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How a Mentor Can Assist Your Academic Career

Can a mentor turbo-drive your academic career? We expect so much from our mentors, but formal workplace mentoring schemes can be disappointing. Much like a good marriage, there does need to be a certain chemistry between mentors and protégés (or mentees) for it to last beyond the first date. What we are all looking for in our careers is a mentoring relationship that will go the distance. In this article, we explore what makes a great mentor, how to find them, how to nurture the relationship, and how to be the best mentor yourself.

Most academic institutions, universities and corporations will have a mentoring scheme, but is it just lip-service, or is it something really useful for your career? Is it just about networking? Is it just about career? How can you make the most of your mentors? Where can you find them? What makes a good mentor? Is it rewarding to be a mentor? And how can you be an excellent mentor yourself? How many do you need?

Whatever stage you are in your career, mentors can be a steady guiding force helping you understand and achieve your personal and career goals. In this article, three academic and professional women share their experiences being mentored as protégés, setting up mentoring schemes in their workplace, and acting as mentors to others. We explore important components of mentoring, the different ways to find a mentor, how to make the relationship work, and how to be the best mentor yourself.

The Need for a Mentor

In New Zealand, the Maori have a saying ‘What is the most important thing? The people, the people, the people’.

I’ll let you in on a secret—an interesting academic position has come up at the university near me and I’m thinking of applying. Academic jobs in this field are as rare as hen’s teeth, but I think I’ve got a reasonable shot.

Naturally, there’s some other considerations: it’s a newly created full-time position in a young faculty that requires a new course to be written, and a research team funded and staffed, it’s an hour’s commute each way, and, did I mention that I’m currently on maternity leave, with a five-week-old baby and a four and a half year old? I need some advice as to whether I should apply, whether this is the right thing for me, and for my family … I desperately need some mentoring.

But What is a Mentor?

In their review of mentoring theory and research, Bozeman and Feeney (2007, p. 731) offer the following definition:

Mentoring is a process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital, and the psychosocial support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career, or professional development; mentoring entails informal communication, usually face-to-face and during a sustained period of time, between a person who is perceived to have greater relevant knowledge, wisdom, or experience (the mentor) and a person who is perceived to have less (the protégé).

Why Do We Need Them?

Transmission of Knowledge

Dr Lucy Hopkins is a Lecturer in Children and Family Studies at the School of Arts and Humanities at Edith Cowan University. Her mentor has used her experience to focus Lucy’s career goals. ‘She has helped me to refine my research direction … She’s very aware of “strategic” goals in terms of publishing in reputable journals and only going to conferences that will benefit me or my research directly, so she has advised me about how to streamline my research praxis to have the best kinds of career goals met.’

Dr Anne Fawcett, a veterinarian and lecturer at the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney, suggests a strategy of being strategic in your meetings, particularly when you know your mentor may be pushed for time: ‘Being able to set and articulate goals and plans is helpful. It’s very easy for a mentor to provide specific advice or put you in contact with the right people if you know what you want.’

Social Capital

Apart from their wealth of experience and emotional support, the best mentors can offer key contacts and help network their protégé. As Dr Tammy Blackburn*, a successful specialist physician in Auckland, New Zealand, says of her favourite mentor: ‘He has connections and is happy to use them and put me forward for projects’.

My personal experience working in a fairly small field is that personal connections are critically important as far as building research collaborations, accessing samples, writing grants, and gaining employment.

Over the past 17 years, since graduating, I have only ever gained employment from one formal job advertisement. My (many) other paid roles and my PhD, have all been found through networks—friends of friends, colleagues, conferences, even through social media such as Facebook.

Further, when I seek collaborators or people to outsource work too, I most frequently reach out to my networks to find the people and skills I need. Without a doubt, a personal introduction is as valuable, if not more so, as a polished curriculum vitae and introductory letter.

Lucy agrees, saying this of one of her mentors: ‘She has also been great at helping me to network—I work on a different campus to most of the other people in my school, and she has been excellent for telling me which academics I should try to meet, and who might need a co-supervisor and so on.’

Partly this will be because mentors see qualities in their protégés that perhaps the protégé doesn’t recognise in themselves. This is certainly something Tammy has realised: ‘He sees potential in me that I don’t see in myself until I speak to him.’ This is something Lucy also acknowledges: ‘She encourages me to do things that I mightn’t otherwise.’

Psychosocial Support

An important role for mentors is acting in an emotionally supportive role for their protégés. Anne, agrees. She sees the role of a mentor as ‘mostly listening and acting as a sounding board.’ Another skill is when mentors are able to admit their own vulnerabilities and anxieties, which can be ‘incredibly validating for mentees’.

Mentors should always have our back, but also challenge us to be the best person we can be. ‘My favourite mentor challenges my world view, is relentlessly optimistic about the world and what we can both offer’, says Tammy.

‘He makes me look at the world a different way. He sees potential in me that I don’t see in myself until I speak to him. He inspires me and has faith in me … He sees me as a whole person, not just a doctor or trainee.’

Finding someone who understands and empathises with your current stressors can be validating, and important in problem solving career quandaries. This can be particularly important when trying to juggle multiple roles, such as parenting. In my case, having a tiny baby is a serious consideration as to whether I can take on an academic role, even though I have a supportive partner. Both Tammy and Lucy are also juggling their family responsibilities with their careers.

Tammy says, ‘In my department, when I began training, there was only one female physician (out of about eight). She had a partner but had not had children. The two advanced trainees were male with no children … I would have perhaps chosen a female physician juggling family and career as a mentor—it is only now I am finding them, 10 years later, and they tend to be further on, with kids leaving home—so perhaps again are not quite so stretched.’

Lucy also explains of her mentor that ‘her ability to see forward through my career/research trajectory is really important, as it allows her to show me a path through it. Her acknowledgement of how hard family and academic life is to balance is really important for me, and generally, I feel that she holds my “story” in her head where other colleagues don’t; she knows where I’m up to and what my goals are; she can advise me on when to say yes to things and when to back off’.

Finding a Mentor

The Formal Method

How do you find a career mentor? Is it a bit like dating? Do you swipe right or swipe left? What if your mentor isn’t a good fit?

Many universities and corporate workplaces will have formal mentor schemes, where a mentor is matched with a protégé. These can be useful, and sometimes will work out well, much like an arranged marriage. However, it is quite common—and probably makes for a better relationship—for mentoring to develop naturally, from an informal situation, or from another type of relationship, such as friendship or naturally within the workplace.

When I was at university as an undergraduate, I had two faculty designated mentors, presumably randomly allocated: one of these I never sought out (and vice versa) and the other I did unload a whole load of adolescent stresses on once, when tipsy at a faculty function. A little like a drunken snog, this was hardly the beginning of a beautiful relationship and was excruciatingly embarrassing in the morning. Despite this awkward encounter, his advice that my career was not the only thing that was important in life has stuck with me ever since—yet I doubt he’d even remember me.

The Informal Method

For most of us, a mentor is someone whom we find through less formal schemes—networks, friends, colleagues, conferences and collaborations.

In the medical training of doctors, mentors will be given to junior doctors similar to the way that they were given to me at university. For Tammy, she met with formal mentors about every three months during her specialist training. However perhaps more useful were the informal mentors, many of whom she worked with.

One of her most useful mentors was the head of her department. They’ve been meeting as mentor and mentee for over 10 years now. They meet every one to two years and although the relationship definitely is one of mentor and mentee, they’ve never formally acknowledged it as such.

Lucy has both a formal mentor she chose through the university system, and an informal mentor. Her informal mentor has evolved from being a trusted family friend to an important career mentor forming a solid background of trust for the relationship. ‘I have a personal relationship with her alongside a mentor relationship (she’s been a family friend, and so has watched my career, knows my family), she is very good at taking a holistic approach to my research and overall career.’

Anne also has found most of her mentors informally, through colleagues and friends. ‘I have been fortunate enough to meet mentors through my career—people I felt I could trust enough to discuss my goals, aspirations, shortcomings, approaches to these’, she says. ‘People have been incredibly patient, [and] generous with their time.’

What If the Relationship Doesn’t Work Out?

Then, of course, the mentor relationship might not work. In my case, I never sought my mentors out, and they never checked in on me, so we were both at fault.

In Tammy’s scenario, the formal designated mentor was not as useful as those she has found herself. ‘Although we had mutual respect and she was supportive, I don’t think I felt a real “click”’, she reveals. ‘She was quietly supportive, but I didn’t find that she engaged my passion, encouraged me to stretch, saw wider possibilities for me, and could offer me connections to areas that inspired me.’

In reality, like most relationships, our mentors may change over time, both in who we have as a mentor, and how useful they are to our current circumstances. Rather than seeking ‘the one’ mentor relationship, it might be wise to cultivate more than one, using them strategically over time.

A number of more senior colleagues have given me career advice occasionally, particularly senior collaborators, supervisors or older colleagues. What I have struggled to find is consistency in my mentoring, which could be better improved through me initiating regular communication, or even a more formal request that they mentor me.

Being a Mentor

Both Tammy and Anne have been actively involved in mentoring. Anne is the director of the Bachelor of Veterinary Science final year mentoring program, and Tammy has previously set up two mentoring schemes, one as an undergraduate connecting female medical students with female medical graduates, and one as a junior doctor, for postgraduate doctors in their early years of training.

For Anne, a mentor is a great role model: ‘The most important thing about mentors is not what they say but how they are. For me a good mentor role models something—excellent patient care, professionalism, passion, curiosity—they are engaging, they have a sense of humour, and they are philosophical about adversity. They have qualities I aspire to.’

Many of those working in academia will also act as mentors for our more junior staff and students. Thinking about our own roles as protégés will give us clues as to how best to act as a mentor.

Tammy is keen to mentor junior colleagues and students, as she finds it ‘completely rewarding’ and has recently put her name forward to mentor junior colleagues in a formal work place scheme.

Similarly, Anne has acted as a formal and informal mentor. She feels her most important role has been ‘mostly listening and acting as a sounding board. Suggesting people to talk to, things to read, pointing out occasionally that they might take a break, [and] acting as a referee.’

Both Anne and Tammy have been aware of being a drain on their mentor’s time. Anne acknowledges it is great to be a mentor; however, occasionally she has to put off phone calls to a time when she is less busy. She also warns about being careful about those who are particularly fragile or vulnerable, being aware of your own limitations and lack of qualifications in mental health, and referring to medical professionals such as psychologists, whenever necessary.

Anne advises mentees to be considerate about the drain mentoring may have on the mentor. ‘Mentoring can be confronting too. Sometimes a mentee deals with an issue you haven’t yourself dealt with well or resolved. Or maybe you hear yourself giving advice that you know you should take, but haven’t. They can expose a gulf between one’s behaviour and beliefs.’

Tammy and Anne find mentoring very fulfilling. Tammy explains that ‘I love to support people to be their best self’. Anne agrees: ‘It’s nice to feel like you’re helpful, when someone feels better just for being able to talk.’ She also finds it ‘rewarding in seeing their lives develop or them getting through a tough patch or [their] career development.’

Being Grateful to Your Mentors

It never hurts to let someone know that they’ve positively influenced you. As Anne puts it, ‘The most powerful thing you can do is let them know they’ve made a difference … We’re all human. We listen and sometimes feel a bit helpless, so finding out that it helped is really special.’

Unfortunately, in my case, I cannot even remember the name of the mentor to whom I drunkenly confessed my woes, but there are many other people who have acted as mentors for me, or put me forward for positions before. Perhaps given my current quandary, I need to pick up the phone, thank them for their past help and get some more mentoring!

*Identifying details of Tammy have been changed by request.

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