“Having good mentors early in one’s career can mean the difference between success and failure in any field,” states the 2007 article “Nature’s Guide for Mentors.” No one can make decisions for you, but the right people can help broaden your vision and thinking as well as help you make decisions that will benefit you and your career. That’s who mentors are—individuals you admire, look up to, and feel comfortable talking to and asking for an honest opinion.
Mentoring – A Two-Way Street
Mentoring relationships tend to develop across a broad experience gap. You, as a trainee, need guidance and encouragement for your career development, and since neither you nor your peers have probably had that experience, you turn to your superiors or senior collaborators for professional development and career advice. Although mentoring relationships are perceived as primarily benefiting the trainees, mentors also experience personal satisfaction from shaping the next generation. Trainees carry forward their mentors’ achievements, and as their professional horizons expand, so do their mentors’ professional networks. Mentoring is a symbiotic relationship in which you as a trainee open up your world of opportunities and give back to those who helped you develop your career.
What Do You Look For in a Mentor?
Passion, enthusiasm, and a positive attitude are just a few good traits to look for in a mentor. Look for someone who is available— think of the open-door policy—and willing to dedicate his or her time to spontaneous discussion. A true mentor possesses a well-established system of moral values, acts according to his or her stated principles, and is able to communicate the hard truths about the real world without giving false hope or crushing one’s dreams. You should look up to your mentor rather than perceiving him or her as just another friend. You are not looking for another pal; you have enough of them! Don’t let the relationship become too relaxed—reciprocal respect is essential for successful mentoring.
Building Mentoring Relationships: Seek, Connect, Maintain
The outcome of good mentorship should result in you being part of a well-connected network, knowing who to go to for the advice you need, and maintaining long-term personal and professional relationships. During your training, you had the opportunity to connect and impress several professors or employers with whom you should stay in touch and update on your professional development. Sooner or later, you will need to provide a list of referees for your next job application, and even if they are not directly involved in your current career stage, they will be in a great position to support you.
Once you immerse yourself in a new environment, seek professional relationships with individuals who can become your official mentors and slowly cultivate these relationships. Treat your mentors with respect— you need the advice and support of these individuals for upcoming promotions.
Always try to broaden your perspective and seek out other mentors who may or may not be part of your immediate niche. These individuals may be experienced scientists or employees you noticed at a recent scientific conference or staff meeting and with whom you are not directly collaborating but appreciate for their views. While their experience will help you see the bigger picture, they may also appreciate your new, fresh point of view.
The key element to successful mentorship is maintaining the professional relationships you have worked so hard to establish. Identify a particular trait in each mentor that you would like to cultivate in yourself. Meet with your mentors regularly, keep them updated of your progress, and, if progress is slow, engage them early and ask for their support. Keep meetings professional and be specific regarding your goals. Show them you are well-prepared, clear, organized, and keen on what you want to achieve.
What if Things Don’t Work Out?
It is not uncommon to find yourself in a position where you don’t feel that you are getting what you need and what you initially expected from your mentor. The best approach is to have a frank conversation with your mentor and reiterate your needs and expectations. If you really find that he or she is clearly and consistently uninterested in you, undervalues your abilities, or displays any signs of undermining the relationship, you should reconsider the mentoring relationship and start looking for other mentors. However, you need to proceed with care as you don’t want to burn any bridges, especially if the mentor is a leading figure in the field. Of course, there is no need to end one mentoring relationship before engaging in other ones; the advice and insight one mentor shares with you is bound to complement what you receive from others.
Successful Mentorship Tips
- Think strategically: set your goals, work creatively toward your aims, and evaluate your accomplishments.
- Actively seek mentorship and ask tough questions: learn from others about a potential mentor.
- Connect and maintain: establish and nurture professional relationships, but don’t overstay your welcome.
- Be humble: accept critical feedback constructively, be open to learning, and accept new ways of thinking.
- Always strive to learn something new: being mentored is taking a new course—you choose the instructor and topics.
- Stay connected: always aim to cultivate a sense of community—you can never have too many supporters.
In conclusion, it is not easy to find good mentors! If you have found one who can provide you with the mentorship you need, nurture that relationship, inherit those good mentoring traits, and pass them along to your future mentees! And always remember that mentoring is a two-way street!