Before starting grad school, people often stressed the importance of finding a good mentor. While that made sense, it was unclear to me what qualities in a mentor would help shape my career best. I learned through experience that the “best fit” is contextual and based on several factors that would change over the course of my career.
Early in grad school, I sought mentors who could guide me gently and honestly without overwhelming me with the vast world ahead. As grad school came to a close, I wanted a mentor who would be candid and frank about my areas for growth, help me solidify my strengths, and point out my mistakes. The latter proved difficult to find. To obtain well-rounded mentorship, I often turned to multiple mentors, each with a niche area of expertise (one for clinical work, one for research, one for professional development). While this worked to some extent, without one person holding the “bigger picture” view, I easily became overextended and my focus on long-term goals was obscured. At times, I got creative and sought informal mentorship from more senior colleagues. What I learned from them I am extremely grateful for, as these colleague mentors shared their struggles and successes in a more raw way than any mentor I’ve ever had – this served as an invulnerable and less conventional way to get some of the most useful advice I’ve received.
Finally, I found one mentor who could provide all of my needs. This allowed me to synthesize my training thus far with my current and future career needs in one holistic space. As soon as I became settled in this new mentorship relationship, my mentor suggested I seek mentorship from a professional closely related to but not directly involved in my profession. I distinctly remember responding “huh?” She wisely explained that as a mentor in the same profession, she can provide invaluable advice, empathize with my struggles in the profession, and guide me through them; however, she also has her own biases, values, and career goals that might cloud the direction she points me in. Our interests and professional direction as psychologists were too close and I had maximized the wisdom I could glean from her. I found this to be a disappointing turn in what I thought had become a smoothly carved trail to my professional development post-grad school. At first, I dismissed her advice, out of nothing better than denial. I just kept trudging along, thinking I could continue to grow in my mentorship with her. After all, I finally found everything I was looking for. Or did I?
Reluctantly, I began to explore my mentor’s advice. I felt I needed another female mentor, as I often feel most comfortable seeking advice from women and admire a strong, confident female leader. Ultimately, I found myself in a mentor relationship with someone wholly unexpected: a male physician, someone from whom I wasn’t expecting to find much professional guidance based on first impressions. Soon I found myself effortlessly utilizing this new and surprising mentor relationship.
My new and unexpected mentor was able to provide me with unbiased advice without judgment because he doesn’t know the gritty details of my profession nor the way I was trained. He can intellectually understand my professional development and career course, but will never know it in the same way I do, which allows my development to truly be mine. With that comes a lot of freedom and creativity to expand and challenge myself in unconventional ways I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. The wisdom of my “big picture” mentor suddenly became clear: we don’t always realize what we truly need.
My favorite part in reflecting on all of this is I thought I knew what I wanted and what I needed. That’s the beauty and paradox of mentorship: mentors open our eyes, expand our view to help us see our blind spots and call our attention to them, while nurturing our growth in ways we often don’t initially realize we truly need. It’s a humbling realization and yet an incredible opportunity for both professional and personal growth. With gratitude to all the formal and incognito mentors I’ve had over the past 10 years – I collectively owe you a nugget of my success!
Dr. Stephanie Catella is a psychologist in San Francisco and the co-founder of Pre-Doc Prep, an application and writing support service for graduate students, interns, and postdocs in the mental health disciplines. In addition to her work with Pre-Doc Prep, Stephanie manages research studies and writes articles for publication at the University of California, San Francisco.