There are often cries in research “you should have a mentor” but what does that mean, and how do you even get one? IMHO a mentor is someone who has been through some of the things you are going through and can provide advice, guidance, and suggestions on the types of actions and approaches you could take. And, there essentially four steps to getting a mentor. The first is understanding what you would like from a mentor. The second is to make a shortlist of people with the relevant skills. The third, and forth steps are to approach and then confirm the relationship.
Step 1 – Know what you would like from a mentor
There are also two parts to this process. The first is relatively easy. What are the personal qualities of your ideal mentor? Age. Gender. Ethnicity. Availability. Location. These are all examples. I’d suggest writing these answers down. Or making some kind of note. There may be other personal qualities that matter to you as well. Life stage. Relationship status. Family status. The list of qualities could get long. So, consider prioritising what is important.
The second part to this question is a little harder. To take some words from Donald Rumsfeld – it is the known and unknown-unknowns. The stuff you know you don’t know, as well as the stuff you don’t know you don’t know. Part of the reason for having a mentor is about the known-unknowns. Finding out how to deal with stuff you are currently having trouble with. And through that process you’ll uncover your unknown-unknowns. So, make another list of the stuff you’d like to find out more about. It could be general. Dealing with a difficult manager. Dealing with students or staff. Working with international collaborators. Working in a male dominated environment. Dealing with sexism. Dealing with racism. Dealing with ageism. Advocating stronger for minatory groups. Research design, and conduct. Again, make a (prioritised) list.
Thus, at the end of the first step you should have two prioritised lists. The first is personal traits, the second is stuff you’d like to know more about.
Step 2 – Shortlist your mentor(s)
Based on the attributes you identified above, look through your network for people who meet the relevant criteria. You’ll probably not find one person who fits them all. But you might decide that certain things must be covered, or at least covered by the same person. There’s nothing wrong with having multiple mentors. In fact, it might be advantageous. Indeed, in her book It’s Who You Know Janine Garner suggests having 12 people covering different types of (mentoring) roles within your network. Other than Janine’s advice, having more than one mentor allows you to draw in different perspectives. Given mentoring relationships are often in formal, having a number will allow you to gain access to crucial advice in a crisis or at very short notice. And, of course, we all know that diversity (in this case of mentors and therefore perspectives) helps us make better decisions.
Don’t forget your network is broader than the people you see daily. It could be Twitter followers, Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections, research collaborators, family, friends or people at your local social club (e.g. sport, music, art etc.).
If you’re looking for
a mentor, first start with
the traits you value in one.
Step 3 – Approach
Approaching your potential mentor does not have to be a direct question “Will you be my mentor?” But it can be. However, before you ask this very specific question, I’d suggest arranging a meeting first. Coffee. Zoom. Both are fine. This meeting is not an interview, but it is a way for you to confirm your initial hunch, that this person would be a good mentor. As part of being a good mentee, make sure you are clear on why you are meeting – to discuss whatever topics you’ve selected. And make sure you stick to time. And, if you said, “Let’s have coffee.”, make sure you at least offer to pay.
Step 4 – Confirm
There is no real need for a mentor, and mentee to confirm their relationship. As mentee, it is worth knowing that certain people are happy to meet with you, when, where, and on what topics. So, if you’re preliminary meeting goes well you might not that person as being in your list of mentors. And that would be sufficient confirmation in my mind. That is, you have confirmed to yourself that the person is worth going to for advice, and counsel. However, if you think it is necessary for your mentor to know how you view/work with them, then you might want to let them know. You could either ask “Would you be willing to be my mentor?” And that, in my view, should come at the end of the meeting in Step 3. Or, at the start of second or subsequent meeting you might acknowledge one of the lenses through which you view the relationship. Know that in this moment, most people will be happy and/or flattered with this revelation. I am sure it is possible, but I have never experienced or heard of, someone rejecting or recoiling at the idea of being someone’s mentor.
Step 5 – Review
I know I introduced this as a four-step process. And it is. But, like anything in life, reviewing, and taking stock is important. So, everyone so often reviews your mentors. Are they meeting your needs? Are you devoting sufficient time and effort to the relationship? Are there better uses of your/their time? If the answer is to change the relationship. Do so. Let the person know and thank them for their role in your life. If it feels appropriate, ask them for advice on future mentors. As usual, good luck with your mentoring and let me know if or how I could help. Oh, and don’t forget to be a good mentee.
Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He has helped more than 200 PhD students, early career researchers and established academics build their careers. He has provided strategic advice on partnering with industry, growing a career building new centres and institutes as well as establishing new programs. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.
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