As promised, a post on finding mentors and being a mentor. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, so it’s difficult to distill everything into a structured post – but here a few thoughts / tips that might be helpful.
1. You need more mentors than only your supervisor
Even if you have the best supervisor in the world, they will not know all the things you might need advice on, like time management, planning your career or putting your health before your project. This is even more true if your background is different from the supervisor’s, and they have never been in the situation you might find yourself in.
Therefore it’s important to find other mentors who are more similar to you. Gender is an obvious characteristic that comes to mind – here are studies showing that women assigned to women mentors are less likely to drop out of science and engineering, or more likely to become professors themselves.
I think this is similar to my experience. As I have written before, I had a great advisors during my PhD. I would have probably laughed if I had to join a mentoring program and meet with another professor, just because we both happened to be female. But I do think that meeting some amazing women mentors along the way, is what convinced me to give a career in academia a try.
That being said, there are other characteristics that can define what similar means for you, but are more hidden, such as being a first generation student or having a health issue.
2. Mentors can be anyone
A mentor doesn’t necessarily have to be a more senior person in the same field. If you see the word mentor as “a person you can learn something from”, it becomes easier to think about this. Here are some (perhaps less traditional) examples of who I consider mentors:
- Assistant professors in different fields related to computer science. We have a Slack group where we share advice, our failures (#rants) and successes (#humblebrag).
- Students who I do not supervise, but who inspire me because of how they approach their work and/or life, and/or who teach me how to be a better researcher and supervisor by sharing the experiences they have.
- Academic community on Twitter, where lots of amazing advice is shared.
Note that most of these people probably do not consider themselves as mentors in these situations! These conversations do not start with “will you be my mentor?”, but with genuine questions about a particular topic, that the others might have more expertise in.
3. Be a mentor too
Since anybody can be a mentor, you can be a mentor too!
If you want to benefit from others’ mentorship, you have to be able to offer something in return. This might be difficult to imagine if your mentor is more senior, but they can probably still learn something from you too. If this still does not apply to you can pay it forward by mentoring other students.
In all cases, be a good mentee – here’s a recent thread on the subject:
I don’t do this often but I have to vent because people are blowing their opportunities to be mentored. Here are some simple “Rules for Successfully Being Mentored”. I’m intentionally making these separate so none get missed:
— Kim Crayton (@KimCrayton1) October 9, 2017
Finally, I’d like to share this post on service as leadership – mentoring isn’t a chore you have to do, but an amazing opportunity you get to do.