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The Secret to Success in Higher Ed is Finding a Mentor

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

"From the first class I stepped foot into a classroom at __________, and the last one I walked out of, (both of which were yours) professors that really cared about the progress of individual students came too far and few. I want to thank you for having such a vested interest in your students, in me, and in education on the whole. Whenever I needed some guidance or support, I could get it from you. That means more to me than any math skill I learned. I can only say that about two other professors I had. Thank You."

The excerpt above is from an email I received from one of my mentees upon his graduation. It is not included here to toot my own horn, but rather as an example of the kind of relationship that every student in college should be searching for as a part of the education that they are paying for. Mentoring is one of the least discussed, but most critical pieces of higher education for both undergraduates and graduate students. It is not, however something that happens for every student, even at the graduate level. Given its importance to success in higher education and beyond, the search for a concerned and engaged mentor should be near the top of every student’s priority list the moment they arrive on a college campus. 

Here are the reasons that a mentor is so vital to your success in higher education, how to find a good one, and how to make the most of the relationship once you do.

The Value of Great Mentors
The simple truth is that you can never have too many good people in your life. Positive people can provide you with support and connections to other great people that can enhance the quality of your life and overall prospects for a bright future. In higher education, there is no shortage of good people who also have valuable professional knowledge and connections within their field that can benefit you over the course of your entire lifetime. Here is a closer look at the ways in which a great mentor can support you.

  • Academic support – The most standard way in which a mentor can support your higher education is, of course academically. While it is always recommended that students talk to their professors about their classes and prospects in the field, having a strong relationship and regular communication with a mentor can provide much deeper insight at the individual course level, for your major, and in terms of catering a course of study to a particular interest or career path. In short, an involved mentor can help you not only succeed in your immediate academic pursuits, but can also help guide them to make sure that you are taking advantage of every available educational opportunity to benefit you in the long term.
  • Personal supports – Some faculty members are not comfortable offering emotional support to their mentees, but others consider the relationship a personal one and have concern for helping their charges in the full spectrum of adjusting to college life, graduate school, and a life of work. Mentors are also people who have a wealth of life experiences that provide them with insight and understanding into things you may be going through or that you will go through over the course of your education, career, and life. This document from the National Mentoring Partnership provides some basic guidelines for the kinds of things that are and are not appropriate in a mentor/mentee relationship.
  • Career support – Finally, and possibly most importantly, mentors can provide support throughout the process of entering and enjoying a career. A good mentor will help you by writing letters of recommendation, connecting you to others in the field, or even collaborating on research or other projects. Mentors can be invaluable sources of advice, knowledge, inspiration, and support as you start a long and fruitful profession after graduation.

What Makes a Good Mentor
Not all mentors are created equal. As mentioned above, some are not comfortable with the personal end of mentoring. Others may not have the kind of career connections that will benefit you. Regardless, it pays to search for a mentor that you are comfortable with and who offers you as much benefit both personally and professionally as possible. Here are the things that you should be looking at when searching for a good mentor match.

  • Field of expertise – While it is not absolutely essential that your mentor have the exact same field of interest as you, it certainly helps. You will get the maximum benefit in course and career advice and connections from someone who is in the field that you intend to join.
  • Availability – I had a mentor in graduate school who was a high-powered researcher and, while he may have been an excellent resource for career advancement, it was extremely challenging to get any extended time with him, or even get him to focus on my needs when we did meet. I ultimately found a new mentor who was at a later stage in his career and was thus much less focused on research and far more interested in supporting students in all aspects of their academic lives. Find a mentor who wants to be a mentor. Someone interested in bringing along the next generation of scholars or professionals in their field will provide far more engagement and support than someone more focused on themselves and their work.
  • Personality – If you don’t get along with your mentor at a personal level, you won’t interact with them in ways that will benefit you in the long run. For starters, be yourself around prospective mentors and see how they respond. You want to be comfortable and have them be comfortable with you. While this is a professional relationship at the core, it also can be a deeply personal and intimate one which will flourish only if the personalities involved are compatible.
  • Experience – Any faculty member has enough experience to be a capable mentor for their students, so don’t shy away from a new faculty member who shows interest in supporting you. However, younger professors have additional pressures of establishing their own research agendas, securing grants, publishing, and many other expectations from their professional commitments. More mature academics, in contrast, may have cultivated a far more extensive professional network in addition to being beyond worries about their own tenure requirements. A professor nearing their retirement can be an excellent choice as a mentor because they may also have an interest in enhancing their legacy by supporting the next generation of scholars.
  • Challenge – One often overlooked role of the mentor is to challenge their mentee to become more than they might ever imagine they can be. In this regard, talking to a potential mentor who is in a growing field or one just a bit removed from your intended area of study can provide you with insights and inspiration that could push you in dynamic and exciting new directions.

