In college, my idea of a mentor was the school-assigned faculty advisor I visited once or twice a year to help shape my schedule. This person would briefly discuss my career aspirations at the time (marine biologist or engineer), provide a list of classes needed to fulfill degree requirements, and send me on my way until the next semester. It wasn’t until I altered course and entered a small degree program in Medical Laboratory Science that I began to understand the concept of true mentorship. Suddenly I had a tag-teaming duo of advisors peppering me with questions about my goals, my resumé, and my next steps. It was unfamiliar that college professors were so interested in the long-term trajectory of my professional life. It wasn’t until a few years later, during my training as a physician scientist, that I was able to name that as a mentorship experience.
This is not to say that I wasn’t mentored until college. In retrospect, I had almost too many mentors to count. My AP history teacher paid for and almost physically dragged me in to take the PSAT, eventually leading to my status as a National Merit Finalist and earning my full scholarship to college. My chemistry teacher urged me on to the AP option, preparing me for the countless chemistry classes I would later take in college and medical school. I never sought out these mentors, they found me. It is a reflection on my privilege and pure providence itself that I was gifted these experiences that set me on my current career path. If I had understood mentorship at that time, I would have been able to identify and engage in these relationships more productively. One of my hopes for this platform is that it will serve as a space to disseminate the knowledge that we blog-writers wish we had known at earlier stages in their training. To that end, I have tried to distill what I have learned into five steps to shape the impact of mentorship on your life and career.
1. Understand different mentorship roles.
There are many roles a mentor can play in your personal or professional life and you may need more than one or all of them as you pursue your goals. The key is understanding these roles1 and knowing what to expect from those fulfilling them in your journey.
a. Mentor: This is someone who helps develop the long-term direction of your professional (or personal!) life. They should assist with the development of specific skills or identifying short term goals that fit within your overall plan. The broad, honest exchange needed for this level of mentorship often results in a lasting relationship with someone who provides advice and/or feedback on many areas of your life.
b. Advocate/sponsor: This is someone who speaks up for you when you aren’t in the room. Someone with standing on various committees or in leadership roles who suggests your name for roles or tasks that can advance your career. This person remembers you when awards or recognition rolls around.
c. Coach: This is a short-term relationship with specific end goals. This person assists with smaller, more specific skill sets such as interviewing or time management. You may need several coaches for different skill sets as you pursue your career.
2. Look for someone who exhibits the characteristics you’re looking to develop.
This sounds obvious but cannot be overlooked and may or may not be related to a specific title or research area. When selecting a PhD mentor, I looked primarily at the components of their careers and their management style. My main goals were to find someone (1) with whom I could communicate productively and honestly, (2) who could teach me how to conduct rigorous scientific research, and (3) who could teach me other skills important to me such as leadership, education, and professional development. Did we need to have all the same career goals? No, but the approach is what matters. Choosing this mentor is honestly the best decision that I made in graduate school. I learned so much more than science from her!
3. Be honest and straightforward.
Like many others, I grapple with imposter syndrome regularly, especially when talking to successful mentors. However, one of the biggest mentorship pitfalls is not being honest about what you know or where you are in your journey. Time is your most valuable resource, and their mentorship can only be effectively targeted if they really know where you are in your journey. Your time will be much better spent if the two of you can develop an open and honest discourse.
4. Develop specific goals and deliverables.
The most important part of any mentorship relationship is a goal or set of goals for the mentee. Walking into your mentor’s office expecting them to pour all their knowledge into an empty cup can lead to frustrations on both sides as your time is not efficiently spent. Lean In recommends for mentees to “come to [her] with thoughtful questions and be ready to discuss real challenges you’re facing2,” which speaks not only to having specific goals but also to step 3, being honest and straightforward.
For example, your goal on a short-term research project with a relatively temporary mentorship relationship may be to improve your working knowledge of a given research niche. You begin by being honest about your foundational knowledge of the topic. Next, you could ask for a few good references to begin your search. You might then set up a future meeting to discuss your readings and check for comprehension. An overall goal (improve knowledge base) with specific progress checkpoints (foundational review followed by more recent research papers, for example) will help direct your time and promote efficiency for both mentor and mentee.
5. Build a mentorship team.
In an article for Forbes, Dr. Ruth Gotian wrote “You won’t find perfection with one person, but you can create a model with multiple diverse people, representing different facets of what you need 3.” You may find separate people who fulfill the different mentorship roles discussed above. You may find separate people who mentor you in different aspects of your life (professional, personal, spiritual). It’s okay and even recommended to have multiple mentors that you check in with at different intervals. Your team or teams may take on different structures. For example, you could have one to three core mentors you talk with regularly and a handful of others that you approach more intermittently for specific issues in their area of expertise.
I don’t have data to support this, but I think mentorship is the most crucial aspect of any successful career. Throughout the 2020-21 residency interview season, I heard story after story of other trainees identifying their chosen specialty, their research niche, or other important aspects of their careers through the help of a mentor. I hope these five steps help you on your journey to finding a mentor and building the team that will boost you on the ladder to success. The next step is paying it forward and seeking a mentee of your own! Be sure to come back later for tips about being the mentor you wish you had.
Hannah R. Turbeville
1. Gotian R. Role Model, Mentor, Coach, or Sponsor-Which Do You Need? Psychology Today.
2. Lean In. 4 Things All Mentors and Mentees Should Know. Lean In.
3. Gotian R. How to Find the Perfect Mentor to Boost Your Career. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ruthgotian/2021/01/26/how-to-find-the-perfect-mentor-to-boost-your-career/?sh=734e31fd23c6. Published 2021. Accessed April 17, 2021.
More great (free!) resources https://www.ruthgotian.com/resources