This post continues our series by a onetime academic job seeker, now academic-at-large, on how to find a mentor as a young academic.
When you’re in graduate school, the expectation that you’ll have a mentor is built into the system: you can’t file a dissertation without an advisor. When you’re a newly minted faculty member, you may be assigned a mentor by your department. But grad students may need guidance from faculty members who aren’t their advisors (advisors vary in quality, after all), and new faculty may not click with their “official” mentor. How can young academics find a mentor? Here are some steps to take.
See mentorship as a natural development in a relationship.
You can’t just email somebody and ask if you can be their mentee. (Well, you can, but you might not get the results you want!) Instead, start by figuring out ways to work alongside the person you aspire to be your mentor. In academia, this might look like collaborating on a panel for your field’s annual meeting or) choosing to serve on the same committee, if your prospective mentor is at your university.
Stay in touch.
If there’s somebody you’d like to have a mentoring relationship with, try to find ways to connect with him or her. If they seem open to it, arrange informal coffee dates or send update emails. Working with them on a project (see above) is also an easy way for them to see your skills in action.
The relationship between you and your prospective mentor should be a two-way street. Of course, you have been told that “having a mentor” is important for YOUR career, but you should also try to make yourself useful—within the bounds of appropriateness, of course.
Don’t pick up dry cleaning. Do offer to contribute your expertise when you know they’re working on something in your wheelhouse. Looking to someone more advanced in their career for advice does not mean you aren’t bringing something to the table—possibly a new research or learning method—and so you should find ways to showcase your knowledge and skills, too. Remember, take the time to make sure this relationship is worthwhile (and helpful) to both parties.
Read the signals.
Try to get a sense of whether your possible mentor has the time and energy for additional commitments. Timing can be essential! The best mentors will be excited to invest time into your relationship and be responsive to your inquiries. Always be respectful of their time, of course!
Be clear about what you need.
Once you’ve established an ongoing, productive relationship with your maybe-mentor, see how you feel about asking for more. Be specific about your hopes for the “next step” of your relationship. Don’t say “Will you be my mentor?” but think about approaching the conversation with “Would you be willing to introduce me to people at our upcoming conference?” or “Would you be willing to give me advice on navigating x, y, or z dynamic within my department?” Clarity will be valued by your prospective mentor. And, if they don’t have the opportunity to work with you on this project, remember–stay in touch! This conversation is the beginning of an ongoing relationship–whether as official mentee to mentor or simply colleagues.
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