Lab Life

When You Need a Mentor

Lisa M. Balbes

You’ve probably heard that you should have a “mentor” to help with your career, but maybe you’re not really sure what that means. You have a research adviser; do you really need someone else telling you what to do? Actually, you probably do. 

Who Is a Mentor? 

A true mentor is a combination role model, adviser, counsel­or, and wise friend. A mentor listens as you talk, asks leading questions, shares his or her experiences, and helps you figure out what you want to do. Instead of directing you specifically, this individual leads you into discovering what is best for you. A good mentor will prove invaluable as you plan the next steps in your career.

A long-term relationship that develops slowly, mentoring resembles a friendship, but it includes a professional distance and respect. The relationship is most often driven by you as the protégé, as you seek someone out for advice, encourage­ment, or motivation. You will find that the best mentorship relationships grow organically, and are not forced. As with any relationship, there is a level of trust and comfort that must be built before diving into questions about your career aspira­tions and direction. Mentors are most useful when you have concerns about your long-term career direction and personal growth, not for the short-term, project specific advice your research adviser usually focuses on.

Mentors provide guidance and accountability—they help you figure out what you really want to do, and how to go about doing it. They can offer suggestions for questions to ask and for finding people to answer them. In addition, mentors can ask about your goals and deadlines, helping you set them at reasonable levels to make you more likely to actually meet them. Other areas where they may be able to help include decisions about which professional conferences to attend and whether or not to do a postdoc, an internship, or maybe work on some specific technical and interpersonal career skills.

What qualities should you look for in a mentor? You want someone who has enough professional and life experience to be able to advise you, and who will provide candid feedback about your performance—sometimes helping you see hard truths about yourself. It must be an individual whom you respect and trust. Most importantly, a mentor must be a good listener, willing to focus on your concerns, dreams, and goals. Seek out those who will help you become the best you can be—and not try to turn you into a clone of themselves. Above all, the person shouldn’t make you feel like a bother. You want a mentor who’s happy to see you and greets you cheerfully.

A mentor is someone you need to respect, feel comfortable talking with, and trust to keep your confidences. A really good one will not only be there when you call, but will sometimes take the initiative to check in with you and see how you are progressing toward your goals.

Ask open-ended opinion questions rather than those that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” A good mentor will listen carefully, reflect back, ask probing questions, and suggest ways to address your issue. Be mindful of the time, and limit your conversation to the promised duration.

Who Is a Not a Mentor? 

Your research adviser may be a coach or a mentor, or fulfill both roles at different times. Coaching is a shorter-term rela­tionship, focused on specific skills and projects, with the coach telling you how to improve your technique. Think of a sports team, where the coach gives spe­cific directions about how to improve. She or he offers praise when you do it right and (I hope, constructive) criti­cism when you can do better. The rela­tionship focuses on getting things done, not figuring out which things to do.

Especially early in your gradu­ate career, your adviser acts as a coach, telling you what to do and how to do it. Over time, while changing to a more mentoring role, he or she will start step­ping back and letting you grow into an independent scientist. At that point, a good adviser will not tell you what to do but will help you learn to figure things out for yourself, and let you take charge of your own research projects.

A great adviser will go even further and mentor you on long-term career goals and professional development as well. Whether or not this happens, you can always seek additional mentors. More perspectives always add value.

Find a Mentor 

To find a mentor, look for people who have more experience than you do, or who are in positions you want to be in, and talk to them. Although your re­search adviser and dissertation commit­tee members are a good place to start looking, you want to think more widely. Do you know any other faculty mem­bers in your department or university, or maybe even at neighboring or collab­orating institutions? Is there a postdoc or more senior graduate student whom you admire?

Mentors can be found outside the lab as well. Start with your current network. Are there friends, relatives, or people in your community you could talk to? If you visit your undergraduate institution, reconnect with your adviser to talk about your long-term career goals.

Volunteering provides a great way to expand your professional network. Sign up to help with outreach activities such as National Chemistry Week or Earth Day, which are often organized by ACS local sections, and work alongside more experienced professionals. Attend presentations about technical topics, and talk not only to the presenter, but also to others in the audience. Make sure to collect business cards or contact information so you can follow up and build the relationships that are of the most interest to you.

You can learn something from every person you talk to, but sometimes you can get more. If you talk to enough peo­ple, you will find someone with whom you really connect, who inspires and challenges you. If the person also enjoys helping you, the relationship will grow.

Many people find it useful to have multiple mentors with diverse talents, ages, personalities, and backgrounds. Each relationship will be unique and add a different piece to the puzzle that is your professional life. Mentors can pro­vide information about things you have

not yet experienced, or maybe not even considered, and the more diverse infor­mation you collect, the more informed your own choices will be. 

Build the Relationship 

Once you’ve identified a potential men­tor, contact that individual and schedule a time to talk for 15–30 minutes, either in person or on the phone. Ideally, you will have a specific professional issue that you are dealing with so you can ask for help. Set a specific time and place to meet (or schedule the call), and prepare questions in advance. Ask open-ended opinion questions rather than those that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” A good mentor will listen carefully, reflect back, ask probing questions, and suggest ways to address your issue. Be mindful of the time, and limit your con­versation to the promised duration.

After each interaction with your mentor, make sure to extend sincere thanks for her or his time, then reflect and act on the advice. Within a few weeks, follow up to let the person know what action you took, why, and how it is going. Knowledge of being help­ful is often the only reward the men­tor receives—you don’t want to be the person who only calls when you need something.

Although you will ask questions, they may not be the right questions. Make sure to listen carefully to see whether your mentor is gently guiding you to look in a different direction, take a step back, or think about an aspect of the issue that you have not considered.

Sustain the Relationship 

To sustain a mentoring relationship over the long term, both sides must be getting some benefit. You are receiving advice, information, and insights. Your mentor is gaining the satisfaction of helping you, may become re-energized by your enthusiasm, or may gain in­sights into his or her own motivations by having to explain them. That will be enough—up to a point.

It is very important that you re­spect your mentor’s time and be aware of competing issues. For instance, don’t try to set up an appointment the week before a grant is due. In another example, although you can ask for places to start your career investiga­tions or for specific search terms, a busy professional will be much more willing to help you if you’ve done the initial work yourself.

It is up to you to synthesize all the information your mentor(s) provide and apply it to your specific situation. Is the advice relevant today, or is this how things worked 20 years ago? Will what worked for that individual work for you, or do you need to modify the advice to fit your personality and spe­cific aspirations?

No matter what you call them, the insights of experienced professionals can be invaluable in planning your own career development. Taking the time to seek out and build relationships with trusted advisers will give you access to additional wisdom and experience, which can be invaluable in smoothing out the rough spots in your own pro­fessional road.