Defining and Finding Your Mentor(s)
Mentorship is a multi-faceted relationship with many benefits for the mentee:
- Extended network
This combination of benefits means that mentoring relationships are particularly important for job transitions. While it’s true that advisors may also provide some of these functions, according to Dr. Beronda Montgomery, the key difference between an advisor and a mentor is the specificity of the advice for you. Montgomery is a plant biologist and mentorship expert at Michigan State University. She argues that a mentoring relationship is a bilateral flow of information between the mentor and mentee that allows the mentor to provide advice, sponsorship, and encouragement based on the unique qualifications, attributes, and experiences of their mentee. This is distinct from the role of an advisor, who provides general advice that might suit anybody.
The necessity of bidirectional communication (read: trust) in a mentoring relationship, however, can make these relationships difficult. Furthermore, each phase of an individual’s career is likely to require a different mentor, and “breaking up” with or “retiring” your mentor is tricky business. This is why Montgomery also argues that mentoring relationships should begin with clearly outlined goals and expectations; so that both parties can easily identify when it’s time to move on.
Finding Your Mentor(s)
The likelihood of finding a single mentor that can aid in all facets of your career is unlikely. That’s part of why Montgomery advocates for mentoring networks and the evidence suggests that mentoring networks are particularly important for women.
To identify the types of mentors that you need for your network, Montgomery suggests self-reflection to answer four questions for yourself.
- What do I need?
- When do I need it?
- Where/in what area?
- Where can I find it?
Once you identify the strategic areas where you need mentoring, it’s time to begin searching for individuals to fill those roles. On campus, look for institution-sponsored mentoring programs, affinity groups, and/or ask people in your existing network for suggestions. You might also consider contacting someone that you don’t already have a connection with to initiate a mentoring relationship. LinkedIn and other social networking sites are good places to look for mentors. Examine the list of people you follow and look for people with knowledge in your strategic area(s) and post things that resonate with you.
Whenever and wherever you find these potential mentors, consider establishing your goals and expectations before approaching them. Montgomery lists four key items to consider when establishing a mentorship.
- The framework (i.e., the relationship purpose and type)
- The frequency of interactions
- Goals of meetings/interactions
Finally, there are a few other things that you should keep in mind when you reach out to your potential mentor.
- Be gracious (but you know that one already).
- Lead with your framework, goals, and expectations; demonstrate the thoughtfulness of your contact.
- Offer an out. Everyone is busy, so invite your potential mentor to suggest someone else who might better fit your needs and/or schedule.
Read more HERC articles on mentoring.
About the Author: Dr. Ada Hagan is a microbiologist with a passion for making science accessible. In 2019, Dr. Hagan founded Alliance SciComm & Consulting, LLC as a means to use her strong background in communications and higher education to help make scientific concepts more easily understood and make the academy more inclusive to future scientists from all backgrounds. Her writing and research have been featured by BBC Radio 4, Science Careers, The Scientist, Massive Science, and the American Society for Microbiology.