Finding Mentors for Your Career Journey

by | Feb 28, 2017

Finding mentors is as much a skill as being a good mentor is. It takes patience, diligence, trial, and error. Academia can be an isolating place, and building strong mentoring relationships can shape your graduate school and early faculty experience as well as impact the overall course of your career.

Sometimes these connections emerge organically, but more often than not, finding mentors who can provide insight, support, and advice in key moments takes legwork. Here’s how to find the right mentors for your career journey.

Identify what you want

Take time to articulate to yourself what you want out of a mentoring relationship. Don’t edit here, just write out in as much specificity as you can the areas in which you’d like help, support, and questions answered.

Also think about what you’d like your relationship with your mentor to feel like. Are you looking for regular check-ins? Do you want someone able to pop in and help answer a targeted question every once in a while? Are you seeking a person to help connect you to a broader network of people in your field? Do you want someone who can give you perspectives on how to use your degree beyond academia?

This is the wish-list stage, and your notes you should reflect as much on what you want as on what you need. Remember, the expectation is not that you find one person who embodies everything on this list (more later on how mentorship is not a one-stop shop). Instead, you’re identifying your wants and needs so that you can build a network of mentorship resources that address what you’ve laid out in this first stage.

Mentorship doesn’t always look the same

Mentorship styles are as unique as mentors themselves. Don’t just take the time to think about what you want out of a mentoring relationship, but think too about what you want that relationship to entail. This makes the process of actually finding mentors much easier.

Are you seeking out detailed guidance and advice? Want insight on how to navigate where you are or where you’re going? Would your ideal mentor be a sounding board for your ideas? Would it be helpful to talk to someone who is a few steps ahead and can relate to where you are right now? Someone who has the career you envision for yourself in the long-term? Someone who can speak to the realities (and mechanics) of transitioning off the tenure track?

Mentorship is not a one-stop shop

Finding mentors (plural) is much more important and feasible than identifying a single person who can meet all your expectations. Instead, your goal should be building a network of people around you who support you in different and complementary ways.

At this point, start researching and brainstorm specific people to reach out to, both in your institution and outside of it. Be sure to also reflect on the people in your life already who could mentor you in specific areas.

Expertise isn’t the only thing

Your first instinct when determining who to reach out to might be to turn to someone whose work is in your area. This is a logical thought, as academia is based on an apprenticeship model between advisors and advisees. But this framework often limits your list of potential mentors to only a handful of people and limits your vision of potential mentors to faculty.

Try instead to think in broader terms about your interests to broaden your pool and increase your possibility of finding mentors to support you in your career journey. What fields do you engage? What research questions drive your work? What case studies do you want to examine? What research methods do you use or want to use?

What projects, centers, or institutes are you interested in connecting with? This question is especially important if you are interested in careers beyond academia; a good mentor can help you explore ways to apply your academic knowledge in a non-academic setting.

Think carefully too about how you approach your work and its role within your bigger life and look for mentors who can support your approach to work/life balance. How does your potential mentor see their academic or other work engaging with the world around them, especially the world beyond the university?

Broadly mapping your goals and ambitions through these kinds of questions opens you up to more potential mentorship opportunities.

Keep an open mind, and be sure not to dismiss early-career faculty, administrators, or even your peers! Wisdom, insight, experience, and support come in all shapes and sizes.

Recognize the personal and professional

Academia is often represented as a place where “minds” (rather than people) meet. This can prove hostile for those of us from marginalized communities and those with a progressive educational approach that acknowledges we are whole people making and exchanging knowledge.

As you map out what you want in a mentor, think about the importance of finding someone who can speak to your reality as a person of color, a queer person, or a person with a disability navigating academia. It can feel impossible, but connecting with someone who understands your unique experience and can help you navigate this difficult emotional, psychological, and physiological terrain is a crucial part of not just building a career but surviving academia.

“Interview” people with mentorship in mind

Now that you’ve mapped out your mentorship goals and brainstormed those you might to connect (or reconnect) with, start reaching out to people. Don’t ask outright about whether or not the person wants to mentor you; instead focus on getting to know them, establishing where your interests and experiences genuinely overlap, and developing a meaningful relationship.

The goal is not to just establish what potential mentors can do for you but rather what kind of relationship can develop between you two. It is a give and take! You are asking for, and worthy of, consideration and respect from your potential mentor. Offer the same in return.

Share why you want to connect

When contacting potential mentors, do your research and demonstrate why a mentorship relationship between you both could be a fruitful one.

Point to specific projects, courses, papers, or other things your potential mentor has worked on that interest you, and share how you see your own work, experiences, interests, or goals relating. Be sure to come to your first meeting with questions, ideas, and insights on how you might work together.

Pay attention to how you connect

A good mentor is one whom you actually click with in person, not just on paper. When you do meet with a potential mentor, pay close attention to how the conversation goes, beyond whatever information is exchanged. Do you feel heard? Does the mentor seem interested in you? Are they generous with their time and ideas?

Mentoring relationships will vary in depth and scope, so even if your mentor isn’t available to regularly meet you for coffee, if you feel there is a strong interpersonal connection, they can still become someone you occasionally reach out to with a quick question.

Keep in mind also that not all potential mentors have the time or resources to mentor you. Because you are nurturing a relationship, be thoughtful and attentive about how you use your mentor’s time and of the other responsibilities they are juggling.

Especially if they are early-career faculty, administrators, or non-academics working on a more structured schedule (don’t expect an email response on weekends!), or folks from marginalized communities (often the only ones in their offices), they may already be overburdened with work and service responsibilities. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reach out, just be realistic and gracious about what they can offer.

Make the effort to be direct, kind, and attentive when you request something of them (check in, ask them how they are, remember they are whole people and not just your mentors). In academic spaces that often lack compassion and community, don’t dismiss the value of simple, non-monetary generosity.

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Alexandra Sastre is the associate director of campus communications at Swarthmore College.

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