Finding Non-Academic Mentors Regardless of Your Career Path

Finding Non-Academic Mentors Regardless of Your Career Path

October 17, 2017

We know the value of an awesome mentor. Mentors provide camaraderie, dispense expert advice, and serve as role models as you build your life and careers. Academia does a pretty good job of providing formal avenues to build your academic mentorship network, but what about non-academic mentors? How do you build the mentoring networks you need for diverse careers both within and beyond the academy?

Realize who you already know

Although it can be difficult to remember that you know people who are not academics, you do!

Take a new look at your existing communities and identify the people who have current or former careers in nonprofits, companies, government agencies, and community organizations.

Get broad here and think about the totality of people you interact with—your dentist, next-door neighbor, pet sitter or babysitter, neighborhood association director, accountant, and running buddy all have something to offer. You might be used to thinking of those folks in your life as separate from your academic career, but here’s your chance to get to know them on a different level and learn about a wide range of career journeys.

Check out diverse career networks

The vibrant post-academic, alternative academic, and non-academic career networks can be great resources for finding mentors and learning about diverse careers.

Organizations like Versatile PhD have local chapters in many cities (I found my local chapter, PhillyD, very helpful in my own transition out of academia), and networks like Beyond the Professoriate offer online support and camaraderie from wherever you are in the world.

Use alumni networks

Most universities have global or national alumni networks and love it when alumni connect with each other.

These networks can come in the form of formal alumni associations run by the university or more informal social media networks on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

Check out your graduate and undergraduate alumni associations’ website and social media accounts to find out about upcoming events, online opportunities, or even job postings.

Sign up for and read your alumni newsletters to learn about what graduates have gone on to accomplish and track down people you find intriguing for informational interviews.

Don’t discount virtual mentors

Most of your mentors (academic or otherwise) will and should be people you know and talk to in real life, whether that’s online or off.

But people whose careers you follow from afar can also give you inspiration for your career path. For instance, the Imagine Otherwise podcast is chock full of amazing folks dispensing career advice and modeling diverse career paths.

Set up informational interviews

Informational interviews, in which you set up a short meeting with someone to learn about their career journey and their current position, are a great way to get in-depth information about what it is like to work in particular industries or positions.

You can ask about how your interviewee came to their current position and what their day-to-day working life is like, as well as ask if they have any advice for your particular career transition.

Informational interviews are importantly NOT job interviews (you should not ask for a job during these), but instead they provide a glimpse into careers you are curious about and let you meet people doing things you could do in the future.

Make sure your mentorship relationships are reciprocal

It’s totally fine to want advice and suggestions from your academic and non-academic mentors, whether they formally call themselves that or not.

But like all relationships, mentoring relationships should be reciprocal—you should bring as much to the relationship as you are asking for from the other person.

In addition to talking about your own situation and needs, make sure to take equal time to ask about others’ lives, needs, and goals. You might offer to trade advice or services—perhaps they can edit your resume while you find resources for a project they’re working on. Offer to put them in contact with relevant people in your network, share resources they might find helpful, and extend the same thoughtfulness and emotional labor you are asking of them.

Realize that mentors come in all forms

Just as in academia, expecting to find a single mentor to fulfill all your needs outside of academia is fruitless. No single person can advise you well on everything.

Instead, think of your mentorship team as a collection of people with specific expertise on a variety of issues. The goal isn’t to find a single person to emulate, but to build diverse, lasting, and reciprocal relationships with many people. Your accountant might have fabulous mentoring advice about career resources in your city, while the director of a local nonprofit might have excellent advice on job interviews.

Non-academic mentors bring a wealth of career expertise and life advice, and continually building and nurturing those relationships can be enormously helpful in whatever careers you end up pursuing.

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