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I was fortunate to have a positive mentoring experience in my graduate program. My mentor was attentive, responsive and, quite frankly, there for me emotionally when I had some significant challenges outside my degree program. By all accounts, I was lucky.
Even still, I didn’t feel totally comfortable talking with her about the fact that I did not want to become a faculty member. I evaded the conversations and even put together a few academic job applications, but in my heart, I knew I wanted something else. A career mentor would have been supportive in my process. Specifically, it would have been helpful to have someone who was not affiliated with my department or university whom I could talk to about my career trajectory.
The truth is that lots of graduate students and postdocs feel similarly, especially when staring down an ultracompetitive and meager faculty job market. Yet in many departments, the sense that the default career for a Ph.D. or postdoc is to become a faculty member still persists. If that is the case in your department, I can easily understand why you don’t see your thesis adviser as someone to talk to about exploring your career.
I have also noticed that career exploration often needs to be done covertly and on the student’s own time. But that needs to change. Collectively, we must move the needle to make career exploration and development an integrated part of the grad student and postdoc experience.
The Role of Mentorship
Now, six years after graduating, I work as an educational specialist supporting Ph.D.s and postdocs in career and professional development. And I spend a lot of my time thinking about the importance of mentorship, but not just academic or research mentorship.
In my time at the University of California, Davis, Health, I have created mentorship programs and led many mentorship workshops through my role with the Mentoring Academy for Research Excellence. In those workshops, which we offer for both mentees and mentors, we cover topics of effective communication, cultural competency and awareness, conflict resolution, and more. Our goal is to enhance mentoring relationships on our campus. An additional outcome of my work with the academy is normalizing conversations about mentorship and creating a culture of collectively improving mentoring relationships.
Let’s take a moment to disentangle the widely used word “mentor.” The National Academies’ The Science of Effective Mentorship in STEMM defines mentoring as “A professional, working alliance in which individuals work together over time to support the personal and professional growth, development, and success of the relational partners through the provision of career and psychosocial support.”
There are some overlapping components between the definition of mentor and a faculty adviser, as well as some stark differences. A faculty adviser serving in a mentor capacity supports the growth, development and success of the mentee. However, it is imperative to point out that there is a power differential between faculty and students, and the student’s scholarly work and output usually informs how the mentor views their future employment and funding. Additionally, when faculty members have their name on the project, they have personal, vested interests in the outcome of the project, potentially leading to a conflict of interest as they mentor. In effect, there are enough key differences that I suggest that we use the word “mentor” in a way that aligns with the definition above.
Having Multiple Mentors
Semantics aside, if you are a grad student or postdoc, it’s important to come to terms with the fact that one mentor will most likely not be able to satisfy your every mentoring need. Your thesis adviser or principal investigator may be the best source of mentorship for the purposes of providing feedback and guiding you along your project. That said, you should also be thinking about what comes next in your career journey, and those conversations may need to happen outside your department.
You may also need a mentor whose identity or life experiences are similar to yours. When I put together mentorship programs, I always ask people if they have special requests for what they want in a mentor. Someone might say that they want a mentor who is also a woman and a parent, for example. I grant those requests first, as I know the value of shared identities and experiences in the mentoring relationship.
All this is to say that I recommend a multiple-mentor approach. In our mentoring workshops, I reserve time for folks to think about where their mentoring landscape has gaps. If you are reading this and sense a gap in your own mentoring experiences, consider creating more of a mentorship committee by following these steps:
- Ask yourself, what do I normally talk about with my mentor? What do I not feel comfortable talking about? What is lacking in my current mentoring relationships?
- Identify gaps or unmet needs in your existing mentoring relationships.
- Take a moment to reflect on what needs will best be met by finding a mentor.
- Seek out a mentor who helps you focus specifically on your career.
One of the mentorship programs that I have created was, in fact, specifically for career mentorship. I leveraged the 100-plus professionals in our database and matched them with willing Ph.D.s and postdocs. The mentors maintained regular contact for a year, focusing on the needs of the mentee, including offering feedback on résumés and cover letters, as well advising on networking, interview preparation and more. Because their mentors were impartial and removed from the mentees’ degree programs, the participants felt safe to have conversations that may not otherwise have occurred between mentees and their PIs. If your institution offers a career mentorship program, take advantage of that opportunity. If it doesn’t, you may want to take steps to find a career mentor on your own.
For a career mentor, identify someone who is caring and compassionate. You may also want to find someone who has a shared identity or background, exhibits cultural humility, inspires you, or is in the type of position you hope to get. You should also seek out mentors who are actively engaged in improving their mentoring.
The places to look for a career mentor include:
- Your professional and personal networks
- LinkedIn (find alumni from your school)
- Departmental alumni networks
- Professional organizations
- Mentoring networks (the National Research Mentoring Network and the Association for Women In Science, for example)
As a mentee, it is incumbent upon you to take mentorship into your own hands. You know best what you need, and it’s crucial that you advocate for developing the skills and obtaining the resources that you want.
Finally, as a grad student or postdocs yourself, you undoubtedly serve as a mentor to others, whether it is in a formal or informal capacity. So, take time to think about what kind of mentor you want to be. Make time and space to talk with those whom you mentor about exploring careers, and support them in doing so. And when you feel outside your comfort zone, suggest that they find additional mentors, perhaps even a career mentor.