Seeking the Mentors You Need

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

May 02, 2012

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Jenny: Mentoring has been a hot topic in American pop culture for years now. Back in the 1990s it was the premise of a Seinfeld episode and it was recently a theme on 30 Rock. All jokes aside, however, learning how to cultivate a relationship with a mentor is an important skill for a young professional in any field, but it's particularly important in academe.

Much of your success when you are just starting out as a faculty member will depend on your graduate adviser's investment in your career. A good mentor is equally important for Ph.D.'s and postdocs who decide to pursue nonacademic careers, as they will need someone who is willing to provide them with support and ideas for making the transition out of the academy.

Julie: As you begin to seek mentors, it's particularly important to have a sense of yourself—how you work, what interests you—and a sense of the direction in which you'd like your career to move. Are you a deadline-driven person who would be made crazy by someone whose sense of time was more relaxed? That may be an element of a mentoring relationship that you can manage, but it's good to have thought about it ahead of time if it's the sort of thing that might drive you crazy. Your best bet for advice: Ask graduate students who are ahead of you in the program what it's like working with various faculty members in the department.

Jenny: Working with a mentor also means knowing how to ask for things. No one is going to walk up to you and offer kindly to be your mentor. You have to seek out the help you need. That means asking a professor to read your article, introduce you to someone at a conference, or attend a talk that you are giving and provide you with feedback. It means expressing interest in a grant opportunity, and, in general, speaking up when you see something you want. It never hurts to ask (politely) for what you need to be successful.

What should you expect from mentors? Substantive feedback on your scholarship, help with positioning yourself in your field, and encouragement to gain independence in your work. Academic mentors should be able to direct you to grant sources and connect you with others in your field. This does not mean that you will be sitting back and passively waiting for help. You must be seeking out those very things on your own, too. We can't stress that enough.

Julie: Where do you find mentors? When you're still a student or postdoc, you look for them in your department. Your dissertation adviser is a mentor, obviously, but other faculty members may also serve that function. Be sure to cultivate relationships with all of the members of your dissertation committee.

Having a couple of mentors in different fields or at different institutions can broaden your scholarly horizons and provide you with more potential contacts. It is good to start developing those relationships early on. You will need letters of support from a network of colleagues to get tenure at most institutions.

Jenny: If you are considering careers outside the tenure track, either out of interest or necessity, you will need to have colleagues in nonacademic roles who can testify to the quality of your work and accomplishments. They can be people who have supervised you in part-time work or internships, or people you've partnered with who work in staff roles at your university.

That was a worry for me when I was looking for my first non-tenure-track position, and I was nervous about listing my dissertation-committee members as references. In the end, I listed the executive director of a small nonprofit where I had worked part time. I also listed someone for whom I had done a series of independent research projects, and a faculty member who supervised language teaching in my department. I was not doing high-level work for all of those references (in particular, at the nonprofit, where I answered phones and managed financial paperwork), but the most important thing was that those folks knew me and my work ethic.

Julie: The Center for Teaching and Faculty Development at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has done a lot of interesting work on the topic of mentoring, and we would encourage readers to take a look at its work. The center has pioneered the concept of "Mutual Mentoring" networks, in which faculty members develop mentoring circles, rather than relying on one person—a department chair or a dissertation adviser—for ideas and support. No one person can have all the information or ideas that you need, so cultivating a circle of contacts is smart.

We also like the fact that the word "mutual" is part of the model. Mentoring is not a one-way relationship. It is important to think of yourself as someone who has something substantial to offer. You will one day be a mentor yourself. In fact, you may already serve informally as one to undergraduates or other graduate students or postdocs. In a mutual mentoring relationship, you may be able to share information, collaborate on a project, or introduce the other person to someone.

Jenny: When we see mentoring relationships fall apart, it seems to happen for two reasons: The graduate student or postdoc is isolated and feels tied to an adviser in an unhealthy way, or the mentee worries that he or she has nothing to offer. Both situations result in a hesitancy to ask for help, so the student never builds that important network of collaborators.

In an earlier column, "Dealing With a Difficult Adviser," we offered advice on how to handle mentoring relationships that go awry. The most common problems between advisers and advisees tend to be:

  • Lack of response to the student's work.
  • Disappointment with the quality of the student's work, without constructive suggestions for improvement.
  • Lack of agreement with other committee members, which impedes the student's progress.
  • Questions of publication, authorship, and ethics.
  • Inappropriate involvement in the adviser's personal life (asking students to baby-sit or run errands).
  • Reluctance to let productive students or postdocs move on, most often in the sciences or engineering.
  • Hostile work environments (sexual harassment, yelling).

It's imperative for those of you stuck in such difficult situations to reach out for help, however fearful you may be of repercussions. Don't let a bad adviser sideline your career. And dealing with such situations directly can only help you in the future to better manage your work relationships.

Julie: As a graduate student, when you reach the point where you feel you have nothing to offer, it's time to talk with someone outside the department, either in the campus counseling office and/or the career office. Graduate school is hard and it doesn't get easier. If a troubled student came to me, I might start by asking you to think about the knowledge, skills, and accomplishments you do have. Then we would talk about which of those things are most important to use and develop in a career.

Jenny: Ph.D.'s who plan to leave the tenure-track path for a career in administration or one entirely outside of academe need to be creative in finding mentors. Often you can contact alumni from your graduate and undergraduate institutions to talk about career issues. One of those people could serve as a mentor. Or your professional association may have a way for you to network with people.

Julie: I have served as a transitional mentor for some Ph.D.'s seeking administrative positions within universities and colleges. Having the ability to check in periodically with me turns out to be very helpful as they get their footing.

As Jenny mentioned, it can be hard for Ph.D.'s interested in nonacademic careers to cultivate relationships with professionals in those fields. Informational interviews, which we wrote about before, are very useful for learning about a given profession but won't necessarily lead to a mentoring relationship. Alumni networks and your own circle of contacts can be good places to start. Likewise, some part-time jobs and internships, even if they are not exactly in the field you'd like to pursue, can be great places to find support, as was the case for Jenny.

Jenny: In general, it's always a good idea to widen your circle of support. Taking the time in graduate school to cultivate ties with people outside your department is smart—both emotionally and professionally. Whether you're looking for support in your field or outside of higher education, developing strong mentoring relationships is essential to your professional health and the first step to a sustainable career.

Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of New York University's Office of Faculty Resources. They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press). If you have questions for the Career Talk columnists, send them to