Do you really need a mentor?

What are your expectations of having a mentor? It could be their institutional knowledge, their area of expertise, and their ability to encourage and challenge may help you to achieve more than perhaps you expect of yourself. If you are at the start of your career it will probably be someone who is more senior to you rather than a peer. This relationship may become more peer to peer as you grow in your experience professionally and you expand your own network.

This type of relationship is worth investing in right at the start of your research career and before you get to a crisis point or a major career decision. Ideally, it is helpful if the person is someone other than your academic supervisor.

So where do you start and what should you look for in a potential mentor? Many institutions have formal schemes set up. If not, it would be worth looking for someone yourself. The way to find one is covered in much the same way as when you are considering who is available in a formal scheme. Here are a few things to consider when choosing a prospective mentor to approach.

What do you want from a mentor?
Firstly, you need to decide what you would like to achieve through a relationship with a mentor. These could be short term and long terms goals.

Reflect on your own skills set and think about what specific skills you want to learn. Their expertise and skill set could help you to develop a wider range of skills associated with your research field or professional discipline. Mentoring is a two-way relationship and perhaps you will have skills that could help your mentor.

Consider your personal and professional values, and which of these qualities you are looking for in a mentor.

In your preparation for looking for a mentor, have an idea of what would a successful outcome look like. By setting your own priorities, and clarifying your goals and expectations, you will increase your possibilities of finding the right mentor for you.

Do your background research
When considering who you think may be a good fit as a mentor, it is worth doing some background research prior to your first approach. This should help you see if your potential mentor is going to be suitable before your first informal meeting.

Find information on a mentor’s research profile and look at their publication and service record. Look for markers of academic esteem, such as first, last and corresponding author of research publications, including editorials; and invitations to speak at national and international conferences.

It is good to bear in mind that a research-productive mentor is more likely to be resourceful and well-connected. Someone with a solid reputation will be able to offer developmental opportunities to you, and introduce you to their extensive network.

Those who have gone before you
Find out if your potential mentor has previously mentored others. Seek those people out. It is good to find out what their experiences have been and what any potential pitfalls there might be. This will undoubtedly be harder to do with an informal set-up, but you may know people in your research team or in your conference network who know of someone who has been mentored by your potential mentor.

Where possible it is worth meeting with these previous mentees face to face for an informal discussion. This is because you are more likely to get honest answers this way rather than in an email.

The things to ask previous mentees are along the lines of availability of the mentor and whether the mentee got the advice they needed when they needed it. It is worth finding out from those mentees if there was anything they wish they had known before choosing that particular mentor. And with the benefit of hindsight if they would choose that same person again. Ask if they still have an on-going relationship with their mentor. If they don’t, why not.

Besides previous mentees and their experiences listen to what others say about the potential mentor. Be it their other colleagues, support staff or their own research students. You will be able to build a picture of the person before making your first approach.

The approach
When you have decided who to approach as a potential mentor invite them for a brief informal chat over a coffee. Stick to a half an hour chat and if you click make the arrangement to meet again to carry on your conversation.

When you meet, have in mind whether they seem supportive and whether you have anything in common with regards to your own professional or personal values. Don’t underestimate the importance of finding a good fit between your values and those of a mentor. Not all mentor relationships work out.

Find out what their expectations are from a mentoring relationship and how often they would be willing to meet. Often those who are super stars of the research world can be hard to get hold of and may not be the best person for you. See what sort of tone you both want at your meetings, would they be formal or informal, and how you will schedule the meetings.

The relationship
Any relationship is a two-way thing. Remember you will bring something to the table that could help your mentor. The more you get on with the mentor at a personal level, the more you are likely to gain from the relationship. As you will probably be more open to suggestions from someone you like and respect than from someone who you feel lacks integrity.

As your research career progresses your mentoring needs will change over time and your relationship will change. No-one possesses a full skills set and you may end up having more than one mentor for different aspects of your career.

Closing thoughts
These suggestions for choosing a mentor are largely based on a more formal set-up. Undoubtedly there will be people with whom you just connect with and may have really inspiring chats with at the bar during a conference. Those people may well challenge and inspire you with your research, or be able to share their own experiences of a particular department or research team that could be useful.

A good academic mentor can provide institutional knowledge, support, and guidance, beneficial to developing long-range plans for career development. Access to a nurturing relationship within academia can help to drive your motivation and help you achieve a successful academic career.

Here is one researchers open letter to their mentor that was posted in response to a blog by Professor Athene Donald’s in which she reflects on whether age matters in a mentoring relationship.

Dear Mentor,

I wanted to thank you for helping me so much over the past 10 years.

You have introduced me to new fields of science, new people and new experiences. You have always backed me up and given me the confidence that I can lead. You have listened to my ideas on science and management and asked me interesting and challenging questions at the appropriate moments. You have passed opportunities my way, and watched my back when needed. Whilst I wouldn’t do everything the way you do, I always learn from hearing about your experiences.

None of this has been done in any formal way at all. In fact, you may not have realised that this is how I see you (although being smart, you probably have). Our most productive “mentoring” conversations have happened in bars or over dinner tables, and always feel natural. I only get to see you a few times a year, but I look forward to these times always.

Thank you.

Anonymous female Professor in UK


Professor Athene Donald’s blog

Dr Lynda Tait’s blog

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