How to Create a Better Mentor for Yourself

Michael Schwalbe offers five suggestions for how you can get the most out of such a relationship.

November 21, 2019
 
 
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A good mentor must know many things: the methodological foundations of the discipline; the tacit rules of academic culture; how to pass along insider knowledge in a way suited to a younger person’s career stage and personal dispositions; how to recognize and nurture potential; and how to empathize across lines of difference, if only those of age. But such knowledge is never enough. As in any relationship, success depends on the actions of both parties.

As the senior partner in the relationship, the mentor is obligated to serve the needs of the mentee, often putting those needs ahead of their own. A mentee’s obligation is to make the effort necessary for growth. But what kind of efforts pay off? If you are a mentee -- say, a graduate student who has begun a working relationship with a faculty adviser -- how can you best do your part and get more out of your mentor? I have five suggestions.

No. 1: Pay attention to subtle direction. If a mentor offers you imperative advice -- “You should do X” -- then it’s clear what needs to be done. Absent a good reason not to heed such advice, do it. (See below about asking for reasons.) But mentors often speak suggestively: “You might consider doing X” or “Perhaps you should read Y.” Such statements are not really suggestions. They are the academic equivalent of “I want you to think about why X is the right thing to do and then do it and learn from the experience.” I had to learn this myself in graduate school. When my mentor mentioned a journal article he’d read, it wasn’t just small talk. He meant that I should read that article. Becoming a good mentee requires learning to perceive this kind of direction. Becoming a successful practitioner in an academic field might well depend on following it.

No. 2: Ask for reasons. It can be hard to unpack the principles underlying the knowledge of one’s discipline or craft, which is one reason busy mentors may fail to do it. But that said, most academics welcome an invitation to expound. So it is reasonable, and likely to be productive, for you as a mentee to say, “Help me understand why X is the right thing to do,” if X comes with no explanation. In asking this kind of question, you are doing what a novitiate should: seeking the tacit knowledge that guides professional practice. Asking for reasons can also sharpen your mentor’s ability to articulate useful knowledge, an ability that will redound to your benefit.

No. 3: Focus on problem solving. From the humanities to the physical sciences, academics tend to be people who like to figure things out. So a good way to engage with a mentor is to pose a research or teaching problem that calls for a collaborative solution. The more genuine and challenging the problem, the better. When I say genuine, I mean a problem that remains unsolved after serious effort. Asking for help in solving such problems is a way to more deeply tap your mentor’s knowledge and to help that person appreciate your intellect and dedication to the craft. The satisfaction that comes from jointly solving problems can also bolster your mentor’s commitment to you.

As a mentor to graduate students who do qualitative research, I find that more is gained when a student asks for help in devising better interview questions or a better interviewing strategy than when a student says, “My interviews are going badly; this project isn’t working out.” Focusing on solving the methodological problem energizes us both and creates new opportunities for learning.

No. 4: Stay in touch. Mentors and mentees can drift apart for many reasons, academic and nonacademic, that are neither party's fault. But time out of touch can impede progress through a graduate program and into a professional career. So it is wise to check in regularly, informing your mentor of your progress (even if minimal), activities and accomplishments. To be helpful as problem solvers, advocates and career boosters, mentors need to know what’s going on. You might do well to discuss with your mentor a schedule for checking in -- making it an expected, not optional, practice.

No. 5: Don’t let problems linger. When you have problems with your mentor -- unhelpful or contradictory advice, insufficient encouragement, lack of empathy, slow response -- you can be in a tough spot, given the power imbalance in the relationship. Yet if you don’t address the problems, the relationship will never yield the benefits it should. Bad feelings can also fester and eventually undermine the relationship entirely.

So if your mentor is not giving the kind of support that seems right and necessary, find a way to talk about it. There is no one best way to open this conversation; much depends on the specific problem and on how you and your mentor get along.

A generic approach is to begin by asking for advice about how to be more productive, efficient or creative and then expand the conversation to encompass how you and your mentor might work together to pursue those goals. This is a low-threat approach, one that is likely to be more effective than noting faults and failures. Also bear in mind that improving a relationship is a process. It can take more than one conversation to solve a problem.

Much is at stake in academic mentor-mentee relationships -- not just the learning and practical support that matter for career success, but also the emotional well-being of both parties. And so it’s always worth considering how to make these relationships work better. Of course, no set of tips will avoid or solve all problems; even the best advice will come to naught without mutual respect and a willingness to address problems when they arise.

To be clear, it’s the mentor’s job to be alert to problems and make mentoring relationships work. That responsibility comes with the territory. But you as a mentee can do a lot along the lines I’ve suggested to help your mentor do better and give more. Sometimes a would-be mentor will be incorrigible and need to be replaced. But often a surer way to get a better mentor, at lower cost, is for you to create one by being a better mentee.

Bio

Michael Schwalbe is professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. His most recent book is Making a Difference: Using Sociology to Create a Better World (Oxford, 2019).

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