Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Mentor

Pallavi Eswara raises the most important ones -- and also provides some answers.

March 13, 2017
 
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Navigating academic life as a graduate student or postdoc requires the guidance of an empathetic and motivating mentor who can help you progress in your research and career transitions. But before selecting a mentor, you should first do some form of self-assessment and ask yourself some questions.

What are my research goals? It is important to identify a mentor for your research whose intellectual interests mesh well with yours. The research the faculty member works on should be of interest to you, and you should be able to both learn from and contribute to it. If you intend to stay in academe, graduate studies and postdoc research topics form the basis on which you will build your research career. Some faculty members are more interdisciplinary than others. If your research project happens to be in emerging interdisciplinary areas, selecting a mentor who can advise and guide you becomes all the more necessary.

Will I be able to work well with this person? To answer this question, you first have to know who you are and your learning style. Knowing your personality through self-assessment tools, and what your values and interests are, is important when selecting a mentor. A good relationship with your mentor will have some shared values at its foundation.

Many faculty members have a set style of mentoring. Determining the mentoring style of your primary research mentor and making it work for you is vital -- as a student or postdoc joining their research group, you will need to adapt to its culture and practices. For example, some groups want daily reports by email, while others prefer weekly meetings to discuss data and progress.

What is my career preference? Knowing the answer, or having at least a hunch about where you see yourself working, is an important factor in selecting a mentor. It is possible that at the time you look for a mentor, your career plans will still be evolving and you won’t have decided if you are going to continue in academe or find a career outside it. If you are considering starting your own company or plan to be involved in applied or translational research, you will want to ask if your research mentor has any interest in such opportunities.

In either scenario, you should identify a mentor who is open to the concept of selecting a career where you can thrive. It may not be always possible to know that before you join a research group, but some have a list of their faculty members and the first jobs they held. You can also get this information from talking to group members during the interviews.

Do I respect this person? It is important that you respect the person you choose as your mentor and find their views of significance. You should select them as mentor because you share their values and thought processes -- not because you fear the consequences of not doing so.

Does my mentor support professional development? Graduate students and postdocs make their connections and grow their network with researchers and experts in their disciplines at conferences and meetings. You need the person you select as a mentor to encourage and support your professional development. You should ask them or other research group members about the possibility of such opportunities.

Can I have several mentors? It is common for graduate students and postdocs to have their direct research supervisors as their mentors, but some find that their mentoring needs are not satisfied by just that one person. If you find that to be the case and think an additional mentor(s) would complement your main mentoring relationship, then identifying other people and having a team to guide you through your training can be valuable.

That said, the relationship you form with any additional mentors should not compete in any way with your primary mentor relationship. You will usually have more of an informal relationship with such additional mentors, one that takes place over a casual coffee or lunch or an email exchange. Also, before embarking on identifying additional mentors, it is important to know why you are seeking their expertise.

For many graduate students, the members of their thesis committee can act as additional mentors. You also reach out to faculty member from any courses you have taken and ask if they would be a mentor for you. A mentor can also be a faculty member in your department or college, or someone outside the institution in the extended educational community. Identifying a person who has had a similar background or career trajectory as yours, and who understands your situation, is also a way to find additional mentors.

Having additional mentors will give you different perspectives, as well as more resources and connections. In fact, it might be ideal to have a team of mentors with overlapping expertise and one common characteristic: that they care for you and will contribute to your success.

What other traits should you look for in a good mentor? A mentor should be willing to spend time with you, have good listening skills and be able to motivate you. The best mentor will be someone who can identify your strengths but, at the same time, help you identify areas of growth and advise you how to bridge any gaps in your skills and experience. Your mentor should be someone who can give constructive feedback in a timely manner and whose experience and wisdom you can learn and benefit from.

How do you approach someone to be your mentor? When you ask someone to be a mentor, you will need to explain why you selected them. They need to see this as a mutually beneficial relationship. Advising and mentoring you should be a rewarding and satisfying experience for them -- and a way to contribute to the educational and scientific community that has helped them grow and also to develop the talent in their respective disciplines. An email note with your background, CV, research interests and reasons for approaching them to be your mentor (with no typographical errors) is a way to start that conversation.

Selecting a mentor is only a step toward the mentoring process. To prepare your mentor to become a good mentor, you, the mentee, should take initiative and drive the relationship. To do so, you should take the following steps.

Create a regular meeting time and be prepared for it. When you have such regularity, the mentor will respond better to any question you ask or advice you are seeking. Aligning expectations between mentor and mentee should be an integral part and consequence of these meetings. If the meeting is with your research adviser, you should be ready to discuss the progress of the project, as well as current and relevant scientific articles, and to brainstorm ideas. You might also have a specific topic to discuss at the meeting, and, if so, you should send the mentor a note about it beforehand. For instance, if you want to discuss an important career transition, giving your mentor some form of heads-up will lead to a more productive conversation.

When you are setting up meetings with other mentors who are not involved in your research, you should try to have a set frequency for meetings, as well, as that will keep the relationship going. And in all cases, keep in mind that, barring emergencies, canceling the meeting at the last minute, not showing up or showing up late will most likely damage the relationship.

Be honest about the progress, challenges and situations you are facing. Admitting to yourself and your mentor about where your projects stand, any roadblocks you face and what needs to be done to move ahead are important when building a mentoring relationship.

Accept feedback gracefully. It is not always easy to hear feedback from mentors and incorporate the recommendations in the way you work. But by listening to the thoughts, ideas, suggestions and feedback that your mentor has, you take an active part in the mentoring relationship. Further, it will motivate your mentor to stay interested and invested in the relationship.

Be willing to try new things. Sometimes mentoring comes in the form of advice to try something outside your comfort zone. You should demonstrate that you are willing to stretch your boundaries and are open to new ideas and procedures.

In the process of graduate studies or postdoctoral training, you may encounter many moments of achievement as well as setbacks. Having a mentor and a team to celebrate those professional victories is rewarding. And having mentors who can help you get back on your feet and stay on track with your projects and goals is valuable. Your relationship with your mentors will usually go beyond getting your Ph.D. or postdoc. They become a part of your life and people with whom you will share many milestones.

Bio

Pallavi Eswara is the director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at Penn State University and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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