stage, they should be assessing whether they think the program is a good fit for their goals and working style.  . Applicants will have a chance to meet potential faculties from their program, but they may not always be the faculties a mentee is interested in. In that case, encourage your mentee to learn about their interviewees work, but they do need to stress about reading all their recent papers. As long as they are vaguely familiar with their work, that is sufficient to initiate a conversation.

What may be helpful for mentees to pay attention to at interviews:

  • People they are interviewing with could be their potential cohort.
  • The Administration & the Recruitment Committee.
    • A poor experience of the candidate could be a sign of an unorganized program with bad communication across several levels.
    • Administrative coordinators are the backbone of every program!
    • Advise your mentee to observe and interact with them during their interview.
  • Faculty Attentiveness
    • Do the faculty seem approachable?
    • Are they eager to be there and interact with potential graduate students?
    • Do they welcome questions from the applicants?
  • Students
    • Are graduate students open to communicating their experiences?
    • Ask them about their experiences with coursework, their laboratory environment, and their relationship with their PI.
    • Find out about your laboratories of interest from different students who may or may not be there in those laboratories.
    • Ask students about their health insurance, transportation and life in the location you are at!
  • Professional Development Opportunities and Resources
    • Make sure to ask what type of resources are available to graduate students.
    • If mentees are interested in outreach, science communication and non-traditional careers.
Help your mentee to improve their clarity and conciseness, their ability to articulate why they wish to go to a particular university, and their body language.

Questions to help you and your mentee for a mock interview session:

  • Mentor to Mentee:
    • Tell me about yourself.
    • Tell me about your research experiences.
    • Tell me about challenges you have faced during your research and how you overcame them.
    • Tell me about your current research interests and faculties you are interested to work with at “this” school.
    • Why do you wish to pursue graduate school?
    • What are some of your career aspirations that you would like to pursue after completing graduate school?
    • What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • Mentee to Mentor or PI:
    • If you can tell me about some of your research projects and if you are taking rotations in the next cycle (this part of the question is field-dependent)?
    • What is your mentorship style?
    • How often do you conduct lab meetings and 1:1 meetings with graduate students?
    • What made you choose this department and university?
    • Do you have collaborators? Do graduate students work with collaborators often?
    • If you improve certain aspects of the program, what would it be?

International Applicants

In the case of mentoring an international applicant, it is important to remember that the applicant may not be familiar with the graduate school system in the US. Hence, it is important to walk them through the process of graduate school applications and the life of a graduate student in their field of interest. An international student might have a different set of hurdles than a domestic student based on their socioeconomic and academic context. 

As a mentor, you can help them to ask the right questions. Make sure you ask your mentees to connect to program administrators at their graduate school(s) of choice. This will help them navigate the differences in grading system, transcript submission and other fields in the application form. 

Since, the visa status of international applicants is bound to their ongoing graduate study. They need to be strategic in school selections that guarantee funding through the program regardless of students’ or PI’s individual funding status. 

With respect to day-to-day living in the US, you can also help your mentee to consider different aspects of the locations that they are choosing the programs at. You can ask them to consider if:

  • Climate conditions such as extreme heat or cold
  • Whether students from their country of origin live in that location
  • Public transport at the university and/or location
  • Cost of living comparison to the stipend
You can also let them know that if they have not lived in the US, they won’t have an existing credit history. That will make it harder for them to rent a place of their own. Mentees may need to start their search earlier and find roommates or co-signers to sign their lease. They can check websites such as Splitspot to help with initial leasing.

While it may not be possible for you as a mentor to walk them through each of these, it can be great to bring them up to your mentees so they can figure out these additional steps before they make decisions about applying to a graduate school or accepting a position.

Note from Directors of Pre-Grad Mentorship

Dear mentors,

We appreciate your commitment to supporting graduate students during a pivotal time in their academic journey. We’ve seen this first hand from the many Project SHORT alums who have told us how much their mentor and this program have made a difference in their lives. As you either start or continue your mentorship journey, we would like to provide you with a few reminders:

  • Focus on ways you can help a mentee and not all the ways you can't.

    It's easy to think the ideal mentor must closely mirror a mentee's research interests, identity, or background, but this isn't necessarily true. Admissions committees and program peers often differ in research and backgrounds, so an outside viewpoint can provide valuable insights. For instance, a mentee applying to EU schools found guidance from a U.S.-based mentor helpful for exploring her research interests. 
  • Approach your mentorship role with an open mind, empathy, and confidentiality.

    Each mentee comes with unique experiences, challenges, and aspirations, which may differ from what you are familiar with or may be more difficult to understand. One mentor read blogs about the journeys of PhD students with disabilities and found resources through organizations such as Diversability to better understand the experience of their mentee with a disability. Similarly, you can use available resources to better acknowledge and understand the barriers and systemic inequalities your mentee might face.
  • You are not alone, you’re part of the Project SHORT community

    During your mentorship, your mentee might pose a question you're unsure how to answer or be in a situation you don't know how to help with. In these moments, it's important to remember that you can lean on this guide, the Project SHORT Slack community, the Project SHORT Leadership, and other members of your network. If one of those resources cannot provide answers, then we are at least aware of resources that we need to develop for others in the future. 

As mentors, you create a safe, supportive space for mentees to share concerns, seek guidance, and gain confidence. Thank you for your unwavering commitment and for driving positive change in our academic community.

Warm regards,

Warisha Tahir and Ruth Hammond
Co-Directors, Pre-Grad Mentorship