If you are reading this article you probably agree with me that finding a good mentor is a very important step in your career. But do you know exactly what to look for and how to find the perfect one for you? I hope I can help you figure it out with some examples.
Let’s start from the beginning: where does the word “mentor” come from?
Mentor is a character in the epic poem Odyssey of the Greek storyteller Homerus.
Let me bring it into context: Before leaving to fight in the Trojan war, Odysseus leaves his wife Penelope and kid Thelemacus in Ithaca, entrusting his old friend Mentor with the guardianship of his son and reign. The Trojan war lasts ten years and Odysseus needs ten years of journey to come home, since he unleashed the wrath of Neptune, god of the sea. Meanwhile, Penelope is under siege in her own palace, which has been occupied by young nobles of Ithaca, demanding her to marry one of them with the hope of usurping the throne. Telemachus is now 21 and the goddess Athena appears to him in the form of old Mentor, to accompany him on what we could call an educational journey to find his father.
Telemachus and Mentor
by Pablo E. Fabisch from Les Adventures de Telemaque (1699)
What is so special about Mentor to define the meaning we attribute to mentoring today?
Mentor is there for Telemachus, supporting him in his personal growth to become an adult and giving him advice in a period of uncertainty. Basically, Mentor invests his time, energy and wisdom to help Telemachus succeed. In the end, when both Telemachus and Odysseus return to Ithaca, they defeat the usurpers together and restore the order.
The role of mentor is commonly used as narrative tool in stories, books and movies, to empower the hero to overcome the obstacles along the way and reach the final goal.
For example, in “Cinderella”, the godmother supports her, builds up her confidence when she doesn’t believe in herself and gives her the tools to succeed: with a magic wand and a bibidi bobidi bu Cinderella has a beautiful dress, comfortable glass shoes and a carriage to go to the ball - the fact that the utmost goal for a girl should be marrying rich is a totally different story. As another example, Baloo and Bagheera in “The jungle book” protect and teach Mowgli how to survive in the dangerous jungle, ultimately helping him in the hard decision to leave the jungle to join the village of men.
What these examples show us is that mentors do not solve the problems of their apprentices. They rather invite them to self-reflect and discover their inner potential and resources so that they overcome whatever obstacle is on their way.
Do you recognise yourself in those examples? Does your PhD feel like a Greek epic poem or a disney movie? Do you need the courage to fight and stand up for yourself, a magic wand or the guidance to find out where you belong?
Wherever you are in your journey, one thing is sure: do not expect your mentor to tell you what to do, but to show you the tools to find it out by yourself!
Now that we defined who is a mentor, let’s see how we can find one.
I heard many people say you should choose your mentor carefully, considering a specific set of parameters and defining precise rules for the relationship. In my experience I did not consciously choose my mentors, rather I discovered them along the way, working closely together and taking the time to get to know each other, on a professional and personal level.
Here is what I learned about the features to look for in mentors:
Willing to invest their time and energy in getting to know you
Experienced in the field and open to teach
Eager to share not only technical knowledge but also their experience
Able to pinpoint your value and weakness, and to give feedback about both aspects
Able to trigger your confidence and motivation
Skilled in developing others, enabling you to find your own path even if it differs from theirs
That said, the most important thing for me was to build a relationship on mutual trust, sharing values and vision of what really matters, both in science and in life.
So far we described all the qualities a mentor should have, but what’s needed on the other side? The worst mistake you can make is to have a passive role in the relationship with your mentor. To avoid this, you should take five very active steps:
Step 1: Understand who you are
First of all, you need to be aware of your personality and of the way you interact with others. Some people need a strong push while others need a more gentle guidance, the same way does not work for everybody. To avoid unpleasant misunderstanding make sure you know what kind of personality and working style are the most effective for you.
Step 2: Define what you need
Then ask yourself “What is important for me, that I need guidance on?”
The answer to this question will define the frame of your research. You will look for different people if you need help to find out what you want compared to support to accomplish a goal you already defined, or if you need guidance to transition to another field compared to following the path you are already on.
Once you have clear who you are and what you want, you can start looking for the right mentor.
Step 3: Look for a mentor
It’s true that you cannot plan who is going to cross your path and that it takes time to discover the “mentor top qualities” we discussed above. However, it’s critical that you do your research: talking to people, reading between the lines, asking questions that go beyond scientific aspects.
For example, if the group leader you are interviewing with makes jokes about the fact that PhD students should not take any holiday, most likely he or she will not care about having a happy and fulfilled employee but rather a workaholic slave. In my experience, talking openly about working style and expectations has helped to identify matching personalities and shared values.
Have you found the mentor of your dreams? Time to reach out!
Step 4: Establish the relationship
If you were lucky - or very good at reading people during your interview – you chose well and your direct supervisor is the perfect mentor-match. Then the relationship can develop spontaneously working together. If your supervisor doesn’t work out as a mentor – doesn’t have enough time, doesn’t share values that are important for you, or simply doesn’t care – do not panic! There’s still hope for you. You can reach out to that young group leader who gave an inspiring seminar or to the former postdoc in your lab who now works in the company of your dreams. You may need some more courage to ask these people, but if you did your research properly and they are indeed a good match, it will be worth it.
Step 5: Do the work
Did you think your part was done once you found the right person? Wrong. The real work starts now!
Be proactive and engage in the interaction with your mentor. A relationship is always dependent on both sides, if you don’t put the time and effort in it, you can’t expect your mentor to do the same.
Actively ask for feedback and implement suggestions.
Be respectful of your mentor’s time, don’t waste it by not being clear on what you need and make the best out of it.
If you still don’t know who can be the perfect mentor for you, start looking around! It could be your boss, your direct supervisor, a collaborator or - if you want to completely change the direction of your career - someone who’s in your dream job.
And if you found a great mentor already, don’t forget to say thank you.
Interested in widening your mentorship horizon? Have a look at these mentoring programs: