How to Choose a Mentor and Make it Work

This is a guest post by Dr Kay Guccione, Mentoring Consultant at the University of Sheffield.

At Sheffield, as at Kings, we take mentoring for research staff seriously, and offer formal programmes designed specifically to meet the development needs of research staff. However, this post isn’t about those programmes. Instead I offer you some ideas about how you can recruit a mentor for yourself.

Both programmatic and more informal mentoring experiences can provide useful career planning support: one provides a more neutral ‘coaching space’, removed from preconceptions about you, your PI, or any disciplinary politics; the other tends to be more discipline-specific and can offer insider knowledge and guidance. What’s right for you will depend of what you’re looking for, and what you already have available to you.

Some general rules for thinking about mentoring partnerships are below — think through what you can reasonably expect from a mentor, and how to communicate that to the mentor you approach:

Mentoring figure 1 updated

When I’m designing mentoring programmes I take care not to duplicate the supportive relationships already available. For this reason, I match mentees with a mentor outside their department, broadening professional networks, and introducing them to a person they’re otherwise unlikely to meet. I can also then ensure that mentors are all trained volunteers, all starting off with the same set of expectations about what mentoring is and isn’t, and all abiding by a defined code of conduct.

There are some clear advantages though to finding your own mentor. You can do it whenever you like — no need to wait for a particular programme start date. Plus, you can choose from a whole world of mentors, you’re not restricted to just those at the same university as you. So, who should you choose?

Mentoring figure 2 JPEG

Without the formalities of a programme to make the introductions or to help you set the focus and the parameters of the mentoring relationship, you will need to anticipate for yourself the potential misunderstandings about what you’re looking for in a mentoring partnership. Right from the outset you should communicate the scope of what you want, and take responsibility for the management of the mentoring partnership.

Some things to include in that first request to your potential mentor:

  • Who you are and what you do — include any links to your work, CV, web pages etc.
  • What you aspire to — intended career route, what you’d like to be able to do, etc. Make it more meaningful than just scoping them out for a future job!
  • Why you believe they can support you with your goals. Their listening and people development skills are as important here as their CV.
  • Reassure them that you are not looking for a substitute PI.
  • Say who will take responsibility for the mentoring partnership, keep up momentum, and take action between meetings? HINT: This is your role as the mentee! More tips on making the most of mentors can be found here.
  • The time commitment you anticipate e.g. 2x1h meetings over 4 months. Set limits so you have a get out clause in case you don’t end up finding the partnership beneficial.
  • IMPORTANT! Give them a heads up on role you would like them to take. If you don’t specify that you’d like to be more than just the passive recipient of their anecdotes, wisdom and advice then you can’t expect them to know.

It’s worth noting that the usual rules of personal safety apply — if they are receptive to your request, do choose a public location to meet and introduce yourselves. While we should be mindful of asking people to do free work for us (this applies especially to women, who are more frequently asked to do supportive/mentoring work for free), be very wary of a mentor who asks for payment in order to help you. And if your intended recruit declines to support you as a mentor, you will have to graciously accept their decision.

Wishing you all the best of luck in finding and recruiting your mentor!