Looking for a mentor is not a calculated process. You should not identify "targets" and pursue them simply because they provide you with the maximum benefit for your career. They will sense this kind of ulterior motivation and shy away from overly eager students. Instead, be conscious of the process, but also rely on your feelings and the natural interactions that you have with someone. Think of finding a mentor like finding a spouse. You want to be comfortable, feel supported, have an interesting rapport, and get a sense that you are both committed to the relationship. This is an affiliation that should be mutually beneficial after all.

How to Maximize the Relationship
The relationship between you and your mentor, as with any interpersonal interaction, should be one of give and take and mutual benefit. You can ensure not only that you have a positive relationship that works for both of you, but also that provides both of you with a lifetime of rewarding interaction, by doing some or all of the following:

  • Make yourself useful – Both when establishing a relationship and throughout the duration of working with your mentor, you should try to make yourself a useful contributor to their work and, possibly, even their life. This usefulness can range from helping out in a lab, TA-ing a class, or reading a draft of a paper for publication. It is important, however to maintain boundaries that make you comfortable. No mentor should take advantage of your willingness to help, and any that seem like they are, should be kept at a distance. If you can find ways to be engaged with your mentor either professionally or personally by contributing to their work, you will find that you not only strengthen the relationship, but also that you learn a lot along the way.
  • Don’t be a pest – The flip side of being useful, is not being a bother to the mentor. Learn to read their individual signals and back off if they indicate that you are overstepping their boundaries, or if they don’t feel you are ready to contribute in a particular way. Most importantly, be respectful. These relationships take time to develop. You don’t have to become a mentor’s go to student for everything the moment you step on campus. That’s unrealistic. Allow the relationship to develop naturally over time and it will be much healthier for both of you.
  • Ask questions – Again, without being a nuisance or asking things that you should be able to find out on your own (like how to format the title page of a report), you should ask your mentor questions whenever you have them. This kind of relationship can provide you with valuable insights not only into the technical and practical aspects of your field of study, but also can help you learn what the personal and professional expectations are for someone in the field. Your professor/mentor is also a person and can be a valuable resource for finding out information about many things beyond academics. Again, stay within the comfortable boundaries of your relationship and don’t be a pest. 
  • Collaborate – Gradually, the mentor/mentee relationship will transform into something more akin to one between colleagues. One natural outcome of this change is to begin working together on research or other projects. Initially, these are likely to be projects that the mentor is working on, but eventually, particularly in graduate school, the dynamic may shift. Starting with a master’s thesis or dissertation research, the student may initiate the research agenda, with the mentor in the collaborating role. This can continue as a mutual exchange throughout your professional careers with benefits to both of you and your field as a whole. 
  • Connect to others through the mentor – Attending an academic conference or professional meeting with your mentor and making a point of meeting the people that they already know in the field can provide a lifetime worth of rewarding connections that can help find additional mentors, collaborators, or even to future employment. Beyond the face-to-face interactions, consider connecting to your mentor’s acquaintances through social media.  For example, I maintain a LinkedIn page in addition to a professional Facebook page through which I stay connected with past students and many professional contacts. Allowing students into this private network can help them make and maintain valuable connections. Ask if your mentor is on LinkedIn or Facebook and if they are willing to allow you to become part of their network.  And be sure to invite them into your networks as you establish them.
  • Ask for references/give endorsements – A natural part of the mentor/mentee relationship is for them to write professional references for you. Make sure that you secure some general letters before you graduate – while your work is fresh in their mind. If your mentor writes a letter while you are present and keeps it on file, they will have someplace to start when they need to update it years down the road. Additionally, if you are connected through a social media site, endorse your mentor for the relevant skills you know they have. They may return the favor to you. Finally, if you are contacted or hear that your mentor is going up for promotion, volunteer to write a letter of support for them. Both they and their institution will appreciate the input.
  • Stay in touch – The most important thing that you can do to maximize the benefits of the mentor/mentee relationship is to stay in touch with them. This can be as simple as sending hand-written thank you notes for completing reference letters, getting together at conferences or professional meetings, keeping up-to-date on Facebook, or stopping by the office if you are in the neighborhood. Regardless of the means of communication, make a real effort to stay in touch and keep current on new developments in both of your lives and careers. This will not only strengthen the relationship, but will also keep you fresh in your mentor’s mind in case new opportunities arise and you need their support.

Finding a mentor and maintaining a relationship with them throughout the course of your academic career and professional life is one of the most important things you can do as a student to guarantee your long-term success. But this relationship is about much more than monetary or professional gain. A solid mentor/mentee relationship can evolve into a friendship based on the best kinds of positive interactions. It is a way to connect with an individual who likely has many of the same interests as you and who can provide guidance far beyond the scope of your academic or professional life.