Finding a Mentor

… The challenges and opportunities from an alternative academic perspective.

October 14, 2014

The second post in my semi-regular series on alternative academic life is on the topic of finding a mentor, which can be particularly challenging when one is traveling the “non-traditional” academic path. In fact, this challenge is a topic of much discussion in both my in-person conversations with “alternative” academic-types, as well as in online spaces. I gathered some of the insights from these conversations and have loosely organized them in a numbered list of aspects one might consider when looking for a “non-traditional” academic mentor. As always, post further suggestions in comments.


  1. Look horizontally, not just vertically.  I’ve spoken here before about the power of peer mentoring, which was hugely important to me during graduate school. The importance of peer networks has not lessened post-graduation, if anything, they’ve been even more significant. There is a strong and heavily supportive network of alt/post/flexible academics on Twitter, and this has been a life-saver to me while navigating the (often stormy) post-PhD waters. In fact, I turned to some of the folks from that network when writing this column! As one of those peers, Joseph Fruscione told me via email, “[r]emember that ‘networking’ isn't a dirty word: as a flexidemic, you have to keep making new contacts via Twitter and LinkedIn.”


  1. Seek a sponsor. In the corporate world, there is often talk about looking for a sponsor, not “just a mentor.” Though less discussed in the alt-academic world, having someone who goes to bat for you in a comprehensive way is not just convenient, but necessary. Again, this can be a peer, or perhaps someone in the field doing what you’re looking to do, whether it’s academic coaching, editing, or something completely unrelated to academia. The only criteria is that they should be ready, willing, and able to act as your personal champion/cheerleader, which involves everything from introducing you to key people in the field and recommending you for jobs and other career opportunities.


  1. Consider a coach. If you are going through your transition from academia, or just thinking about it, you may want to consider a post-academic coach. Jennifer Polk (who is now an coach herself), told me via email that, “one of the benefits of having a coach (as opposed to mentor) was that she facilitated my transition, which is a time when mentors may not be best placed.” It is important to mention that academia is late to the party on this - friends who have worked at big law firms tell me that many companies employ career transition coaches for folks looking to leave the legal profession. And, although many universities have career centers, these are often targeted at undergraduate and masters students, not students transitioning from PhD programs and, further, Jennifer Polk reminded me, university “services tend to be career education (how to) and counseling (advice-giving) whereas coaching can be much less directive, depending on the service provider.” Post-academic coaches and other services tailored to post-academics are on the rise, however. Here are just a few that I’ve come across in my post/alt/flexible academic travels (again, feel free to add in comments!): Alt-Ac Advisor, Alt Academix, and Beyond the Tenure Track. There are also some awesome peer networks, including How to Leave Academia and Versatile PhD, and Jennifer Polk hosts a regular #WithaPhD chat on Twitter. Polk also suggests that, above all, people should “shop around until they find what they want; take advantage of free [university] services and work with a coach at the same time, for example.”


  1. Think outside the box. All of the above examples show how important it is to “think outside the box” when it comes to mentorship. Yet this can be difficult in academia, where the idea of “supervisor as mentor” is strong.This is a problem when it comes to seeking help for alternative academic pursuits, since many advisors only have experience in academia (and, as has been noted elsewhere, some advisors see grad students not going on to pursue traditional academic careers as “failures” who reflect badly on them). It is also a problem since it assumes that PhD advisors actually should be able to do everything for their supervisee. As  Melonie Fullick writes,


that the task of supervision… [is a] “black box”, a process

where the student is encouraged to rely heavily upon one person

to provide them the guidance, information, and input required to

make good academic and professional decisions.


Academics, Fullick goes on to argue, need to disrupt this notion and recognize that no one person can be all things, nor should they be.


Whether we are inside or outside of academia, working in academic or administrative jobs, when it comes to mentorship, thinking outside the box benefits everyone involved.



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