There are two types of mentorship - mentorship between you and a person who is older / more advanced in their career or life; and mentorship between you and people who are in your same position in life (aka peer-mentorship). I have written about peer mentorship before. This post is about the other type of mentorship - the kind between you and someone who is more advanced in their career. This kind of mentorship is very useful when you want someone who can shine a flashlight up the dark road ahead, describe the lay of the land, maybe give you a road map. Bear in mind, of course, that their road map might not perfectly match your eventual map. They might be walking in different shoes, have different advantages or disadvantages, or whatever else - I think I'm belaboring the metaphor. So let's get to a few FAQs about mentors:
- How do you get a mentor? Do I have to formally ask someone to mentor me? Getting a mentor doesn't have to be a formal request or process. Rather, a mentor should be someone who you trust and whose advice you value. This might mean that you choose to attend a particular professor's office hours semi-regularly or it might mean keeping in touch with an internship supervisor or family friend who has experience in your future profession.
- What do you say to a mentor anyway? Ask them questions! Ask them questions about success in college, graduate school, or your chosen profession. Ask about their path or experience, how they got where they are and WHY.
- Have reasonable expectations from your mentors: mentors are not your best friends or confidants. These individuals are likely very, very busy and may work with many students or young people. Realize that they may sometimes take a few days to respond to emails, probably can't commit to a standing coffee date, and may not be able to talk on the phone for long stretches of time. You may need to settle for coffee a few times a semester or a phone call when you have a particularly big challenge.
- Establish a relationship: mentorship isn't all on the mentor. You may need to be the person to reach out and ask for help, initiate a conversation, or request advice. Tell them about what you're working on, where you want to go, and what your goals are. When appropriate, be specific about what you're looking for and what someone can help you with. If you're meeting with a professor in office hours on a regular basis because you hope they'll help you learn more about graduate school than it's helpful to tell them clearly that you're hoping they'll help you get prepared for graduate school.
- Ditch a bad mentor. On the other hand, if there is a person who you WISH would mentor you but they consistently don't have time for you, let you down, stand you up, or give you very bad advice - ditch them. That's not a mentor. Mentors are people who are helpful, generous, and kind.
- There are different types of mentors. Not all mentors are equally helpful at all things. Some mentors may have very little experience in your professional field, but they know what it's like to be a woman in a male-dominated field; or they understand the experience of being Black in very white spaces. Other mentors may be helpful because they have insider information about the profession you are looking into - they have good advice for how to get into graduate school and how to stay in graduate school successfully. These may be different people, and you probably want to know both kinds of people. You'll probably also take different things from your interactions with different types of mentors, ask different questions, and get different answers. That's fine, in fact, that's great. There's no one right way to be human or to be successful.
- How do you repay a mentor? You don't. No mentor will ever ask you to buy them coffee or gifts or repay them in any way. When you have a great mentor, you remember that experience and you pay it forward. That being said, it is appropriate to show appreciation by writing them a thank you note, or otherwise making it clear that you value their thoughts, time, and help.