There were several reasons I was glad that the poll for the #ecrchat I hosted on Twitter came up with the topic “finding a good mentor”. I am going to enter my first formalised mentoring relationship in the autumn, which has been organised by the department as a recognition that I’m staying on for an extra year and want to be moving on from the sort of teaching fellowship I currently hold. However, I also have a wide network of people I would call informal mentors, and my relationships with them have developed much more organically and serendipitously. My one previous attempt at a formalised mentoring relationship, brokered by a professional organisation, sadly didn’t get much further than exchanging a couple of e-mails – looking back on the experience, I can see there was a mismatch in what I wanted out of the relationship and what my assigned mentor thought they were able to offer.
These issues were at the top of my mind as I prepared the guiding questions for the chat, and at my elbow was Lily Segerman-Peck’s Networking & Mentoring: A Woman’s Guide, which I cannot recommend enough and from which I shamlessly cribbed! (I got my copy second-hand off Amazon almost ten years ago, and while it has dated, the central meat is still relevant.) One thing that came out of the chat was that in order to identify potential mentors, you needed to make the most of your networks to know who was out there who might have the knowledge and skills that you want to obtain for the next step in your career. Most people were aware of internal mentoring programs within their institutions (or their absence), but plenty of other places to look were suggested – other institutions and other departments, professional organisations, and outside academia altogether. Someone also gave the example of an informal peer mentoring group they have started (around the very civilized basis of monthly cupcake consumption) that might turn into some more formal in time.
Interwoven with thoughts about where one might find a mentor were what makes a mentor good for you. Crucially, there needs to be the right chemistry between the mentor and mentee (or if I’m being properly classical about it, the Mentor and Telemachus), which seemed to boil down to a sense of mutual commitment and interest, the mentor’s ability and willingness to communicate, and the ability to let you make your own mistakes after they’ve given their advice. One thing that became clear was that before looking for a mentoring relationship, it’s crucial to work out what you want from one – without a clear sense of your own needs, you won’t necessarily find the person with the skills and experience to help you. That doesn’t preclude advice coming from unexpected quarters, but it does affect both your attitude to your own career development and how you visualise developing relationships with potential mentors. It was also clear that there was no limit on how many mentors you can have – a team of supporters with different perspectives and an interest in you is a great resource to develop.
The final question I posed for the chat asked how you should approach someone you have identified as a potential mentor. The general consensus seemed to be go for it! Write an e-mail, ask for a coffee, and have a chat about what you think you and they can get out of this sort of relationship. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
If you’d like to read more from the chat, you can browse through the Storified tweets.