Academic Mentoring: How To Be a Good Mentor

by | Mar 7, 2017

Many of us have spent our careers stumbling upon or seeking out good mentors as we’ve figured our way through the weeds of college, graduate school, activism, and life. No matter where we are on our journey, chances are we’ve accumulated some knowledge to share with those coming up behind. We need mentors for sure, but we also are mentors. Understanding how to mentor helps us help others and gives us a better sense of what we need in our own mentors.

In this second of our three part series on mentorship, we are tackling questions of why we should seek to be mentors and how to be the mentors we all wish we’d had.

In part 1, Alexandra Sastre tackles the ins and outs of how to find a good mentor to help you navigate academia’s challenges. Here in part 2, Kate Drabinski addresses why we should seek to be mentors and how to be the mentors we all wish we’d had. In part 3, Cathy Hannabach shares her insight on how to keep these new mentoring relationships strong by being a good mentee.

Figure out why you want to be a mentor

Being a mentor is a gift to yourself and to another who is seeking to find her way. Mentorship often happens by accident—we meet someone who reminds us of ourselves and we make a coffee date, send an email with advice, or suggest a pathway. But what if we made decisions about mentorship with more intention and mindfulness?

Take some time to sketch out for yourself why mentorship matters. Are you looking to mentor someone in your field or profession? A fellow activist looking to take the leadership reins? What kind of world do you want to help build, and who could you mentor to help you build that world?

Discover what you can offer

All of us continue to need mentors for our entire lives. That childhood fantasy that we might grow up to be adults who have all the answers just gets more and more fantastical as we age.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we don’t have things to offer others. Did you figure out how to manage the difficulties of being working class in an academy that assumes we’ve all got least a safety net to front us some cash? Have you gathered the skills to send emails to unsupportive advisors? Who in your orbit can benefit from what you’ve learned? What has been paid to you, and how can you pay it forward?

Be honest about what you can do

Mentorship relationships work best when everyone is honest about their own limits. Do you have time for one coffee date a month? An email? Twice-a-semester lunches? Everybody’s busy, and mentoring someone should be a fun and useful process for both parties. If you’ve got limited time, just be honest about that. Clear boundaries up front are key to being a mentor—and wanting to mentor again.

For those of us from marginalized communities, this is particularly important. The demand on us to mentor those who “look” like us can be overwhelming, if only because there are so few of us in the academy at all. Think seriously about how to protect your own time and space even as you seek to mentor others. None of us can mentor all of us, and being honest about that is important for authentic mentoring relationships.

Be on the lookout for mentees

Many mentoring relationships happen organically, but once you’ve got a good understanding of your skills and your goals, don’t be afraid to make that mentoring relationship explicit. Mentees often don’t even know what they’re looking for—don’t be afraid to tell them it’s you!

As Alexandra Sastre pointed out in part 1 of this series, the academic and the personal are always intertwined, if only because we are all people. Be on the lookout for mentees who might share some of your struggles.

Articulate mentorship connections

Being a good mentor means communicating explicitly in ways that can help our mentees move through roadblocks and continue their own journeys. Once you “click” with someone and have a sense for the ways you can be helpful to each other, make it clear that you are on that journey.

When we think about our own mentors, we remember the professor who tapped us and said we had something special, the older graduate student who promised we could get through that tough course, the person whose example we found ourselves following. When in doubt, make the tap and tell that mentee that you see their potential and want to help. These are the lifelines that pull ourselves and each other through the minefields of work inside and outside the academy.

We also tend to think about mentoring as a two-way relationship. Sometimes, though, mentoring is about connecting others to each other as well—think of it as a multi-way relationship. Given the demands on our time and energy, remembering this can make mentorship a less daunting addition to our schedules. This might mean connecting a group of mentees for a shared lunch about shared issues or pointing one mentee to another who can offer mentoring, even if your mentee doesn’t see that right away.

Remember that you and your mentee are different people

We often find ourselves mentoring those who remind us of ourselves. We see that struggling young writer, remember our own struggles, and find ourselves offering the advice we would have given ourselves back then.

This is by all means part of mentoring, but mentoring also means listening hard enough to understand the ways our mentors are like us and not like us. The goal of mentoring is to help our mentees over the speed bumps that we know from experience lay ahead. The goal is not to create ourselves again. A strong mentoring relationship recognizes our commonalities and our differences. And this only works if we listen to our mentees and hear what they need from us. We guide, but our mentees should guide us as well.

Know that mentees are often nervous about asking too much from us, be it time, energy, or coffee. Remind your mentee that you wouldn’t be mentoring her if you didn’t find it a valuable use of your time. And go ahead and let her treat you to coffee once in awhile, but remember that even a bargain coffee can be a bit much sometimes. If you can swing it, go ahead and make it your treat when you can, knowing that someday your mentee will be returning the favor to those coming up, too.

Image credit: WOC in Tech Chat ( Check them out, they’re awesome!

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<h3> Author: <a href="" target="_self">Kate Drabinski</a></h3>

Author: Kate Drabinski

Kate Drabinski is the education director at Ideas on Fire, an avid bicyclist, and a senior lecturer in gender and women's studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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