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During my Ph.D., my supervisor was my de facto mentor who focused on helping me through the research world and providing support for my academic endeavors. As I realized I didn’t want to continue in academia after graduation, I felt at a loss as to whom to turn to for guidance. Although I had a couple of informal mentors whom I could rely on for more general professional development and career mentorship, I felt I still needed support during the career-decision process. What I found to complement my mentorship relationships was a loose network of advisers that I could rely on to help point me in the right direction at various crossroads in my journey.
A mentor is a specific person who supports your professional (or personal) development by providing advice, feedback and resources. This relationship often builds over time and takes commitment to fully maintain. You can establish such relationships through formally established channels like a mentorship program or more organically through your job or other affiliations. There are many types of mentors and mentorship styles, adding further nuances to what a mentor and mentorship entails. Not everyone has the opportunity to find and establish a dedicated mentor or mentors, but having a career advisory network is more flexible and feasible.
Generally speaking, an adviser’s (or guide’s) role is to assist through a specific process, and it is often a shorter-term relationship that has a specific outcome. I want to introduce the idea of establishing a career advisory network, which expands upon the idea of mentorship and broadens whom in your life you can look to for advice as you make career decisions. This network can consist of aspirational, peripheral and peer guides.
Especially for those in grad school, having support aside from your supervisor can be essential. Yet even when you join the workforce, having guides beyond your direct manager is beneficial. Many people whom you may have overlooked and who can play a positive role in your career trajectory may already be within your network. The career advisory network doesn’t replace mentors, but it can add an extra layer of support.
Aspirational guides are the people you take career inspiration from, even if your personal interactions with them may be limited. Unlike a mentor who commits time and energy to helping you, these advisers are in your outer orbit, and their guidance comes from your absorbing their teachings and observing their journeys.
They could be a professor or senior leader whose career story you know and admire. Maybe you attend their seminars, maybe you’ve heard them speak at a conference, maybe they are an executive you see in meetings. Their choices and leadership style influence how you think about molding your career. It can be encouraging and informative to see career and life paths that are similar to your own. You may have a chance to speak with them once or twice and ask for advice, but you may not have access to build a mentoring relationship with them.
During my Ph.D. I saw many inspirational professors who were women, and since leaving academia, I’ve been lucky to have many women at executive levels serve as aspirational guides. The career trajectories and leadership styles of these women is something I am motivated by. They aren’t complete strangers, and I’ve had the opportunity to interact with them on occasion, but I don’t have a formal mentoring relationship or regular chances to ask them for advice. Instead, I can learn from a distance and incorporate what I observe into my own professional development.
Peripheral guides are the types of advisers who are the friends of friends in your network. Maybe someone introduced you to them at an event and you set up an informational interview. Maybe you follow them on LinkedIn and have messaged them a few times. These guides may have a similar career track that you want to take and can offer advice about the variety of job options in their field or current industry trends. You may have meaningful conversations with them once or a few times to ask for guidance, but your relationship with them isn’t ongoing.
I spent a lot of time networking throughout my Ph.D. During my job search, I used my existing connections to get in touch with people at the edges of my network. I had informational interviews or exchanged messages with these peripheral guides, who shared the lessons and key turning points in their careers or “dropped pins” (as coined by Adam Grant) as I made decisions for my own journey.
Having many peripheral guides can be especially helpful, as a single person’s advice may not fill in the full map. With many people advising me, I was able to connect the dots and form my own path. These interactions ended up shaping the decisions I made when applying for jobs and reframed how I approached my job search. Despite a fleeting relationship, I valued their perspectives, and I was sure to express my thanks for their time and to keep them updated on my progress. This is a way you can build a professional relationship that could be beneficial to either one of you in the future.
Peers and colleagues can often be overlooked but are extremely valuable advisers. They are often in your graduate or work cohort, maybe a few years older, but they are living through similar experiences as yourself. Establishing a more formal peer mentor relationship with some of these colleagues can be quite beneficial, but they can also simply serve as sounding boards for your career ideas. Even without day-to day interactions with them, their knowledge can be helpful. Maybe they graduated a year ahead of you and are now in the workforce and you can lean on them for insights about company cultures, the interview process and their onboarding experiences as you make that same step.
I was guilty of not taking advantage of all the knowledge and experience that surrounded me during grad school. It wasn’t until the end of my Ph.D. that I started tapping into others in my cohort who were making the same career decisions that I was. I also realized that I knew many people who had been in my position just a few years before and had successfully transitioned into jobs outside academia. These days, I try to leverage my colleagues’ career perspectives more readily and often. I’ve learned to be open to anyone who might support me and to remain curious about any advice people may offer.
Becoming the Guide
Any connection you build shouldn’t be transactional. You should be intentional with your career advisory network, clear on what you need but not demanding of people’s time and energy. Many guides, like mentors, also get benefits from helping others. Most people like sharing their experiences and offering advice based on their own personal stories. Building a relationship with you will also expand their own network in the future.
One way to give back and perpetuate the career advisory network is to recognize when you can be a guide for someone else. Even if you’re only a second-year graduate student, you have one more year of experience than the someone in the incoming cohort. Trust yourself to share your experiences and pay forward the advice you’ve been given. This is another great way to strengthen your network and build connections.
Since graduating from my Ph.D. and embarking on a postacademic route, I have spent a lot of time talking with others a few years behind me. I don’t claim to have the perfect solution for figuring out your career (I’m still figuring out my own!), but I am able to offer up my story to others and summarize some key advice I’ve utilized. Many people have counseled me throughout my career so far, and I have collected knowledge and experiences that may also help point someone else in the right direction.
A career advisory network, like any type of network, is a forever evolving web. It’s not a one-and-done accomplishment to check off the to-do list; it takes time and effort. I am still relying on guides to help me, even as I am providing guidance for others. You never know the impact you may have on someone during an inflection point in their life or the impact someone else may have on yours.