Throughout my education and career I have been mentored. Sometimes I have chosen those mentors and other times they have been assigned to me. Choosing these people who guide you, stick up for you, and help you along in your job search is a vital part of your career. This is a task for which there are no instructions and you learn by trial and error what sort of mentor best suits your personality and goals. I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit about choosing a mentor in the last several years and I want to share what I have learned about myself and mentors in general.
Let’s start with choosing a mentor. When I first sought out mentoring, I had no idea what I actually needed from a mentor or what I could expect. I had some lucky choices and some clunkers. The most important advice I can give for this is “Know Thyself”.
I am a casual person and want someone I can relate to without feeling the need for strict formality. While I am treating the interaction as a professional encounter, I want to feel comfortable.
Find someone who is enthusiastic about your interests and goals. Not every person you find is knowledgeable about your interests or even that happy to help you pursue them.
Seek out someone who is interested in helping you along, not just using your bright-eyed enthusiasm to their own benefit.
In the lab, I found I needed a balance between micro-management and a totally hands off mentor. I wanted the freedom to develop my own experiments and plans and to get input when I needed it. Too much mentoring doesn’t keep me motivated. I’ve seen many students join labs without carefully considering the type of mentoring offered and whether it will work well for them. I think this relationship is one of the most important factors in surviving graduate school.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to people you don’t know. I’ve gotten the best advice from people who are working in areas I am interested in that I randomly emailed. These relationships shouldn’t be a one way street where the mentor is the only one giving to the relationship. These connections should be cultivated, check in with a mentor even when you don’t need a letter of recommendation or specific advice. Keep them in mind because someday you may be able to return the favor and recommend the perfect person for an opening they may have in their office.
If a mentoring relationship isn’t working well, don’t be afraid to move on to a more productive relationship. Everyone has limited time so if you don’t feel you have a good connection with a person or their interests just don’t align as closely as you thought with your own, move on. It’s hard to know from a first meeting whether you will be a good match with a mentor. I’ve certainly changed my mind about mentors after spending more time with them.
It’s incredibly difficult to work in a vacuum in science (and in any field). Having working relationships is important to productivity, creativity, and some days your mental stability. Seek out those you admire and those who are invested in you and connect with them.