Starting a PhD can be daunting, especially during a pandemic, when uncertainty and social isolation can cause some extra emotional and logistical upheavals. That’s why the FMI launched a ’mentor matching’ initiative. By pairing senior PhD students with students who joined the institute during the COVID-19 pandemic, the initiative aims at helping newcomers meet their peers, navigate university bureaucracy, and familiarize themselves with Basel and the FMI.
Settling into a new location, making new friends, choosing university courses, setting up a thesis advisory committee: starting a PhD can be an overwhelming mix of excitement and trepidation, and the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic don’t make things any easier. FMI PhD representatives Eleonora Castelli and Carolin Warnecke know this well. In November 2020, as COVID-19 cases peaked in Switzerland, the duo discussed with Guidance Counsellor Piera Cicchetti about helping new PhD students to settle in by matching them with more senior students. "We thought it would be a good idea to connect new students with someone to whom they could talk about university stuff, the FMI or Basel," Carolin says.
Within a few weeks, Piera, who supports students and postdocs in their professional development, found 13 senior students who agreed to be paired as mentors for 13 PhD students who had joined the FMI during the spring and summer of 2020. Each pair of students decides how and when to meet: some exchange emails regularly, others meet over Zoom once every few weeks, some others get together on the FMI terrace when they have some spare time. "It seemed best to organize this as an informal initiative, where the student pairs figure out for themselves what they prefer, and this seems to have worked well," Piera says.
The pandemic has drastically reduced opportunities for informal conversations during which new students could ask recommendations about where to go shopping or which university course to take, says Gergely Tihanyi, who joined the FMI as a PhD candidate in October 2020. "Thanks to this initiative, I can email my mentor whenever I have a question about the institute or the city," Gergely says.
First-year PhD candidate Romane Lyautey, who started at the FMI as an intern in October 2019, is also happy with the mentor matching. "Before the pandemic, the FMI used to have happy hours where PhD students could chat with other students and meet new people," Romane says. "I appreciate that now I have someone to go to, if I have a question," she says. "It would be nice to become a mentor myself in the future."
Indeed, the initiative may continue once the pandemic is over, Carolin says, as university bureaucracy won’t disappear, and without restrictions there will be lots of things to do in and around Basel. Eleonora notes that new students could be more likely to ask for support if they know that a fellow student is there for that purpose. "If the match works out, mentors and mentees may even become friends," she says.